Youch! The Dorsal Fin stabbed me right in the index finger. Now blood was trickling into my palm, making a difficult task harder. I had come only to watch the contest. Then I spotted the trophies—big, shiny, elegant trophies—each with a gold-plated fish jumping from a marble sea. I hadn't won a trophy since 1959, and that was for baton twirling. I wanted one.
So there I was, standing on a concrete pier behind a Florida bar, trying to toss this two-pound mullet 45 feet across the water into an old inner tube. My first fish had fallen 12 feet short of the target. Now the second one was stabbing me.
Actually this mullet shouldn't have had any fins at all. Just the night before, the Mullet Toss Equipment Committee had assembled at the bar to discuss the best way to cut the sharp fins off a competition mullet. The committee members shared a few beers and several sad stories—not about mullet, a lowly, common baitfish—but about trouble with boats and trouble with women. One guy had just been thrown out of the house for making chum in the kitchen garbage disposal.
There was a good deal of debate about whether tin snips, wire cutters or kitchen shears were the best fin-clipping tools. But in the end, it didn't matter, for, as so often happens in Goodland, Fla. (pop. 500), the good intentions of the night before were somewhat hazy by the first light of the day of the 10th Annual Little Bar Hog Roast and Mullet Toss. Well, more than hazy; the committeeman in charge of fins had, uh, sort of overslept.
I would never have known about the annual mullet-chucking festival or even this backwater town had my husband not, a few years ago, taken a wrong turn off Highway 92 somewhere west of the Everglades and stumbled into Goodland. "What a great place," he reported later. "Nothing but fishermen and bars."
This remains true. The town business district consists mainly of the Colada Inn Motel and Barber Shop; the Drop Anchor Trailer Park; various captains, charter boats and marinas; Big Glenn's Banana Cabana (a bar); Stan's Idle Hour Seafood Restaurant Inc.; the Pink House Motel; Marker Seven's Mullet Heaven (a fish-packing plant); and the Mar-Good Resort, R.V. Park, Marina, Deli and Theater, which features "wash, dry & fold" laundry service, beer to go and American flag T-shirts with the message: JUST TRY & BURN ME.
Though only minutes from classy Marco Island and Naples, Goodland is a town delightfully devoid of tawny blond people and yuppies. The eclectic dwellings include weathered wooden huts with porches where Humphrey Bogart would look just right. There are mobile homes perched about two stories up on cinder block pylons, which protects them from very high tides. Some homes are cleverly landscaped with crab pots, mullet nets, old cars and boats needing work. A lot of old boats needing work.
Then there is the town's most revered landmark, the Little Bar. This venerable watering hole was so named because, according to a lifelong patron, "it used to be so little we had to play pool with cues that'd been sawed in half." It's the kind of place where a stranger can walk in and within an hour learn the life story of a retired sea captain, a saga that includes the fact that he got all those scars on his face up in Apalachicola and that he never drinks "before 10 in the morning, like some people."
In 1978 a Chicago family named Bozicnik bought and made a bigger Little Bar. Then one night about a year later, manager Ray Bozicnik Jr. was standing on the pier out back, watching the commercial mullet seiners coming in. "These guys have literally got a ton of mullet on each little boat [19- and 22-footers, mostly] and they've got about four inches of freeboard," he says. So, balancing like Chinese acrobats, the men "start chucking mullet into baskets on the dock. Bing. Bing. Bing. They never miss." With no ball diamonds or basketball or tennis courts in Goodland, Bozicnik thought, "Mullet tossing could become our town sport."
Now, once a year, Bozicnik roasts a whole pig, rolls out barrels of beer and has a horseshoe pitch, crab race and mullet toss. The horseshoe pitch went fine. The crab race had some problems, one being that some of the crustacean contestants, unaccustomed to such excitement, expired in the starting gate. But the mullet toss, with its men's, women's and juvenile divisions, proved to be an event of surpassing athletic achievement.
