Kirk Berendes tried three times to throw a fish in the toilet. He failed each time.
“Go big or go home,” Berendes said.
But he didn’t show any signs of wanting to actually go home. He was one of the hundreds of people who showed up at Seabreeze Park for the 17th annual Terra Ceia Mullet Smoke-Off, and the day was only half over.
he actual smoke-off was only part of the day’s festivities. In fact it wasn’t even the most popular competition of the day.
That honor went to the mullet toss, an annual contest in which about 50 people paid $5 apiece for three chances to throw a mullet into a receptacle. (The mullet were dead before they were tossed but had been swimming in Terra Ceia Bay hours earlier.) A couple of hundred people gathered around the mullet-tossing area. A cooler with about a dozen mullet sat at one end. About 15 feet or so away was a plastic barrel. About twice as far away was a wheelbarrow. A toilet was farther away still, maybe 50 feet or so.
Contestants pulled fish from the cooler and tossed them into their choice of receptacles. They got more points for the toilet, fewer for the wheelbarrow and even fewer for the barrel.
Berendes opted to toss for the toilet each time. Thus, his “go big or go home” comment. He missed each time. (A few years back, Berendes, who lives in Terra Ceia in Manatee County, tied for first in the mullet toss but lost the tie-breaker.)
Hardly any of the fish landed in the barrel, the wheelbarrow or the toilet. In fact, a motorcycle parked near the toilet took more direct hits than the toilet itself.
“The problem is that all the fish are different weights,” Berendes said. “The first fish I picked was pretty heavy.”
The differing weights makes it hard to adjust after an errant toss, he said.
People who weren’t interested in watching a lot of fish landing with thuds on grass and dirt still had plenty to do at the smoke-off.
Sundown, a local Terra Ceia band, played soft rock hits from the ’70s. The smoke-off merged with island’s annual arts and crafts show last year, so lots of artists and crafters were selling their creations.
And of course, there was a lot a very fresh, smoked mullet — something like 1,500 pounds of it — for sale, and a few other items as well. One of the most popular concoctions was a surprisingly tasty mullet dip, made from pureed mullet, cream cheese and other ingredients.
The Mullet Smoke-Off is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Terra Ceia Village Improvement Association, a nonprofit that maintains the park and the historic building that serves as it headquarters. But the smoke-off also serves an important social function for the island.
“Besides raising money, it gives us a chance to get to know each other,” said Wren Brady, the president of the association. “Everyone here helps everyone else out. That’s unusual these days.”
Julie Shelton was the chair for this year’s event, as for last year’s as well. She spent much of the day serving mullet and mullet dip to customers, and she waxed poetic about how life in the tight-knit village revolved around the fresh mullet that came out of the bay.
But, she confessed, “I don’t eat mullet.”
Shelton said she used to love mullet, but working with mullet so intensely in the day leading up to the smoke-off had spoiled her appetite for the fish.
The actual smoke-off this year drew nine contestants, which is on the low end but pretty normal, Shelton and Brady both said. First price went to Robert King of the Orlando area. Mark Gullet of Palmetto took second, and Phil Fleming of Terra Ceia was third. All three received trophies.
It’s hard to figure attendance at a free festival where crowds ebb and flow all day long, but both Brady and Shelton said this year’s event seemed larger than last year.
By far the biggest smoke-off though, came a few years ago when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested the mullet-toss and brought the festival some added publicity — and drew huge crowds.
Brady said she understood PETA’s concerns, and that the organization does a lot of good work.
“But after the toss, the fish go right back into the water, where they become food for other living creatures.”