By Lauri deGaris
Fall has arrived! I have been waiting all summer for this turn of the seasonal wheel. Interactions in nature have been triggered by the change in light and air temperature. In the past, understanding nature’s cycles was crucial to day-to-day living. And an ecological calendar was an essential tool for staying in sync with one’s environment. It was important to know things like when to hunt and what night would be bright with full moon light.
Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events. It evokes the essence of the seasons and emphasizes the natural flow of each cycle like changes in the moon phase, fluctuating tides, significant weather patterns and shifting biological behavior of flora and fauna. It is what the farmers’ almanacs are based upon. Phenology helps us know when to successfully plant crops and how to manage animals and other very useful information for survival.
One of my favorite events to witness this time of year is the annual mullet run. Now, for some of you who are new to the South, the term “mullet” is not just a word that describes a particular hairstyle. There is a fish named mullet as well.
Mullet are the fish seen leaping out of the water holding a rigid posture as it lands on its side. They are often seen jumping several times in a row. When an entire school of mullet jumps together, this is called a shower. If you spend any time on the beach over the next two months, you will witness mullet showers in the surf. Large predatory fish such as the “Silver King” tarpon, jacks, redfish, dolphin and many others are here to take advantage of the abundance provided by the mullet run.
Mullet occur in tropical and temperate waters throughout the world. Striped mullet, Mugilidae cephalus, also known as a “sucker head” is the largest of the four species found in this region. Mullet are euryhaline fish. This means they can withstand various degrees of salinity. Mullet spawn in marine waters. Then, they move into brackish and freshwater to grow. Each fall, mature mullet will school up and move back to marine waters to spawn.
The annual mullet run triggers many seasonal activities. Local fishermen are gearing up for the season’s best fishing days. For me, I am gearing up for my own mullet tradition: the making and sharing of smoked mullet dip.
My father’s favorite way to enjoy mullet was to fry it. He would dust the fish in corn meal and flour and cook in peanut oil. He also would fry the roe in cornmeal and flour. Both would be served up with grits and collard greens.
Salt-cured mullet roe is called “Bottarga.” In Europe, it is also known as “Mediterranean caviar.” Salt curing of fish dates back thousands of years. Today, Bottarga remains a delicacy and it can be found in specialty markets and online for purchase.
Other folks in the southeast have a different way of celebrating the beloved mullet. “Mullet tossing” began at the Florida/Alabama border on a 4th of July weekend in 1985. It has evolved into a festival of sorts celebrated around the state of Florida in many small fishing communities.
The original mullet tossing festival is held in Perdido Key at Flora-Bama Lounge and Package store. Thirty-thousand people plus gather annually at this beloved beach bar for a great cause and have some fun. Proceeds from the event support local charities.
Participants at a mullet tossing event use a variety of techniques to see who can toss a 1-foot long, wet, slimy mullet the farthest. Michael Swindle, author of “Mulletheads – The Legends, Lore, Magic, and Mania Surrounding the Humble but Celebrated Mullet” asks the question why do it? He posed the question to hundreds over the years. The most popular answer to his question is “I don’t know.” Swindle has concluded that “mullet possess mystical properties and the phenomenon is simply ineffable.”
Where does the obsession with mullet come from? Take the case of Jim and Sand Schmidt. They moved from New Jersey to Homosassa, Florida, and fell in love with smoked mullet. Four years later, they were catching, smoking and selling mullet out of the back of a train caboose on Highway 19. This is a perfect example of mullet magic, for sure.
Mullet are unique fish in that they have a gizzard like birds in order to help grind and digest food. Many old timers know the legendary story that took place when three Florida fishermen were arrested for fishing mullet out of season. They hired a lawyer of out Tampa named Pat Whitaker. In his defense, Whitaker put a biologist on the stand who testified that only birds have gizzards. The attorney then claimed his clients were innocent because mullet have gizzards and fish do not. Therefore, his clients were not fishing out of season, since mullet were not fish. The fishermen were found not guilty. Attorney Pat Whitaker went on to become president of the Florida State Senate.
Mullet have been a part of the Florida lifestyle for centuries. Indigenous people used nets made out of local fiber to collect and smoke mullet over open fires. Minorcan people from Europe arrived here as indentured servants in the 1700s and they were also very successful mullet fishermen. Minorcan culture is still represented in North Florida today. Many stories have been passed down through the generations about their folk tradition of fishing. One such story is that wherever a group of Minorcans gather, whether it be a school, church or sporting event – and someone yells “mullet on the beach” the place would be emptied in a skinny minute. Yelling “Mullet on the beach!” will clear a gathering quicker than yelling “fire!”
Mullet on the beach!
Quick, grab your gear and witness this fall tradition for yourself. Head to the beach and observe the surf shower of mullet in action. If you are unable to procure any mullet for yourself, you can find fully smoked mullet, ready to enjoy, at Trout River Seafood – 8074 Main Street in Jacksonville. They smoke mullet every Thursday during the season.
Mullet on the beach!