The TALES they TELL
From the beginning, Florida’s fish camps have connected us to the wildness, and soul, of our state.
By Charlie Hailey / Photos by Aidan Hailey
ot long ago, my son and I helped clean out an abandoned fish camp near Gainesville. McGilvray’s had been closed for a decade, but it was a museum of outdoor life that still whispered the legends of fishing for speckled perch on Newnans Lake. The state record 3-pound 12-ouncer used to hang proudly above the camp store’s counter, and this is where renowned tournament angler Gary Simpson honed his fishing vocation.
Gary remembers Johnny McGilvray giving him a box of worms and sending him off to the end of the rickety dock where a mess of Newnans’ catfish were waiting. He told me how the magic of a bobber disappearing underwater hooked him for life.
Among bright but dusty bobbers, reels of fishing line, pulse minnows, lead sinkers, and rusted hooks, my son and I found two artifacts: a letter and a map. The letter, from the 1980s, was from a man in Oregon who wanted to move to Florida and offered to work at the camp in return for lodging and unlimited fishing. He said he wanted to slow down. fishing. He said he wanted to slow down.
The map sketched contours, marked waypoints, and measured water depths. We felt we had discovered an old pirate’s treasure map, as enigmatic as it was precise. I can imagine the speck lurking there along its contours, hiding in its watery patina. That map is about a fish camp’s local knowledge, deep as a secret fishing hole.
Wanting to slow down and learn more about Florida recently drew me back to fish camps, which I have come to realize were likely the state’s first settlements. Indigenous people fished and camped here long before our time. Middens still rise all across the peninsula, and those piles of discarded shells attest to centuries of shucked oysters and clams and an abundance of fish. Though much later, early explorers also traversed the state’s wildness from fish camp to fish camp, where they found rest, hospitality, and a skillet of trout or perch.
Many of these camps were no more than a rustic cabin along a remote lake or river, and others were built around landings for 19th-century steamers and paddle-wheelers. By the turn of the century, the camps served not just as travelers’ waypoints and early recreational outposts, but were also important stations for gathering climatological and geological data in a land primarily accessed by water.
Such informal camps expanded in the 1920s when road access opened Florida to more tourists and a growing population, and some fish camps even spawned towns, like Giant’s Camp along the Alafia River near Tampa, which turned the Gibsonton community into the winter home of carnival sideshow performers. Fish camps grow by accretion. Like the bouquet of an oyster colony, or barnacles on a boat’s hull, they build up over time.
In their typical makeup of metal roofs and wood framing raised above the ground, they hew toward Florida’s vernacular architecture as they also mix building types — blending dock with house and shed with shop. Fish camps are experiments in weathering. Utilitarian by design, they play at the absurd game of placing wood structures right next to the water and the the absurd game of placing wood structures right next to the water and the weather that can tear them apart. As an architect and an angler, I love them for this mix of what is temporary and permanent. Camping, they connect us not just to fish but to nature as a whole. And as poet Wallace Stevens once noted about a fish camp in Long Key, they are paradise. Rustic, but a paradise nonetheless.
In early spring, I visited Stegbone’s Fish Camp along the St. Johns River near Satsuma. The camp’s namesake and owner, Jim Stege, bought the place in 1998. There had been two previous owners, and my copy of the 1957 fishing gazetteer lists R. A. Allender as operator of the camp and its 10 boats. The R. is for Robert, or “Bob” if you’ve come to fish. Eleven years earlier in 1946, Allender had left Kentucky to start the camp across from a sandbar lush with eelgrass where monster bass bedded down and stalked their prey. Twenty-six years later, when its renown as the “Bass Capital of the World” still echoed across the tannin water between high cypress, the camp passed to Allen Norton who sold it to Stege after another 26 years.
Fish camps are measured in generations. And one of those cypresses, which has seen about 10 of those generations, is right here next to the campfire where Jim tells me stories about the camp.
We sit on rough-hewn benches, the river boils and swirls, and I listen. He tells me about the day he spent fishing a camper’s dentures out from under the docks. Hooks and nets came up empty (the anglers later claimed it was the only time the fish weren’t biting), and they finally called in an expert diving team. But it’s not just older people at fish camps. Over Jim’s shoulder, a grinning kid pulls a wriggling red belly bream out of the St. Johns, as Jim recounts how all those years ago Bob planted his family’s Christmas tree that now rises high over the docks’ low-slung roof. He points to the live well where anglers put their prize fish after a good day on the river and then to the white board where an honor system of tick marks records how many buckets of ice each of the camp’s five cabins has used. He tells me about Stuart Pacetti, who had his own camp downriver and with perfect Minorcan form, would throw his 20-foot diameter cast net from Stegbone’s narrow docks and fill the fish-cleaning tables with clicking shrimp.
Gathering over memories
A family vacationing here from Georgia and Maryland joins us around the fire. Earthy and sweet and brackish, the smell of corn meal and oil follows them from the fryer that’s boiling down on the dock. I met them earlier under the taxidermy catfish that swims below the surface of the metal roof. A cell phone snapshot proves yesterday’s catch—dozens of sunfish, bluegill, and crappie. They scroll to another photo. It’s the gar they told me about earlier, and its weight had gone up as the sun was going down. A woman holds up that gar that is easily 40 pounds. It is as long as she is tall. Her husband has been coming here for more than two decades, and now around the fire he tells Jim he still wants to buy the camp. Maybe in 2024, when the next 26 years rolls around, but I doubt Stege will sell.
