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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.