“In Norse mythology the sea giantess Ran cast a fish net to trap lost sailors.”
Today, along Florida shores, one of man’s oldest forms of fishing is used primarily for catching bait.
But,to cracker cast-netter James E. (Jed) Daniels, the proper use of a throw net is for table fare, specifically Black Mullet.
Since retiring from Florida Power and Light, Jed doesn’t spend his days rocking on the front porch spinning yarns, though a better yarn spinner never lived. Instead he continues what he’s always done, just more of it. Casting a ten foot net, he traps fat tasty mullet for his family, neighbors and friends.
Raised on the north side of the Alafia River, (we from the south bank called them Yankees) Jed started school at Riverview Elementary in a set of wooden buildings today’s kids would find primitive as Abe’s log cabin.
“From the time I can remember my dad netted fish. He had seven mouths to feed on a railroad man’s pay, during some rough spots mullet meant we didn’t go hungry.”
“We used to night fish from the buttress under the Alafia river bridge. Dad and I walked the tracks out to the catwalks after dark, carrying two big buckets and his twelve foot nylon net. He knew all the railroad’s night watchmen so we never had a problem crossing the swing bridge. From the walk he’d throw down on fish coming out of the shadows into the green navigational light. It was eerie green on that side of the bridge; to a young’un it was spooky”
“We’d fill the buckets and walk back along the tracks. If the night man was around Dad would leave him a couple. One thing I learned early about catching mullet, they are a fish best shared. Seldom would dad quit without a few extra for a neighbor. We weren’t the only poor people around.”
To young river boys, opening a net full circle is a rite of passage, sure as slaying a lion signifies manhood to a Zulu tribesman.
“About twelve, I starting going with my brothers or my friends. One night, I got the scare of my life. Knowing better, I made a throw between the walks surrounding the concrete bridge pilings. The net was swept into the barnacle encrusted support by the tide. This was my dad’s net so ripping it loose was not an option. I stripped and climbed into the water to untangle it. Right then a Manatee surfaced next to the piling and took a loud breath. To this day I can’t tell you how I got up that catwalk so quick.”
With marriage to high school sweetheart Debbie, came membership in an island club a little farther south. Debbie’s family owns a beach cottage on Little Gasparilla Island, prime mullet land. Jed and his father in law Lloyd Sims waded the hard sand shallows around the island, net in hand
. “Lloyd taught me the art of quite wading, not lifting your feet from the water, stalking, like hunting.”
With age comes wisdom. Now Jed relies on the art of ambush, letting the fish come to him. Early mornings finds his skiff tucked into the mangrove shoreline, sun at his back.
“If the sun is in their eyes, I can throw right at them. Without that advantage I try to throw from behind the school. Often I let them pass before casting.”
White rope herding is another old Florida trick shown to Jed by Coon Strickland, a Ruskin Mullet man.
“Coon used to set up on the edge of a small cut opening to a known travel route along the shoreline. Then he stretched a white rope out from the shore, across the path. When the mullet file down the shore and come to the rope they turn. They won’t cross what they think is a barrier. The trick steers the mullet into the cut, within net range.”
Another old friend Lurch uses a very different approach.
” He calls the mullet with a”Myakka Fish whistle. Claims it slows them down too.”
As with all saltwater fishing, Jed adapts his hunt to the tide.
“On the incoming the fish are feeding, milling, heads down, concentrating on the bottom. On the outgoing, especially on a big fall, they have only one thing in mind, getting off the flat. That’s when they’re toughest.”
Jed finds the taste of the Bull Bay mullet cleaner than fish from the Alafia which is muddier and further from the Gulf. Most important is the handling.
“One reason why commercial mullet aren’t popular is their strong flavor. This is because commercial fishermen can’t break their necks. Fish houses won’t buy them that way. Bleeding and icing the fish immediately is critical for a mild taste.”
Jed filets his fish and skins them rather than scale and fry the meat skin on.
“I find the skin make them oily. I also never allow my filets to touch fresh water. Clean them and put them in a mixture of salt water and ice. That’s the Florida way.”
Timing is a large part of taste when it comes to mullet. In late summer and through the fall they began to accumulate a layer of tasty fat, just under the skin.
“This fat is important especially when smoking fish. Not only does it add to the flavor, but also keeps the meat from sticking to the skin.”
Connoisseurs of poor man’s caviar or mullet roe sleep in two camps. The white roe of the males and the female’s yellow eggs mature in early winter fostering a palate divide among their fans.
“Some prefer the taste of the yellow others like the white. I like them both but you have to be careful. Eat too much of either one and they will give you the trots, if you know what I mean.”
Most popular mullet nets have an eight to twelve foot spread with a mesh size of one and one eighth inches. The weight varies with personal preference and depth considerations. One of the best spots to prefect your throw is atop an elevated golf tee.
” Hurry,” Jed warns. “Come the first strong nor’easter they’ll be gone, off to the gulf to spawn.”
Smoked or fried, served with cheese grits topped with tomato gravy , beans and swamp cabbage, hush puppies or cornbread, mullet remain a southern staple, holding a place of honor in most native Florida households.