On the dock—which is really an outdoor kitchen with a stove and oven, a microwave, and assorted knives sheathed above the fish-cleaning table where a dinner bell used to hang —I join the family at the round dining room table. I taste the fried bream, and I’m back in Tennessee, a child fishing the Little Harpeth River and having a fresh-caught lunch with my neighbor on the riverbank.
Fish camps do that. They bring back memories, just like they bring back people (another group from Kentucky has been coming here well into four decades). And Stegbone’s is a living museum. On the ramp to the docks, faded photos of happy anglers line a glass-paneled cabinet across from a fire bucket stenciled “Bob’s Fish Camp.”
Another case on the old general store’s wall holds a gator’s foot, antique lures, gnawed boxes of Mustad hooks, and a “Fisherman’s Ruler” where 20 inches is really 10. Behind the store’s screen door, I can still hear the old register ringing up gas, beer bottles clinking in the ancient fridge, and the radio crackling with the day’s weather. At the end of the dock, a device known as the “Super Scaler” looks like an oversized lottery barrel. It runs on a washing machine motor and still has the coin-operated control for inserting quarters.
The fish camp’s boat slips are narrow, designed for the beams of smaller, mid-century watercraft—skiffs easily powered by 5.5 hp Johnson outboards like the one clamped onto the dock’s railing. Two rental boats float side by side, one is a 1960 Feathercraft with a 25 hp motor, named for Florida folk musician Gamble Rogers, and the other is named for James Harmon, the camp’s long-time caretaker. The wake from a big cruiser out in the river channel rattles the boats—a newer Carolina Skiff among them—against the heart-pine pilings that Jim traces back to Bob’s Fish Camp and possibly further back to the time when paddlewheelers carried citrus from the original grove to Palatka.
Up the hill from the dock, old salamander heaters that used to warm the grove during cold snaps lean against Cabin 3, and inside, an old popping float is the pull switch handle for the cabin’s bathroom light. A rocking chair on the cabin’s porch has plaques “in memory of” the Nicholson clan of fishermen— Charles, Roy, and Robert. On the dock, more rocking chairs with commemorative plaques tell their own fishing tales, and I think that the fish camp is really a porch to the river.
Traditions as old, and young as the state
No one knows how many fish camps remain in Florida, and there’s a wider definition now. “Fish camp” can describe bars and restaurants that prepare fish, as easily as it identifies high-end glamping with all the amenities. In the 1950s, Bob’s Fish Camp was one of nearly a thousand in Florida. Most were like Stegbone’s, where the mix of fishing and camping meant rustic convenience, nothing too fancy but everything you needed to gather together and catch fish.
Names connected camps to people—Mary’s, JB’s, Ed and Bernice’s, Paul’s, Brown’s, Elrod’s, Hiley’s, Pace’s, and Honest John’s—and to place—Pine Island, Highland Park, Oak Hill, Indian Mound, Twin Lakes, McIntosh, Spring Warrior, Pirate’s Cove, Stump Pass, Dead River, Devil’s Elbow, and Lake Griffin. I am convinced that each lake and every river in Florida has hosted its own fish camp at some point in time—a changing but enduring atlas of a truly aqueous state.
There is an ecology of the fish camp. It maps itself into the earth, which in turn transforms the camp. And the camp itself is a woven thing, tied up in the edges of water and land like Pacetti’s cast net. Stegbone’s occupies what’s called a hurricane hole, a natural shelter where boats anchor during storms. The gentle but deep drop of the bank toward the St. Johns sends northeast winds over the top of the camp, and you can throw in a line as the barometer falls.
The sun is low when Jim lifts the lid on the cricket cases. As many as 20,000 crickets soak up the light from yellow bulbs and eat potatoes and oranges born on trees grafted from the old grove.
The legs of each case stand in buckets of water to protect the crickets from the red ants that like to eat them, almost as much as the bass and bream hanker for the crickets. That’s a lot like what running a fish camp entails—making do and knowing these networks of interconnections. Fragile but does photo shoots at the camp. But like the layers of ash and fish oil in this pit, where fires have been built for three quarters of a century, the fish camp endures. Or, more precisely, it stays afloat on Florida’s saturated ground.
My son and I laugh at the fish-camp humor when we leave Stegbone’s: “Catch Ya Later.” Yes, I think so. On our way back to Gainesville, we will pass Kate’s Fish Camp, where the highway crosses Prairie Creek. An easy paddle northward brings you to Newnans Lake and then on to the grassy shore where McGilvray’s used to be. Gary said he caught his first bass with an artificial lure here at Kate’s. The picture that Kate’s friend Eleanor took of the young angler is the first photo in his fishing scrapbook.
Many years later, Gary tells me, the original owner of Kate’s visited his tackle shop on Newnans, told him fish camp stories, and asked him a question: Did the sea cows still come up the creek? I’m not sure what you mean, Gary remembers saying. The man went on to explain that manatee used to swim in the creek right by the camp.
This story still fills me with wonder. Imagine the manatee’s journey: from the Atlantic, up the St. Johns, passing a slew of fish camps along the way—Pacetti’s, Whitey’s, Georgia Boy’s, Shell Harbor, Stegbone’s (when it was Bob’s), Anderson’s, Sunset Landing, Bass Haven—and then up the Ocklawaha, into Orange Creek, through Orange Lake, the River Styx, and finally Prairie Creek, right by Kate’s and into Newnans.
They swam right through Florida’s watery veins, not yet locked and dammed. They connected a peninsula’s center to its coastal edge. And the fish camps were witnesses.
Charlie Hailey is an architect, writer, and professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Florida. He has written five award-winning books, including Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space. In 2018, Hailey received a Guggenheim Fellowship that helped support research for his new book on porches, due out next spring. Next year, he will be a Master Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach.
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