By Terry Gibson

Every Florida fishing guide wishes that he or she had a penny for every time a client has asked them, "Why do mullet jump out of the water?" We get asked this just about every trip.

Florida's mullet fish are one of the state's most ecologically and culturally important fish. Nearly every predator that anglers target in this state feeds on them, and adults help keep the bottom and water clean by feeding on decaying leaves and algae.

Fried and smoked mullet have also long been a cultural staple for Floridians. Make sure you check the menu for them, especially if you're in northwest Florida or in the southwest Everglades. Towns like Panacea, Appalachicola, Marco Island and Everglades City are proud of their mullet dishes.

There are at least three species of this vitally important forage fish swimming in this great state's waters, and they may hybridize as well.These bright silver jumping fish Florida exhibit a variety of behaviors near, at and above the surface.

One of the fish's behaviors is easily explained. When pursued by predators, entire schools go vaulting across the surface at great speeds and at low angles almost parallel to the surface. You'll probably hear the commotion before you see it. But when it happens within casting range, throw a plug, large fly or soft-plastic bait quickly toward the back of the school and work the lure like a wounded fish. You're likely to get crushed by one of a variety of species including jumbo trout, redfish, snook, jacks, tarpon and bluefish.

Other times, mullet just sort of mill about the surface, often with their dorsal fins exposed. When you see this behavior, cast a jig or soft-plastic lure such as the D.O.A. shrimp into the school and let it sink clear to the bottom. Often, well-camouflaged predators such as trout and snook lie under them in wait. Due to variables such as a high sun, sluggish tide, or others, they might not be willing to expend the energy to attack mullet on the surface, but they'll sure eat a shrimp that comes to them.

The real mystery is why mullet seem to jump for joy or sport. Fish on any saltwater inland waterway in the state, and in most large freshwater lakes, and you'll notice individuals leaping as high as three feet and falling onto their sides. Here's what I tell people:

There are only theories. It's possible that mullet jump to shake off clinging parasites. It's possible that Florida mullet fish jump during the spawning season to break open their egg sacks, in preparation for the spawn. But Dr. Grant Gilmore, a renowned marine biologist from Vero Beach, has another interesting idea.

Gilmore is fascinated by the sounds that fish and other marine organisms make, and he studies them using underwater microphones. Because they most often swim in dark or off-color water, he wonders if Florida mullet fish jump for the sake of letting others in the school know where they are. Interesting . . .

But it's quite possible that none of these theories are worth the penny I wish I had for every time I've answered that question. Jumping fish in Florida are just one example of wonderful natural mysteries in the Sunshine State.