The ‘Redneck Riviera’: How a fish-tossing contest helped define Alabama beach life
by Harvey H. Jackson III
Special to The Star
Apr 29, 2012 | 4170 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Visitors from Baton Rouge, La., travel to Panama City Beach for Spring Break. Photo: Courtesy of Bay County Public Library
Visitors from Baton Rouge, La., travel to Panama City Beach for Spring Break. Photo: Courtesy of Bay County Public Library
Editor's Note" This weekend, down at the Flora-Bama Lounge, which sits near the Alabama-Florida state line down on the Gulf Coast, they will be tossing fish. It’s the 28th annual Mullet Toss, a fish-throwing contest and big ol’ beach party. In the new book “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera,” Harvey H. Jackson III — himself a son of the coastal South — explores the sometimes tortured, often hilarious history of the Gulf Coast, from the gilded resorts of the 1930s to the oil spill of 2010. The following excerpt tells the story of the Mullet Toss, which started in 1984:

While Seaside was taking the coast in one direction, off to the west, at the point where Florida meets Alabama, the Flora-Bama was heading things in another.

Since Joe Gilchrist and Pat McClellan had taken over, the Bama had begun featuring more music and putting on more events. It was still a beach bar, and as good as it ever was. It still offered patrons the diversity of a biker and banker crowd that welcomed everyone as long as they would “do-right,” and with just the touch of outlaw and sleaze that kept the excitement and the energy level high.

But in time Gilchrist, McClellan and the regular musicians who entertained there noticed that the last weekend in April was the deadest weekend in the year. Snowbirds were gone. Spring break was over. The summer crowd was yet to arrive. What could they do to bring folks to the Bama?

So they thought and thought, until Jimmy Louis, one of the musicians, said, “Let’s have a contest.” But what sort of a contest?

Now at this point the stories diverge. According to one account, Louis had been out west where he saw competitive cow patty throwing, so he suggested they have a throwing contest at the Flora-Bama. But what to throw?

Someone, probably Louis, said, “Why not a mullet?”

The other version of the story, told by Louis himself, was that the idea for the Mullet Toss “just came out of a fit of narcosis. I got stoned one night and thought it up.”

I’ve met Jimmy Louis, had a beer with him at Boys Town, the enclave across from the Flora-Bama, where musicians keep trailers and where the sailboat on which Jimmy lives most of the year was docked. And after hearing him tell of how he was lucky to be alive considering all the controlled substances he had ingested, though his memory may have been clouded, I accept his explanation.

Why a mullet?

To some folks, the mullet is a trash fish, a bottom-feeder, a scavenger, and the lowest of the low. Some folks say they aren’t even fish at all; they are birds. A Florida court said so.

Michael Swindle, in his book “Mulletheads,” tells of how, back in the 1920s, three guys were arrested for fishing for mullet without a license, or something like that.

They hired a Tampa lawyer named Pat Whitaker to defend them. Whitaker brought in a biologist who sat there and told the judge and jury that only birds have gizzards. This professional opinion was important because judge and jury knew enough about the mullet to know that a mullet has a gizzard as well.

Therefore, Whitaker argued, his clients could not be convicted for illegally fishing because a mullet was not a fish, it was a bird. Had to be — it had a gizzard.

And the jury, faced with this evidence and logic, did the only thing it could and returned a verdict of not guilty.

Pat Whitaker went on to a political career that led to the presidency of the Florida state senate. The accused were released and probably went back to catching mullet.

Because they have gizzards, mullet have been said to have mystical powers. Because they are so easy to catch with a cast net, they are popular among folks who fish for the pot. You won’t find mullet served at restaurants with white tablecloths, but where they appear on a menu, if the waitress swears they were caught that day, order yourself a “mess.” Filleted and fried fresh, there is no fish better, and the backbones, fried with the meat left from the filleting, are known as “cracker popsicles.”

The mullet is the common man’s fish, the “rabbit of the ocean” they call it, and it acts the way Riviera rednecks act — together.

Mullet school, and sometimes the whole school will leap from the water, turn in midair, and flop back in (unlike most jumping fish, which reenter head first). Scientists have tried to figure out this odd behavior, and about all they can come up with is that mullet leap “for the sheer joy of doing it.”

So they created the contest.

On the beach, on the Florida side of the line, they set up a registration table. Folks signed in and selected a dead mullet from a bucket of water. Then the contestant stood within a 10-foot-diameter circle and threw the fish down a 50-foot-wide, 200-foot-long alley and into Alabama — making the Mullet Toss an interstate event.

“We are burdened with so many rules in this life,” Gilchrist said, “mostly by the government, that we try to keep them to a minimum at the toss.” And they did.

1. Stay in the circle.

2. Don’t throw out of bounds.

3. No gloves.

4. No sand on the mullet — it has to be slick.

5. Only one throw with each registration.

6. “Mullet girls” will measure the throw, but you must retrieve your fish and put it back in the bucket to be used again.

7. And finally, you can kiss your mullet, but you cannot pour beer into it.

When the day was done, the mullet were fed to the seagulls.

Thus, on a slow weekend in 1984, the Flora-Bama Interstate Mullet Toss was born. Beer flowed, fish flew, and the weekend was slow no more.

About the author

Harvey H. Jackson III — known as Hardy around these parts — is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University. His many books include “Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba and Alabama” and “Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State.”

He also writes a column for The Anniston Star, which appears on Thursdays.

“The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera”

By Harvey H. Jackson III

University of Georgia Press

$28.95 for hardcover or e-book
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