Southern Fish Camps: Where Tradition is Fried

Photo courtesy of "formulanone"
Photo courtesy of “formulanone”

Located at the headwaters of the Santee River Basin, the mountains of western North Carolina and South Carolina are home to hundreds of streams which feed into the Catawba and Broad rivers, offering anglers incredible opportunities to fish the 440-miles of waterway that stretches from the basin’s highest elevation to the Atlantic Ocean.

In 2011, the State of North Carolina stocked nearly 10,000 brown trout into the water, along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and followed this up with five supplemental stockings over the next four years, leaving the waterway with an abundance of stocked brown, rainbow, and brook trout.

In addition to the many trout which grace the upstream waters, bass fishing — particularly largemouth bass — is one of the Catawba River’s main attractions farther south.  

Upon dropping in elevation out of the mountains of Appalachia, into south-central North Carolina, the water becomes sluggish and often muddy, which helps support aquatic vegetation, offering an excellent habitat for Largemouth Bass.  “Deep holes in the river also harbor massive flathead and channel catfish, and panfish anglers in search of table fare will find bluegill, bream, redbreast sunfish and crappie,” writes USA Today.

It should therefore come as no surprise, then, that fishing is as much of a part of the local culture of this region as Sunday School and car racing, and no where is this tradition as celebrated as it is in its countless number of “Fish Camps.”

Like most all things regarding Southern history, the history of fish camps is somewhat controversial and nearly everyone has a “granddaddy said ___” story — which is perfectly acceptable and may all be true.

Dating back to the turn of the previous century, “fish camps”, brush harbor areas where fresh fish were cooked and served in shelters that had no walls and sawdust floors began springing up throughout the southland.

Some say the tradition dates back to the camp meeting-style revival days of old.  A common activity among worshippers would be to take up a collection for fresh fish and someone would then drive to the nearest beach and purchase a truckload of seafood and bring it back hundreds of miles inland.  The fresh fish would be offered as an attraction to bring people in to hear the preaching.  The fish would be served each night of the camp meeting until it ran out and often, the meeting would end soon afterward.  These areas became known as “fish camps”.

The predominate theory, however, maintains that fish camps developed along highly fished southern rivers, particularly in the Carolinas, but also in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.  Fishermen would bring their catch to the nearest “fish camp” and individuals would clean, prepare, cook and then serve the fish to the angler.

In the years ahead, these camps would evolve from their eat-what-you-catch beginnings to serve as full functioning restaurants.

Though lost to history throughout much of the nation, the tradition of fish camps continues to live on throughout Dixie, especially in the Gaston County, North Carolina, where no fewer than 13 fish camps continue to operate to this day.

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