Every year in late March, people of all ages line up on Florida’s Pine Island for their turn to pick a dead fish out of a plastic laundry basket and throw it as far as they can down a grassy field. Some toss the fish underhand, some pitch it, some spiral it like a football, and others sling it sideways. The point is to propel a whole mullet as far as the fish will fly, competing to be the champion distance mullet tosser.
Island Fest Mullet Toss & Seafood Festival, held annually the third week of March, has its origins in nearby Matlacha, Florida. No one seems to know why the name “Matlacha” is not pronounced “Mat-la-cha” (as in “the Cha-Cha”) but is given the more refined, Frenchified pronunciation, “Mat-la-shay.” If we knew the origin of the word, we might have an explanation for its pronunciation, but the theories are numerous, convoluted, and, for the most part, as preposterous as the very existence of Matlacha itself.
The first mullet was tossed in the early 1990s at the now-closed Mulletville Restaurant, located on Pine Island Road in Matlacha. People stood in the parking lot of the restaurant and tried to pitch a dead mullet onto the roof of the restaurant next door, a distance of 180 feet. It’s unclear if any of the fish actually hit their mark, although one allegedly flopped into the lap of a passing motorist, another into the posh interior of a convertible BMW, and once, a passing pelican caught one and flew away with it. They also smacked the faces and camera lenses of onlookers.
In 2004, when the Matlacha Mariners assumed responsibility for the event, they had people running around on the sidelines with nets to catch errant, flying fish. In 2008, the Mariners took the growing event to the Matlacha Community Park, and in 2020, due to very limited parking on Matlacha, it moved to Pine Island.
From fish to fudge
The island of Matlacha began as a causeway between the bridges that link Pine Island to the mainland of Cape Coral. Dredged up out of the oyster beds in Matlacha Pass when the first bridge was built in 1927, it gradually became home to refugees of the Great Depression, who began to park their cars and pickups along the causeway and live out of them. Out of necessity, the squatters became fishermen.
Fish were so plentiful that they began to sell their catches, pooling their earnings to buy nets, and wood to build fishing boats and houses. A fishing village was born, but all but died in 1994, when voters passed a referendum that made gill-net fishing illegal. The ban effectively put third- and fourth-generation fishing families on both Matlacha and Pine islands out of business.
A few years later, writers and artists, looking for low-cost housing in a proverbial “island paradise,” began to buy the cheap little wood-frame and concrete-block fishermen’s houses along the water. In order to catch the eye of people passing through on their way to Pine Island, they painted their homes and art galleries turquoise, pink, yellow, and lavender. It worked.
Inevitably, a realty office opened. The original causeway began to widen with the addition of houses built along canals on one side and a large community park on the other. Fisheries converted to waterfront restaurants, fishermen’s houses to gift shops, and the grocery became a fudge factory. Now drenched in the candy colors of the Caribbean, Matlacha transformed into an art colony. Wedged between the mainland and Pine Island, like a colorful piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit in, Matlacha has become a Florida destination in itself.
Pine Island might not be a very glamorous name for a sub-tropical island, but it’s an honest one. Before Florida realized its potential as a tourist attraction and began importing palm trees and manufacturing pink, plastic flamingos, it was covered (inland of its beaches) with pines, scrub oak, and palmettos. And Pine Island still is: When you cross the last little bridge from Matlacha onto Pine Island, you will find yourself traveling across a 4,700-acre wetland preserve of salt and freshwater habitats, forests, and marshland, restored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to its pre-Columbian state.
Located just behind the popular vacation destinations of barrier islands Sanibel and Captiva, Pine Island is the largest island off the west coast of Florida. Seventeen miles long and 2 miles wide (roughly the size of Manhattan), with a fluctuating population—stated in 2021 to be 9,000—the island is quite manageable even in winter, when its condominiums and houses are reopened by their winter residents for the season.
There are no beaches or mega-resorts on Pine Island—just tropical nurseries and palm tree plantations, aquatic preserves, fishing and kayaking, and some fun, canal-front bars and restaurants, particularly on the southern end. Pineland, on the north end in Bokeelia, is, alone, worth a trip to the island. Here is the rare archaeological site of an Indigenous Calusa community where you can actually climb a Calusa mound for a stunning view of the Pine Island Sound.
Directly across the street is the jewel of Pine Island, the nationally acclaimed, fine-dining Tarpon Lodge and Restaurant, with a rollicking history going back to the 1920s. Overnight options are limited on Pine Island, so if you wish to attend Island Fest, book a room well in advance.
Toss for a cause
The 2022 Island Fest Mullet Toss & Seafood Festival will open to the public at Phillips Park at 10:00 a.m. on a still-to-be-announced date in March. Hosted by the Greater Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, the festival is a fundraiser for the Chamber and Kiwanis Club. The event includes arts and craft vendors and exhibitors, kids’ games, fishing and net-casting seminars, live music, and plenty to eat and drink from local food vendors—but its centerpiece is the mullet toss.
The only contest rule appears to be that participants can’t wear gloves. Throwers choose a fish (each weighs less than 2 pounds) from a plastic basket of mullet on ice, which smells about as bad as you might be imagining. They then slap the slippery mullet around in the sand (sort of like the way you might slap a fillet around in flour before frying it) before throwing it as far as they can down a grassy straightaway.
The mullet toss is free to attend, but adults pay $5 and kids $2 per throw to enter the contest. The entrance fee goes to charity, the winners receive plaques and/or gift certificates, and the fish go back to the fishermen, who donate them to the contest, to be recycled as chum.