If you lived through the ’80s, you probably had more than one good laugh at some of the exceptional “mullet” hairstyles in vogue at the time. I recently heard about a resurgence in popularity – oh no! But if you were a fisherman anywhere in the southern coastal regions of our country, you were probably more fascinated with the mullet as a bait fish than as a potential date charmer. Everything eats mullet. Flounder, redfish, pelicans, bottle-nosed dolphins — even people. Smoked mullet is delicious, although it seems less popular today than it was in my youth. But I will leave the fishing articles to Captain Peralta. This article is about a specific mullet behavior frequently seen here on Daniel Island.
My neighbors Patty and Tom Pherson occasionally share observations from their walks with me. They were among the first to mention the black-bellied whistling-ducks when they arrived a few years ago and they more recently got me looking for what turned out to be a Hercules beetle, which may be a future article topic. A few weeks ago they noted the schools of fish in some of the island lakes and ponds that are swimming at the water’s surface and appear to be, for lack of a better term, “gulping” air. Interestingly, that is just what they are doing.
According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the striped mullet, Mugil cephalus, is probably the most common fish in our coastal marine ecosystem. We have white mullet too, which are nearly identical to their striped cousins but don’t grow as large. These fish are just two of over 60 mullet species worldwide.
Mullet are quite adaptable and can live in saltwater, brackish and even freshwater environments, including most lakes and ponds here on Daniel Island. This brings us to the odd behavior of swimming with their mouths open above the surface and jumping, sometimes many times in a row, for no apparent reason.
Mullet certainly jump when fleeing predators. I have been hit more than once as dolphins herded schools of mullet up close to shore (and our boat) causing the frantic fish to jump in all directions to escape. But the research of H.D. Hoese in his “Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico,” indicates that the successive, seemingly casual leaps that we see and the behavior of “breathing” air at the surface appear to have different purposes. In low oxygen environments (like our hot, relatively shallow summertime lakes and ponds), the mullet can augment its oxygen intake by filling a small organ at the back of its throat with air.
Look for torpedo-shaped fish making one or a series of unexplained leaps. Also watch for disturbed areas on the surface with fish noses protruding from the water. These are striped mullet “breathing.” And as for the possible comeback of the “mullet” as a hairstyle, we survived the ’80s once and should just say no!