A fish by any other name

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 02:06 PM.

In 1963 “The Trashmen” claimed that “The Bird” is the word. It may be true every now and then, but this week the word is “mullet.” Regional names for fish can be confusing, but who in the world wants to use Latin on a daily basis other than a Latin teacher or Catholic priest.

This fish is undoubtedly one of the most complicated fish to report on since it has so many regional names and is made ever more confusing when you are talking about three different species that are almost identical in appearance and habitat. Here is the Latin name of three species of kingfish (not to be confused with king mackerel) Menticirrhus americanus and Menticirrhus saxatilis and Menticirrhus littoralis. This fish is known to North Carolinians as “sea mullet” or “Virginia mullet” or “whiting.” I generally use the term sea mullet because that is what I have called them since I did my first radio fishing report at the tender age of 6 for Barnacle Bills Pier while sitting on my granddaddy’s lap. One other thing that makes it complicated is that we have another fish here that has several names as a mullet. You have the Mugil cephalus (or jumping mullet) which is a totally different genus than the previously mentioned “Sea mullet.” The sea mullet bites most natural baits like shrimp, bloodworms and cut bait. Sea mullets are a very mild flaky white fish that are great to eat.

Jumping mullet, hard head mullet, roe mullet or Popeye mullet are all names for the Mugil cephalus, which I will refer to as jumping mullet. This fish is oily, does not usually bite a hook, is mostly used for bait and is not very good to eat unless you have grown up eating them or have them smoked. However, this fish is one of the most important species in regard to the food chain and commercial fishing. I love to eat jumping mullets as long as they came out of the ocean and not the soundside. These fish were harvested for bait, food and roe (fish eggs). Every fall my brother and I would have to clean thousands of pounds and salt them. This made great bait and did not need refrigeration. Most people do not like to eat them as they are kind of fishy. I love mine scaled, filleted and fried or salted and served for breakfast with sweet potatoes. I never liked the roe although many old timers do. Most of the mullet nowadays is used for bait or fish meal. Jumping mullet do not usually bite a hook and are vegetarians for the most part.

If you have ever made a video for Youtube you know the harsh nature of keyboard cowboy comments. I make a lot of how-to videos in regards to fishing and other things. They can be found on my web page at eastcoastsports.com. I made a tutorial entitled “How-to Fish for Sea Mullet.” Right away I was called out for saying the fish in the video was a “sea mullet.” It was to us, but in Texas they are “kingfish.” If you go to the fish market here and ask for “kingfish” you will probably wind up with a king mackerel steak. As you can see having five species with the same name can be problematic for an outdoor writer. I have run into the same thing with Atlantic bonito also known as bonita or the Latin, which is Sarda Sarda. Goodness this was a tough one.

Tight lines and fair winds.


Capt. Chris Medlin is a third-generation tackle shop owner and charter captain. He makes his home on Topsail but loves fishing all over. Most of the time you can find him at East Coast Sports in Surf City or just contact him through his website at Eastcoastsports.com.

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