This is a true story from Bob Jones, Executive Director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association.
Mr. Jones originally wrote this story in a letter to a writer at the Tallahassee Democrat. He granted FFF permission to reprint it and kindly granted our request for pictures.
“My dad is in the middle and this would be about 1939-40 because my Uncle Lloyd is on the left and he died on Christmas Day 1941.” Bob Jones
My very first encounter with, Mullet on the beach happened in either September or October 1939. I was six years old and my brother, Richard, was four. My daddy was an automobile mechanic at Bill Parishs Gulf Station on San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine. It wasnt the best of times but it wasnt the worst of times either, because December 7th, 1941, was still two years away.
For a little background, the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, within the US Department of the Interior starting keeping landing records of most fish in 1895. I think Florida produced about twenty million pounds that year and produced as much as thirty million pounds during the height of World War II. Mullet were sustainable at the twenty million pound annual harvest for one hundred years, until gill nets were banned in 1995, but thats another story. I wander so let me go back to 1939.
When the sun dropped out of sight behind West Augustine, most of the families who had passenger cars drove to St. Augustine Beach because the beach was firm. Folks with skeeters/dune buggies, that could run in the soft sand, headed to Vilano Beach. It was a happy, exciting, festive event and in many cases a chance for working folks to have fresh protein, especially during the Great Depression when food was scarce. Most everyone used either their headlights or spot light to search for mullet. When the fish were plentiful, a spotlight would show an entire wave of fish from the top to the bottom and what a sight that was for me. My daddy had a black, 1935 Ford coupe with a red leather rumble seat, which was plenty big for us and the mullet to ride back to our house on Cunningham Drive where family and friends gathered to clean the fish.
If youve never ridden in a rumble seat, wind blowing through your hair and gasping for breath if you stuck your head outside the protection of the car, you really havent lived. The ride across the Bridge of Lions was exhilarating. We were up so high we could see the outline of the entire town as well as many miles in both directions of the Matanzas River. The road to the beach was two lanes and when the mullet were present, there was a stream of cars headed to the ramp at St. Augustine Beach. We got on the beach, and then turned north toward the inlet. As we slowly rode along the edge of the water, without lights, listening to the roar of the surf and the musical sound of the twin exhausts pipes, daddy flicked on the spotlight every now and then to see if mullet were in the waves or any sign of them jumping. Once he saw them, he stopped the car and looked to see which way they were jumping. He grabbed his eight foot English net and walked barefoot along the beach in the direction he saw a fish jump because it indicated whether or not the mullet were swimming north or south.
On this night, daddy waded out to his chest and threw directly into the wave just after it broke and while the foam was covering the top of the water and the mullet couldnt see the net coming their way. He struggled with a net full of large roe mullet. He ran back to where we were jumping up and down holding the scratchy, old, Purina, croaker sack. When he shucked the fish from his net, they flopped and jumped and headed back toward the water. We chased them then grabbed them to put in the sack and soon found out even though mullet dont have teeth, the fins can punch a hole in little fingers and it hurts like the devil. Daddy told us to rub sand on the cuts and fin marks and pull the bag while he ran back into the water a few yards from where he caught the fish. We did what daddy told us.
After eight or nine casts, the sack was heavy and impossible for us to pull, no matter how hard we tried. It wasnt long before he loaded the full sack of mullet inside the rumble seat and we headed home. We felt like the best fishermen in the world. Mullet fishing was a very popular social event. I still love the unique taste of fresh, fried mullet, especially when you can smell the ocean and theres a chill in the air.
Im 74 years old and up until a few years ago threw my net every chance I got. I can still do it, but the shoulders cry out for a couple of days and the left knee sends a loud message asking if I know what the hell I’m doing. The love for mullet never leaves a real Floridian. We never used black mullet for bait, only silver mullet.
Let me make one more point; mullet fishing with a cast net is a southern art form. Its like fishing for grouper or bass. The excitement begins long before you actually throw the net. The lucky ones, like me and my old friends, are fishing in our mind three or four days before we actually start. You think about the big cast where you catch fifteen or twenty roe mullet and take them home so you can have friends over to celebrate your success as a hunter and gatherer as well as enjoy the bounty of your harvest.
For me, I love the gritty taste of the salt from the sinker when I put it in my mouth to make a cast. I marvel at all the wrinkles in my hands after being in the water for a few hours. I savor being wet up to my chest as I walk along the shore thinking of so many happy times and thanking God Im still alive and able to fish.
There are many great stories about mullet fishing and the people who participate in it. I thank you for writing your thoughts about cast nets and hope you enjoy a thumbnail sketch of the emotions and pride, many of us native Floridians have, for a major thread in our cultural fabric.
Bob Jones, his dad (in his late 70s), and two of Bob’s granddaughters in Jacksonville.