Photograph by Josephine St.John MacDonagh
Consider the lonesome angler dangling his reel over the river and waiting for a bite. In the 1930s and ’40s, this ritual gave birth to fish camps, simple sheds along the rivers of the southern United States where people could buy bait and rent tackle for a turn on the water and then fillet and fry their catch. Over time, fish camps have evolved into modest mom-and-pop canteens where fishermen and non-fishermen alike can dine affordably on fresh local catches and heaping portions of southern comfort food.
(Prices at the following fish camps range from about $12 to $16 for a generous entrée with side. It’s a good idea to call ahead, as not all are open daily.)
Palm Valley, Fla. Palm Valley Fish Camp holds court on a residential stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway near Ponte Vedra Beach. With walls covered in mounted fish and a dock cluttered with Adirondack chairs, simplicity reigns at this crowded eatery run by Ben and Liza Groshell. The local delicacy, Mayport shrimp—harvested off the coast of Jacksonville—is served here, with a side of creamy grits.
Jacksonville, Fla. Clark’s Fish Camp offers an authentic taste of backwoods Florida with its out-of-the-way location down winding roads and its kitschy decor of wildlife taxidermy (the exotic animals died natural deaths, says Joan Peoples, who has owned Clark’s since 1974 when she transformed it from a bait shop). The restaurant fronts Julington Creek behind weathered wooden docks and “Do Not Feed the Alligators” signs. Fish platters overflow with shrimp, oysters, scallops, and clams; the swamp fest platter features alligator, frog legs, and catfish. On weekends expect to wait in line for dinner or arrive before 5:30 p.m. to nab a creekside table and catch the sunset.
Silas, Ala. The patch of riverfront that’s home to Bobby’s Fish Camp has been in the Dahlberg family since 1851, when owner Lora Jane Dahlberg McIlwain’s great-grandfather John, who emigrated from Sweden, purchased the land and built a weigh station for steamboats traveling Alabama’s Tombigbee River. Bobby’s Fish Camp is now a marina with overnight cabins and a restaurant serving fried catfish, crab cakes, and hush puppies to travelers passing through. For those arriving by boat along the Tombigbee, Bobby’s is at mile marker 118.9.
Fort Lawn, S.C. Catawba Fish Camp was opened by Pleasant Baker in 1952 on the banks of the Catawba River, after his nightly routine of cooking the neighbors’ daily catch on a wooden stove in his backyard caught on. Today, the restaurant is run by Baker’s nephew Bob Edwards and his grandson Brandon, who says regulars pop in from neighboring coastal Georgia and North Carolina to feast on flounder, perch, and calabash shrimp.
Belmont, N.C. Located on the edge of North Carolina’s South Fork River, Catfish Cove has been under the careful watch of Raymond Stowe for the past 20 years. Stowe learned the fish camp trade by cooking for three decades at the now shuttered Lineberger’s Fish Fry, widely considered to be one of the earliest fish camps in the country. Stowe has since garnered scores of loyal customers who return weekly for their fresh-fish fix, including fried flounder with a side of crisp onion rings.
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