Splash! Mullet make a lot of noise along Southwest Florida shores. These foot-long fish are famous for leaping as much as three feet out of the water, letting fishermen know where to throw their nets. Mullet, a true staple of Old Florida cuisine, can be grilled, smoked or made into dip. And their roe—called bottarga—is considered a delicacy in many countries. The next time you hear that telltale splash, consider it a dinner bell.
Each November in northern Manatee County, the annual Terra Ceia Mullet Smoke Off features mullet in all its glorious preparations, as well as competitions like the controversial “mullet toss,” which challenges contestants to throw a fish into a toilet bowl.
“Party in the Back…”
No one’s sure of the connection between the fish and the “business in the front, party in the back” mullet hairstyle. “Mullet head” was a 19th-century insult, perhaps referencing the fish’s flat head, while a 1994 Beastie Boys song of the same name details the hairstyle.
Dining on algae and other tiny organisms, mullet are a vital part of the underwater ecosystem. They’re not likely to go after most bait, so anglers usually opt for a cast net instead.
Cortez’s Anna Maria Fish Company produces bottarga, sometimes called “poor man’s caviar,” that’s shipped to restaurants from Italy to Japan. To make it, red mullet roe is harvested, pressed and then set out to dry, creating a brick that can be grated over all sorts of dishes.
Scientists aren’t sure why mullet jump. Various theories suggest they may be escaping predators, seeking more oxygen, dislodging parasites or just jumping for joy.