We meet at half past ten in the car park of the Golden Galleon public house at Exceat Bridge. It’s a miserable overcast July morning with a strong south-westerly wind blowing up the valley from the sea a mile downstream.
The tide has been running out for over three hours now and the rocky rapids under the bridge are exposed. Suddenly a small bow wave shoots across the pool below. ‘Thick-lips,’ says John. We head upstream.
John walks slowly, eyes peeled for signs of moving fish – not easy in the heavily rippled brown-green water. About half a mile from the bridge John finds what he is looking for. ‘I reckon they’re there, that’s the place,’ he says, pointing to the farthest upstream of three bends.
Sure enough, as he approaches stealthily a couple of circular ripples appear and a bow wave moves away from the far bank. ‘More thick-lips.’ Keeping away from the water’s edge and staying below the skyline, John tackles up. He threads a 3 ‘/a AAA crystal waggler on to the 4lb (1.8kg) line and ties on a size 10 hook direct.
John makes up a bowl of mashed bread. The far bank is a steep, muddy, undercut cliff and fishing from it without spooking every mullet in this stretch of the river would be impossible. By contrast, John’s chosen spot is a sloping mix of mud, gravel and a few large stones holding it together.
Moving right to the water’s edge and sitting on a large plastic sheet, he should keep disturbance to a minimum. He sets his float at about 60cm (2ft) and locks it in place with two BB shot. The bulk is placed 25cm (10in) from the hook, which is baited with a thumbnail-sized piece of bread flake.
Four tangerine-size balls of mashed bread go in. ‘God knows how many tons I’ve thrown into this river over the years,’ reflects John wistfully. Every couple of trots down another golf ball of mash goes in. But despite bow waves and swirls all over the swim, John’s float remains unmoved. ‘There’s no such thing as a hungry mullet,’ says John. ‘They might oblige, but they’re never really hungry, not like a shoal of bream.’ John’s bait remains ignored, despite the swim obviously being full offish.
John deepens off by another 20cm (8in) and sighs, ‘It’s one thing having mullet in the swim, and another to get bites from them. It might be some time before bites come, as they’re probably feeding on diatoms or tiny shrimps. Why don’t they want some really nourishing food, like Mother’s Pride?’ He goes another 10cm (4in) deeper. ‘It’s probably only about 4ft deep out in the middle, now the tide has fallen a bit.’
The mashed bread has been going in regularly, John has been making small variations to his bait presentation, there are fish visibly moving in the swim—but still no takers. John is becoming frustrated. ‘Come on, give me a bite you @/¥%s! The only reason I ever fish for mullet is that they’ve got spiky dorsal fins and look a bit like bass.’
John has tried every possible variation but the thick-lips are unimpressed. ‘They’re obviously preoccupied with mud or something,’ says John, ‘not bread anyhow. We’ll go upstream and see if the thin-lips are a bit more accommodating. They like their water fresh and as the tide’s dropped a fair bit we can dig some harbour rag. If we find a shoal of them mudding we should be all right.’
Half a mile upstream, John finds what he is looking for — a dark muddy cloud billows off the bottom and the odd silver flash of turning mullet is clearly visible. We soon gather enough harbour rag for John to fish with until the tide turns at about five.
The river here is narrower, with a gently rounded bottom. John puts a couple of worms on the hook, sets his float to fish just off the bottom, casts to midstream and trots it down to the massed mudding mullet.
Halfway down the swim the red top shoots under, John strikes and reels in a small crab. He shallows up a few inches and trots down again. The float disappears, he strikes and this time there’s a fish on — a credit card sized flounder. ‘At least I haven’t blanked,’ chuckles John.
All John has had are a few line bites, despite fishing in the middle of a 20m (22yd) long shoal of mudding mullet. ‘I don’t know what they’re feeding on but it sure isn’t rag-worm. On days like this when they won’t take bread or rag, there’s only one thing left to try Semtex. Pity we’ve got none.’
His frustration is quite understandable. He has been sitting with feeding fish in front of him all day long and nothing to show for it. ‘That’s mullet for you.’
A fortnight later and we’re back on the Cuckmere. ‘Things don’t look promising,’ says John. ‘We had a lot of rain last night so there’s a fair amount of dirty water coming down and that affects the salinity of the river and breaks the shoals up.’
John heads off upstream, scanning every inch of the water for signs of moving fish. Nothing. Two bends up from his original thin-lip swim, he spots a fish, then another.
We have travelled a few miles west along the coast to Newhaven and John has selected a spot where the harbour joins the marina and forms a right-angled eddy. ‘A lot of thicks will have been pushed downstream with the tide,’ says John, ‘and there’s always a few stragglers that stay around in the harbour.’
The water is quite clear and you can see particles of John’s mashed bread falling in an inviting stream down through the ebbing tide. He is using the same waggler rig but has his flake hookbait set about 2m (7ft) down in 5m (18ft) of water.
Some considerable time and a few un-hit-table bites later, John connects with something that tears off in the direction of the sea. He manages to turn it just before it gets into the main current of the river. It then heads for a boat moored to John’s right, again he turns it, and after a furious tussle it comes to the surface. But what’s this? There is not one fish, but three — and all swimming together.
Just before the hooked fish slips into the net, the other two melt away. ‘They often do that,’ observes John. ‘I think its chums must reckon it’s being playful. Anyway we’ve got our thick-lip. About two and a half pounds I’d say.’ He’s spot on. ‘Do you think we should go and try for some golden-greys now? Just for the full set?’ says John, obviously flushed with success. Not on your life!! ‘It looks as if there might be a few thins holed-up here. We’ll give it a go.’
We retreat downstream to dig some harbour rag and to allow John to tackle up without scaring the shoal. He returns well upstream of the spot where he spotted the fish since the bank is quite high there and he doesn’t want to spook them.
John gets several very fast bites that he just can’t hit, when his float shoots under again. This time his strike meets solid resistance as a fish powers off downstream. John plays the fish gently – after a total of nine hours fishing he doesn’t want to lose it.
After a five-minute fight he slips the net under a shining silver mullet and breathes a huge sigh of relief. ‘Well, there’s a thin-lip for you. It’s no monster but it’ll do.’ At l/4lb (0.68kg) it’s not a bad thin-lip, and one that battled bravely to avoid the net.
John slips it back. ‘I suppose we’d best get you a thick-lip now. The tide’ll turn in a minute, but we might be able to find one in Newhaven Harbour as it ebbs.’