It was the biggest weekend of the spring, with people coming from all over to a little strip of beach known as “Perdido Key,” for a gathering known as the FloraBama Mullet Toss. It has been going on for three decades and every year it grows; it now claims to draw numbers in the “tens of thousands.” Hard to know if that is an exaggeration, but there is no denying the traffic along the beach highway or the multitudes on the beach where the sand is so white that, when the sun is out, it makes your eyes hurt to look at it. Which accounts for the sunglasses -- everyone wears them. The only thing more ubiquitous might be the coolers. But you can double team a cooler. One man (usually) on each end and then find a spot where you can put that thing down on the sand, fold out the beach chairs, set up the awning and then . . .
Well, before getting into detail, a little background might be in order. First question, what is the FloraBama?
Well, it started out life, as a roadhouse. And even that description is a little charitable. It came into existence when you could buy liquor by the drink in Florida and not in Alabama. So shortly after a highway along the coast connecting the two states was completed, an American entrepreneur threw up a structure that was just barely adequate and just barely on the Florida side of the line and began selling whiskey and other adult beverages by the glass. The place was called the FloraBama.
That is fairly straightforward stuff. The mullet toss part is a little more baroque.
The mullet is the upper Gulf Coast’s transcendent fish, in the sense that it is more than just a fish. In a sense, the mullet supports an entire food chain. Everything eats mullet. It is both a baitfish and a food fish. Mullet sustain populations of other, predatory fish. And mullet is the default species at just about any fish fry that takes place in this part of America. Countless volunteer fire departments, local churches, civic clubs, youth football programs, and so forth have been sustained over the years by money raised through fish fries featuring mullet. You can also walk into any number of local eating places and have yourself a plate of fried mullet with hushpuppies and coleslaw.
One last point of interest: The mullet cannot be caught on hook and line. The fish is caught by netting and the sovereign method is by cast net. There is an art to this, and it is beautiful to watch someone wading through the shallows of a bayou, water up to his knees, then throwing the net in a perfect circle over a school of fish he sees passing in range.
You could no more imagine this part of the Gulf Coast without mullet than you could Iowa without corn.
So it was probably inevitable that, three decades ago, someone at the FloraBama would come up with the idea of throwing a mullet across the state line. One doesn’t want to be hasty here, but it seems reasonable to suspect that alcohol might have been involved and even that immortal war cry, “Hold my beer and watch this,” might have been shouted.
By this time, the FloraBama had gone trough several evolutionary stages. It had begun life as a bucket-of-blood saloon. Moved up in class to “fighting and dancing club.” Then to “roadhouse.” And then to its present status as world-class honkytonk. It was smashed flat a few years ago by a hurricane called Ivan but was quickly built back up, bigger and more “lively” than ever. It is great place for country music and a destination for motorcycle clubs and other aficionados of the American road. Saturday night at the FloraBama is righteous stuff.
But back to the mullet toss.
It was, one imagines, no great leap from “let’s throw a fish across the line,” to “let’s see who can throw one the farthest.” And, in the way of these things, there was soon an official ritual with the name “mullet toss.” T-shirts inevitably followed. The event was even blessed by the participation of a genuine local hero, Ken Stabler, who had once played quarterback for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. (In what people in this part of the world probably consider a minor footnote, Stabler also quarterbacked for a Super Bowl winner in the NFL.) Stabler threw his mullet in the late 1980s.
At last year’s event, one of the aviators who flies with the Navy’s Blue Angels threw a fish. The Blues, of course, fly out of Pensacola, twenty miles or so to the east. Other notables have, over the years, tossed mullet over the line but the record consists, mostly, as oral history and legend. The record for distance, set more than a decade ago, stands at just short of 190 feet.