Another venerable Florida tradition is under attack — this time the down-home sport of throwing dead mullet at targets that include washtubs, wheelbarrows and even toilet bowls.
The popular fish-toss competition at Saturday's 13th annual Mullet Smoke-Off fundraiser at Seabreeze Park on Manatee County's Terra Ceia Island recently caught the attention of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Cavorting with fish carcasses so offended their sensibilities they sent a letter of formal complaint to the organizers.
"If it would be wrong to make a game out of tossing dead kittens and puppies into a toilet, then it's wrong to do it with fish,'' scolded PETA vice president Trace Reiman. "Terra Ceia could easily toss horseshoes, bean bags or bocce balls instead of the bodies of animals who have been pulled from their homes and suffocated to death.''
Thus the fish scales began flying.
"Really, I'm surprised PETA would come after us,'' said Melissa Langdon, who organizes the festival to raise money for community improvements. "You'd think they'd have other, more important things to deal with.''
Langdon grew up on tiny Terra Ceia Island, population 1,000, where babies cut their teeth on juicy mullet fillets rather than Zweiback toast. The hoagie-shaped species has fed generations of Floridians going back to prehistoric times. During the Great Depression, coastal residents sated gnawing hunger by filling bellies with mullet and grits.
The mullet is to Florida old-timers what the apple is to New York and the maple tree is to Vermont. At festivals all over the state, mullet are celebrated with T-shirts, cook-offs, suppers and unusual competitions that measure strength, accuracy and the ability to ignore fish slime on your hand.
Out-of-staters, for some reason, seldom understand the appeal. Fish tossing, comedian Jimmy Fallon claimed during his Late Night Show on NBC last week, is "the first step in the redneck mating call.''
Fallon, a city boy with a Brooklyn background, has got his facts wrong. The first step is acquisition. Vegetarians, mullet seldom bite a baited hook, so they're usually caught in cast nets or speared from docks, seawalls and bridges. They're typically fried or smoked and accompanied by an ice-cold beverage.
Mullet tossing is an art not easily learned.
"I never practice,'' Bradenton's Read Heath explained on Wednesday. "It's better that you just drink some beer and go out there.''
By some accounts the 53-year-old Heath is considered the best fish flinger in west-central Florida. In 2009 he won the Terra Ceia contest and finished third last year. "The secret is throwing the mullet slow enough and at the proper arc so it doesn't bounce out of the target.''
Gripping the deceased mullet around the head, he throws under hand like a slow-pitch softballer. Landing the mullet in the first target, 15 feet away, is worth 25 points. Another target, 30 feet from the line, is a wheelbarrow and earns 50 points. The farthest target, the toilet, is 45 feet distant and worth 100 points. Landing a mullet in the open toilet tank just beyond the bowl achieves a 150-point bonus.
"I don't like to give away my strategy, but I usually shoot for the closer target and try to run up points,'' Heath confessed. "The showboats go for the toilet.''
The organizers of the festival, the Terra Ceia Village Improvement Association, voted 98-0 recently to ignore PETA and go on fish-tossing.
"We haven't decided what our strategy is going to be now,'' PETA spokesperson Dave Byer said.
Mullet-throwing champ Heath is ready for anything.
"I'll become a scab and cross the picket line if I have to,'' he said.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or [email protected]