The smell of fresh shiners and stale beer. The peaceful lapping of tiny waves on a dawn boat ramp. The purr-spittle of a flooded outboard refusing to start. The splash of bass breaking in the far, far distance. And you don't care. Because you're a Good Ol' Boy, and this is a fish camp. You're too drunk to care that you're too drunk to care. Eeeeeehaaaw!! Jake, fry up s'more a dem ... whatever it is you're fryin' up! Damn. It don't get any better 'n this.
Or maybe it does. Depends on your perspective.
Fish camps -- rough, cheap, butt-scratchin' fun -- used to be what anglers came to Florida for. In 1963, there were 116 fish camps dotting lakesides and riverbanks across the state. Now there may be 20. And the ones that are left are a-changin', Bubba.
Glenn Wilson opens the door to the ladies' room at his Black Hammock restaurant in Oviedo. The toilet is real clean. "This is the most important thing," Wilson says, seriously. Women come to a rest room and find it yucky, they never come back. And they keep their husbands away, too.
Though Wilson, an ex-Navy SEAL with a shock of blond hair and a craggy, Paul Hogan-esque face, styles himself as the "Alligator Dundee" of Central Florida and decorates the restaurant with mounted gator skulls, the Black Hammock "fish camp" is a far cry from the old days. There are still a few camper hookups, but Wilson is much prouder of the review he got in Southern Living. "This place used to have a rough reputation," he says. No more.
No more, too, is Lone Cabbage Fish Camp in Cocoa. "It's just a restaurant now," says part owner Debbie Lacey. "Got its name in the '40s. Used to be a shack, they'd throw bait out of it." Lone Cabbage now features an extensive and cheap menu of game favorites including turtle ("when available") and frog legs. And for $12 you can take an air boat ride out on the St. Johns. Like the Black Hammock, there's a country band Friday and Saturday nights. But if you're searching for a bastion of redneckery, keep yer pickup in "D."
East Lake Fish Camp off Boggy Creek Road in Kissimmee is such a family fun center that alongside the 300 camper hookups is a swimming pool, playground -- even an informal petting zoo. "It's a real scenic area out here, too," says Tony, a bartender there for two years. "The cabins are on the right, and on the left are ducks, cows, goats. It's an attraction and a giant catfish pond with 17 to 20 pounders."
While East Lake exemplifies that sort of fish camp-as-amusement-center concept, even traditional fish-camp types want to be considered more than what they were in the old days.
"We're a full service camp on 30 acres; we store boats -- wet and dry," says Rick Rawlins, owner of Highland Park Fish Camp in DeLand. "We were a fish camp for so long that we still like to be called that."
Rawlins oversees 59 hookup sites, plus tent sites and two ramps just up the stream from Lake Woodruff. He'll rent you anything from a skiff to a 24-foot pontoon boat; he reports that seven bass over six pounds were weighed there two weeks ago.
According to George Griffin, owner of Lindsey's Fish Camp in Geneva, you can pitch a tent for $8.50 and survive a "real primitive shower." There are three boats for rent plus a restaurant serving as Griffin says, "Yer basic fried stuff that'll kill you." On May 31, the camp hosts the Two Rivers Blues Festival: nine blues acts headed by Blind Mississippi Morris. Bring lawn chairs and blankets but no coolers. Griffin will dispense barbecue, beer and wine.
And so it goes. Fish camp ... restaurant ... concert hall ... these are the '90s. Whatever it takes. Reminded of the specialty of his cross-town rival, the Black Hammock, Griffin says, "We got gators. too."
Sidebar: Go fish
Lindsey's Fish Camp: (407) 349-1110; E. Hwy 46, Geneva. Take SR 417 to Red Bug Lake Road, then east to Hwy 46, then right at first traffic light, go to bridge, turn left. Amenities: restaurant, bar with live music on Fridays and Saturdays; bait shop; free launch; 14-foot Johns rent for $45/day; air30-minute boat rides, $15 per person; "rough camping" $8.50 per day with tent.
Black Hammock Fish Camp: (407) 365-1244; Take SR 434 through Oviedo, 1 mile to big right bend, see alligator sign on right; follow signs back over dirt road. Amenities: restaurant, bar with live music on Fridays and Saturdays; bait shop; $3 launch; gator pit; hookups -- call for camping availability.
Lone Cabbage: (407) 632-4199; 8199 Hwy 525, Cocoa. Amenities: restaurant, bar with live music on first and third Mondays; airboat rides $12 adults, $6.36 under 12; no camping.
East Lake Fish Camp: (407) 348-2040; Off Boggy Creek Road, Kissimmee. Take Orange Avenue to Sand Lake Boulevard, turn left to where it turns into Boggy Creek and go a long, long way, pass a Texaco, keep straight, around bend, it's on right (see signs). Amenities: restaurant, bar; 15-foot boat rental, $35/day; canoes; airboat rides $16 adult, $8 kids; parasailing; bait shop; $1 ramp fee; 300 hookup sites; deluxe cabins, $45/night; catfish pond, playground, swimming pool, pavilion.
Highland Park Fish Camp: (904) 734-2334; 2640 Highland Park, Deland. Take I-4 east to exit 54, north on Hwy. 17 to truck route or spring garden, left on Plymouth Avenue, follow the signs. Amenities: lodge; free launch; 15-foot boats, bass boats, pontoon boat with head and shower rentals; hookups $12/night; tents $9.