Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into a category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.
Something’s coming up the bayou. Splash. But, I don’t know what. Splash.
It started faint and sporadic—just alien enough above the backwater soundtrack—the buzz of horseflies; the wao, wao, wao of the knuckle-busting window fan that’s short a cover and a blade; and the occasional crack of the cold “Cocola.” It’s near noon on a Mississippi dog day and there’s nothing with sense moving much. So when the cadence builds splash, splash, splash and the sound nears, I have to investigate.
I’m about 10 years old—barefoot, sunburnt, and boney as hell—living out my version of Huck Finn from a houseboat on the Pascagoula River. Fishing poles and tackle, cast net, and a rusty green Coleman ice chest, my tools of the trade, lay in the jonboat moored alongside. Splash. Finally a fish torpedoes through the air. Then more. Splash, splash. The invaders close. Split tails and double dorsals engulf the houseboat, launching in the air. Silver sides flash. White mouths flare. I probably squeak. It’s more fish than I’ve ever seen in one place. And nobody’s going to believe me unless I catch some.
I grab the cooler and cast net. Once the loop’s on my wrist its all muscle memory: I fold the net, lay it over my left arm, set lead between my teeth, turn and crouch and spin. The white mesh opens and lands full. Heads pop up. Fish jump. The net smacks heavy in the cooler. Fish beat a hundred wet drumrolls. And they keep coming. Mullet. Trash fish as far as I know, but I have to have them for proof.
I’m a bad kid with an unattended bucket of Halloween candy. When the frenzy ends, I sober up to a loaded Coleman and a stomachache of guilty, lusty greed. I have a mess of mullet and no plan. But, I ask the neighbor and he knows just what to do.
“Let me show you what’s good,” he says. “They’re fatter and full of eggs in the winter, but these’ll eat.”
So, we fillet them, smoke them, and eat our fill. This was my indoctrination into a remnant coastal culinary custom: “The mullet, a small but very palatable fish, is the common diet of the people all along the coast, and is familiarly known as ‘Biloxi Bacon.’” Forest & Stream Magazine, 1910.
Nobody knows you when you down and out
If somebody set the tale of mullet in America to the right chord progression, it’d sound like an old Bessie Smith number.
Ask a stranger on the street if they eat mullet and you’ll likely either get a crinkled brow or a “hell no.” People are quick to badmouth the mullet. But why? No one’s ever been attacked by a mullet, held up, stood up, or messed up by a mullet. Yet, critics parrot caustic rumors that have stripped the sterling from the silver fish.
Plain Jane. By-catch. Trash. Sea rat. Mudfish. No better than a hardhead catfish. Mullet are tossed like cow pies from Gautier to the Flora-Bama Lounge. They’ve been left to bloat in the sun, chopped up and hooked up to bait something better. Back in 1919, a Florida judge actually accepted the argument that since mullet have gizzards, they must be birds instead of fish, acquitting six anglers accused of fishing out of season.
So, ask that stranger why they don’t eat mullet. “Chicken’s too cheap,” they’d probably say. But, maybe if you’re lucky they’ll tell you the truth: “Well, I don’t know anyone who does.”
And, that is the tragedy of mullet in America.
An Historic Fish
From ancient Greeks to modern Japanese, Italians, and Spaniards, people have prized mullet and their roe. Mullet pre-date Europeans in America’s protein scene. In the early 1500s, Juan López de Velasco found the native Calusa on today’s Florida panhandle netting their staple mullet. And, as settlers displaced and replaced Natives along the Southeastern coasts, the catch, consumption, and commercialization of mullet grew.
Carl Linnaeus, “The Father of Taxonomy,” first described the striped mullet as Mugil cephalus in 1758. Seventy-eight other species are now counted among the mullet family, Mugillidae. Our mullet, also known as flathead, black, grey, common, and striped mullet, occupies the entire Gulf and Atlantic Coast north to Nova Scotia, California, the Mediterranean, most of Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific.
It’s a 12- to 30-inch-long, silvery-grey fish that—in America—is traditionally fished in salty bays and estuaries, but can be found hundreds of miles up creeks and rivers such as the Colorado and Mississippi. Before the era of dams, they were commonly found deep in the interior U.S. as far as Arizona.
They feed on microalgae, micro-crustaceans, and detritus which, like a bird, they process in a gizzard. In turn, mullet (aka Aquatic Doritos) are eaten by most everything with an appetite. They form the backbone of many ecosystems. As an evolutionary response to hyper-predation, in winter mullet migrate offshore where each female lays up to 2 million eggs. The fry return to the estuaries and the cycle continues.
Along the southeast coasts, mullet fueled fishing economies and provided a cheap source of good food for residents in reach. Mullet fed slaves. They fed Biloxi during the Civil War blockades. They fed sharecroppers and fishing families. They paired well with grits and hushpuppies to provide protein to hungry Southerners through the Depression and onward.
In fact, Gulf residents and fishermen relied so heavily on mullet that from the 1930s to the 1990s, stocks plummeted. Florida’s 1994 net ban upset the lives and livelihoods of fishing families, altered the culture of the Gulf, decimated the mullet harvest, and probably saved the fishery. Today’s Gulf mullet stocks exceed those of the 1960s.
