Out in the predawn recently to wade the Halifax, I caught a great morning and as I stepped into the warm water I knew the slight breeze would be just enough to keep the blood-sucking gnats at bay.
With first light, I looked across the wide bay to see mullet everywhere. Thousands of baby mullet swimming with the outgoing tide toward Ponce Inlet.
For a while, I stood just to watch and enjoy. There is no more valuable fish to inshore fisherman that mullet. Everything we like to catch preys on the prolific mullet.
The sight was truly astounding and just seeing so many baitfish in the water gave me hope for my fishing future.
Soon, my reverie was interrupted by the splashing of feeding fish that were also enjoying the huge mullet run. Jacks, ladyfish, sea trout and who knows what else were having a mullet breakfast.
At one point, I saw jacks that had to be in the 10-to 15-pound range pushing a wake in the shallow water, their backs fully exposed. The tide was high and had flooded into the marsh grass behind me as I stood about six feet off the bank. Suddenly without warning an explosion happened right in front of me.
A jack had burst into a school of mullet that was swimming past and only about four feet in front of me. That sent up a shower of baitfish, some flying into my legs in their frantic jump to escape the predator. I was startled at first to be in the center of such a commotion and in a split second I watched the jack that had hit the mullet streak past me and capture one up against the shore. That was a rare sight, indeed.
We often say that nature is happening all around us, but in that instant I had the chance to watch a game fish run down its target and swallow it.
As the morning progressed, fishing was not so very good for me. With all of the food in the water, the fish were not terribly interested in my hunks of plastic. I did catch a couple of the jacks, but never hooked one of the big boys. Just before I was ready to leave I landed a decent 16-inch flounder. Not a trophy, but a fair keeper. As I looked deep into that gaping mouth on the flounder to try and get my jig out I found myself staring into a pair of eyes. The flounder had only recently partially swallowed a finger mullet and the little fish was still alive.
If you know the anatomy of a flounder, you know that they are not like most fish. They do not have a long hollow body, but only have a small stomach tucked up behind the head. This one had attempted to swallow a six inch mullet, and I suppose the plan is for it to just stay lodged in the flounder's throat while the digestive juices slowly make the mullet go down.
As I looked in past all of those sharp teeth the little mullet just looked so forlorn. That's when it began to talk to me. "Say fellow," it said "I know we have just met, but I'm in a bit of a bind here. Do you think you could help a guy out?" OK, it said that with its eyes, but I got the message. At great peril to my own fingers, I timed a grab and pulled the mullet out of the flounder's mouth. Once out, I thought I saw him smile, but maybe not. I put the little mullet in the water, but he was too far-gone. Not wanting to see my new friend suffer I dispatched him and allowed the remains to sink to the bottom. The mullet's misfortune would make the day of a crab or some other bottom forager. Some days I guess it just does not pay to be a mullet.
Dan Smith has fished the waters of Volusia County for more than 40 years. Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "I Swear the Snook Drowned," is available for $10.95 at (386) 441-7793.