By two o'clock in the afternoon, a line of mullet-chucking hopefuls had formed along the pier. Equipment problems developed. Since mullet cost 50 cents apiece and hundreds of mullet are tossed, the same mullet is used over and over until, like an umpire calling to see the ball Joe Niekro is pitching, the judge calls in a mullet for inspection. In order to retrieve the tossed fish, the mullet equipment managers use a mullet rigged as it would be for shark fishing, on a Mitchell spinning reel attached to an ABU-Garcia Conolon rod. As the thrower takes aim, the equipment man opens the bail on the reel so the soon-to-be-tossed fish can free-spool out over the water. Problem is, sometimes the rig tangles in the inner tube's anchor ropes. Sometimes the mullet flies off the rig. Timeout to rerig.
The biggest delay of the day came at 3:15 p.m. when Rambo, a golden retriever, euphoric over the abundance of barbecued hog meat falling to the ground, flung himself off the pier in celebration and could not get out of the water. The equipment managers rescued Rambo, tail still wagging, from the skiff they used to untangle hung-up mullets.
I had no natural sense of mullet tossing. I could barely hold one, let alone toss it. Just ahead of me a strong young waitress from Goodland had, on her second try, Joe Montanaed a perfect spiral into the target tube. She attributed her success to "one rumrunner, two mimosas and a beer." So I bought another ticket—two throws for a dollar—took a big drag off my Diet Coke and splunked two more mullet hopelessly off target.
I should have done better. The night before, as long as I was buying, old pros generously shared their secrets at the bar. "Always throw underhand," one 250-pound bass fisherman from upstate told me, "otherwise the slime'll run all down your arm onto your neck."
Another man said the only way to throw a mullet is to "grow your fingernails long enough to get them under the scales. If you can't get under them scales, you're going to lose that fish behind you on the drawback."
I had tried overhand, but I wasn't strong enough. Underhand, the fish went high but not far. Another contestant told me, "You've got to fool with the fish till you find its sweet spot." But the fish bellies were slippery, and the backs had those fins and, besides, fooling with a fish isn't my style. I didn't know what to do. I just bought several more chances.
The waitress was still leading in the women's division. Another woman, in a skimpy tube top, had drawn a lot of notice but failed to hit the target. A small woman, trying to toss with both hands, had folded her fish in half, causing fish failure and a timeout for rerigging.
Everybody took the break as a sign to have another cool one—Diet Coke, beer, mimosa, whatever. There was talk of how good mullet gizzards taste deep-fat fried. Talk of how mullet roe is considered an aphrodisiac in Asia. One young mullet man in snakeskin boots allowed as how the Japanese libido netted him more than $50,000 in one roe season. Someone was serving mullet chip-dip.
As the 5 p.m. deadline approached, I still had not tossed a mullet into the inner tube. I tried again and again. Finally, on what would have been my last throw, my mullet tangled in the inner tube's anchor rope. The ABU-Garcia rod and Mitchell reel tugged and tugged. The inner tube bobbed and swayed. Eventually the mullet popped free. But I was out of throws. Then a miracle happened. Billy Oliver, the Little Bar's night bartender and activities chairman, tossed me down a ticket and hollered, "Throw one for me."
Heck, it was just like in the movies. Win one for the Gipper. How could I not win one for Billy? Here is a man who was a 1977 world skeet champion, a man who had for five years in a row won the showmanship medal in the Florida State Chili Cookoff, a man who had, the very night before, thoughtfully covered the sand for the horseshoe pits with a tarp, "so there won't be any cat stuff in it in the morning," and I was his champion.
I grabbed my very-last-chance mullet right above the tail. I swung, one, two, three.... Without even a hint of wobble, my mullet glided up in an arc and, swish, into the inner tube.
In the end, I won second place in the women's division. The waitress with the Joe Montana arm took first. The men's division winner, who had had many beers in the hot sun, rocked with pride as he was handed his trophy. As is so often true in South Florida, the man did not wish to reveal his name. He did say he had once been a semipro hockey player someplace in Illinois, and that he now was working at other things.
As for me, I had a wonderful second-place trophy with a golden mullet leaping from a marble sea.
And somebody asked me to be in the evening egg toss.