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The thinnest slivers of early-morning light glisten across the water as we come off plane and settle into the slow, rolling groundswell 100 feet off the beach. We scan the surf intensely, looking for the telltale shadows of migrating mullet.

A sea of tails and scales abruptly breaks the silence as thousands of mullet explode out of the water. These shoals of fish are doomed. An avian attack force feasts from above while the melee beneath the surface is even more ruthless. Gamefish of all shapes and sizes barrage the mass of bait.

The seasons in Florida advance gently. The fall color change is marked by an influx of out-of-state license plates, not leaves. For anglers, the season starts with a cooling Atlantic that comes alive as dropping temperatures provoke a massive migration of baitfish down the coast.

Palm Beach inshore sharpie Capt. Danny Barrow pauses when I ask what the mullet run means to him after more than 50 years of fishing in South Florida. “My dad was basically raised on the south jetty at Annie’s Dock in Palm Beach Inlet,” he says. “I remember fishing that jetty with him in the mid-1960s. You could’ve walked across the inlet — from jetty to jetty, the inlet was full of fish. It was insane. That’s back when snatch hooks were legal, and we caught everything with them.

Mullet must traverse savage waters to spawn and renew the circle of life.

Mullet must traverse savage waters to spawn and renew the circle of life.

“We used big spinning rods and snatch hooks with 2 ounces of lead in front of ’em. Throw it into the school and jerk,” Barrow recalls. “Once you rigged one, just free-line it and drop it down below the school.”

Striped and silver mullet spend most of their lives in fresh water but travel tremendous distances to spawn in saline habitats. The amazing race begins along the backwater creeks, sounds and marshes of the Carolinas, where roe-filled females and milt-stuffed males traverse predatory waters to reach Florida. It is here where they spawn and release eggs into the Gulf Stream. The current transports the fertilized eggs north to continue the cycle of life.

There’s no way to predict exactly when the mullet will show up en masse, so keeping a keen eye on the water is a must. “It really depends whether or not we get any hurricanes that bust up the Carolinas. Big storms can jump-start the migration, but they can also ruin everything,” Barrow says.

In an age of instant gratification, with anglers lurking on social media waiting for the bite to blow up, many old salts keep tight-lipped about the earliest signs of mullet. But when the migration appears, it’s impossible to keep the secret for long. “The first couple of weeks is really the stuff, especially around the inlets. The fish haven’t had this buffet, and all of a sudden it’s wide open,” Barrow says.

After the initial explosion, the mullet come in waves. And just because the mullet show up, doesn’t mean the tarpon will eat. “The tarpon are stuffed — they’ve been gorging themselves for weeks,” Barrow says.

When fishing pods of mullet on the beach during the daytime, Barrow makes one toss of the cast net wherever he sees baitfish pushing water. After culling a few dozen of the right size, he cruises around, watching the schools. “I’ve noticed that if you get these round-shaped pods — you know, the swimming pool-sized big circles coming down the beach — it’s probably holding a lot of sharks. I look for the smaller schools of mullet; they tend to hold more tarpon and snook.”

The mullet run kicks off a turbo-charged bite with snook, tarpon, jacks and more joining the feast.

The mullet run kicks off a turbo-charged bite with snook, tarpon, jacks and more joining the feast.

At night, Barrow gravitates to Palm Beach bridges during incoming tides, as he has for decades. “The mullet start stacking up against the current because they don’t want to get underneath the bridge,” he says. “That shadow line fills up with bait, and then all of a sudden there’s too much bait. They have no choice, and a big wad of them gets pushed under the bridge. They know it’s a death sentence. Bang, bang, bang. It sounds like cherry bombs going off.”

The mullet run is a fickle phenomenon, as giant pods inundate a bridge or beach one day and leave the area devoid of life the next. As quick as the run starts, it ends. “Last year it started mid-September for us, and it didn’t last as far into October as I thought it would,” Barrow says. “I think it’s cyclical. Maybe this will be the year we get one of those old school, big runs that lasts an entire month. I’m looking forward to it because it’s such a fun time.”  

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