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Where every weekend is a seafood festival

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image Steve Fagan in front of the Mullet Shack at the Ruskin Seafood Festival last weekend. Photo Mitch Traphagen

When the construction industry dried up, Steve Fagan found the answers to his future by looking to the past. You can’t get seafood more fresh than from the Mullet Shack.

By Mitch Traphagen

RUSKIN -- Near Steve Fagan’s Mullet Shack at the Ruskin Seafood Festival was a tent with a sign that read, “Mullet School.” In the tent, along with information about the coastal temperate and tropical water fish, was a photo of two pairs of hands holding a net. The hands belong to Fagan’s son and grandfather; they were making the net by hand.

When the construction industry went south years ago, Fagan didn’t just throw up his hands and give up; he looked to his past and began throwing out nets. His grandfather was a mullet fisherman, as were his father and his uncles.

“It’s a heritage thing,” Fagan said. “My son is getting good at it, too.”

Every Saturday and some Sundays, Fagan pulls his red Mullet Shack to the corner of U.S. Highway 41 and Big Bend Road to sell mullet as fresh as anyone can buy. He does most of his fishing on Friday and fires up the smoker on Saturday morning before daylight to serve his customers later that day.“I enjoy doing it,” he said.

“Sometimes you can get them, sometimes you can’t.” During the times of the former, he’ll set up on the corner on Sundays, too. Some of his catch will go to his wife as she makes the popular mullet spread they also offer.

For the Seafood Festival, held at E.G. Simmons Park last weekend, he had to get a lot of  them — 600 pounds, to be exact.

“I fished Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for this,” he said while standing outside of the Mullet Shack during the Seafood Festival. “On Friday I was a little short and, this is no joke, I said, ‘God, I’m a little short here’ and something told me to go down to this other place and I caught 70 pounds in 30 minutes.”

Taking a bite into a mullet sandwich from the Mullet Shack transported me back to some of the happiest days of my childhood when my family would vacation next to a lake and I’d spend time fishing with my Dad. The fresh fish were the best back then and that’s exactly how Fagan serves it up. After all, the fish sandwiches and smoked mullet that thousands of people enjoyed at the Seafood Festival were swimming in the bay just a day or two prior.

Fagan has studied the mullet’s habitats and their uses around the world. He says that not only is it low in calories, but in some places it is also used for medicinal purposes.

“Just come on down and try it,” he said. “It’s a real good eating fish. I’d like everyone to come down and just try some smoked mullet.”

He has what he calls the Mullet Bible, a hand-written notebook of stories that include generations of his family fishing for mullet. Steve Fagan looked to his past and found answers for his future. He is making a living for his family off the water, just as those who came before him did.

He is also hoping to find a permanent home someday for his Mullet Shack. A gentleman first and foremost, he doesn’t want to set up near someone else’s turf; he doesn’t want to take anything away from someone else. “We have morals,” he said.

For now, home is on the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 41 and Big Bend Road on Saturdays from 12 to 6 p.m. You can go for the freshest possible mullet and home-cooked sides, you can go to hear Steve talk about mullet fishing, you can go, like me, to have a great lunch and remember what things were like before things got so complicated in the world. For Fagan, it’s really not all that complicated. Sometimes the best answers to present and future problems are found in the past. The work is hard, but he has generations of his family to help out, both in spirit and with hands calloused from working the nets. It’s a good life.

110812 Seafood Festival - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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