And, while it’s doubtful anyone reading this has a prized mounted mullet hanging over their mantle, there was a time when grateful coast residents ascribed the mullet magical powers and celebrated it with poetry and blessings and long-lost appellations: Pascagoula Steak, That Acadian Luxury, The People’s Meat, The Life Saver, The Mississippi Sound’s Patron Fish.
A Descent from Grace
The mullet didn’t fall from grace; it was dragged down by tangle of threads.
New America: In the 1950s, more efficient agriculture combined with a better refrigeration and highways to put more beef, pork, poultry, frozen foods, and other protein on American tables. TV ownership exploded and brought mass media into homes. Convenience foods proliferated. We—our culture, our diets and cooking habits, our lives—became more generically “American” and less local.
Stigma of poverty: Mullet has fed generations of common folk. People had lined up alongside birds, gators, and snakes to gather mullet. There’s no granduer in that history. Many folks who’d been proud to have the poor man’s fish when they needed it, were less proud of the familiarity once they’d climbed a rung on America’s ladder. So, as incomes increased, mainstream taste and need for mullet waned.
Diversity: The advent of the air conditioner pulled waves of people to the South, which diversified the economy and brought new preferences and biases to coastal culture. Doubtful many moved to the coast with a pre-existing love of mullet.
Overfishing and regulations: Florida’s entanglement net ban—which inspired bans in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana—has been called the most important fisheries reform in history. Some say it put commercial fishermen on the dole. Proponents say it saved the mullet. For some families, it removed the profit from a generations-long practice that began with rowboats and ended with Evinrudes. It gutted the mullet tradition for many waterman and their communities.
Competition: As a double-edged sword, international consumers have long valued mullet roe—now more than $100 per pound—far more than we value most fish eggs or fillets. So off it goes. (Fair enough. The remaining fishermen should make the best money they can.)
So, is Mullet Good to Eat?
The mullet is down, but don’t count it out. The Gulf Coast harbors untold outlaw residents who hold little regard for outside opinion and regulation. So, some families have kept right on catching and eating mullet. Dabblers eat it at fish fries, festivals, holidays, or at the few remaining mullet-serving restaurants. And others are paying attention too. Utne calls mullet a fish to “always eat” due its sustainability. JamesBeard.org says to “eat this word:” Bottarga (Italian for mullet roe) which you can get at Cortez Bottarga, the first American company to cure the delicacy. Even the FDA and EPA are in on the act: For pregnant women, they rank mullet as a “Best Choice Fish” above grouper, Chilean sea bass, tuna, and others—due, in part, to its high Omega 3 content.
So, how’s it taste then, really?
“Mullet is a Swiss Army knife for the culinarily minded,” said Chef Ricky Herring.
He grew up on mullet, and after 15 years as a corporate chef he came home to re-introduce lost coastal traditions. Today, his Twisted Magnolia food truck roams the Mississippi Gulf coast, selling out of his Biloxi Bacon Dip. (But he keeps the roe for himself).
“With its high oil content and firm flesh, mullet is perfect for smoking, grilling, frying, or pan searing,” he said. “It stays moist and has a clean and rich flavor that stands alone without much seasoning.”
How to Catch Mullet
Mullet have been caught in every way you can imagine and some you can’t. Shot with bows and arrows. Snagged with treble hooks. Back in 1858, a guy in Bay St. Louis killed them with mustard seeds through a double barrel shotgun. Others from the era reported scaring so many mullet into the boat that sinking was a threat. Johnny Marquez, director of coastal programs at the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, says that on summer Sundays, his grandpa used to load crab pots with light bread before church to chum so the kids could catch mullet with cane poles and small bream hooks after service. Since they eat such microscopic foods, they’re actually quite challenging to catch on artificial lures or flies—which can be a fun diversion when the redfish or tarpon fail to show up.
But, most of the Gulf’s mullet catch—so, most of America’s catch—comes from October to January, when they’re fat and full of “white roe” (sperm or milt) and “orange roe” (eggs) as they school up for that spawning run. A cast net can catch hundreds in a day. You can find mullet from a boat, banks, or bridges. They’ll be schooled up, jumping, and shifting the texture of the water. Be sure to avoid snags that will destroy your net. And, look for stained water or wind so they don’t dodge the web. Wear a slicker if you want to stay dry when you’re hauling in.
Some say salinity and sand make the best mullet. Others say to clean the damn things well and cook them right. My buddy, Bo from Georgia, speaks so fondly of transplanted mullet they’d caught from a lake that it’s hard to doubt that quality is in the handling. Many say to bleed the fish. More say to remove any line of fatty flesh or colored lines in the fillets. And, can we all agree that fish is best when it’s cleaned and iced quickly and served fresh?
What’s certain: There’s freedom in making a meal of mullet. Absolutely anyone with a little “want to” and a cast net can catch, prepare, and share Biloxi Bacon with friends and family. So, go get some already.