Friday, September 18, 2009


The phrase fishing camp can mean an awful lot of different things, at least here in Texas.

It can be a commercial affair, a motel or bed and breakfast type place on the water somewhere where boats and guides and customers head out for fishing.

Some of my friends that own land adjacent to lakes or rivers or the bay have what they used to call "camp houses" or cabins set up for a permanent fishing camp setup, a place to getaway on your own property with cabins that are sometimes as nice as houses with bathrooms and running water and electricity.

What I usually think of when I hear fishing camp is a place set up by a bunch of fellows or families in close proximity to fresh or salt water that is conducive to fishing ("looks fishy" as we say in the biz). Maybe tents, or even an RV or trailer set up near a lake or river or creek or bay or ocean. Having some kind of boat action almost always makes it better, from a canoe to a fancy fishing boat.

In my kind of fishing camp, friends gather for a few days for some revelry and fishing and story telling, not unlike in a deer camp. We're just fishing instead of hunting. I've done all kinds of fishing with friends in fishing camps, especially in my younger years. It was a great and cheap.

I had a ski boat then, or rather my family did. It was used primarily for the annual 2 week South Padre Island/Port Isabel fishing vacation. So the other 50 weeks of the year, it was available. So if we were on a larger body of water with our fishing camp, we would bring water skis as well to break up the fishing action.

The standard operating procedure was to leave early on a Friday morning, several carloads or trailers with all kinds of stuff. BBQ cookers, huge ice chests, tents and canopies and pop up trailers. Most of my friends had some kind of huge boom box or 12v powered stereo system to keep the tunes cranking at the right times. Most times, we'd haul our own loads of cut wood on those trailers for cooking fires and bonfires.

One of my best friends would often bring his AMF Sunfish or his Hobie Cat for beach or lake or bay sailing. You could fit his Sunfish sideways through the walk-thru windshield of my folks' boat, so it was easy to take both.

When the conditions were right, since we lived in Houston we'd often head to various beaches to set up our fishing camps. Many is the time we set off on a late Thursday night or early Friday morning, riding that Boliver ferry over to Boliver Island to get surf fishing before the sun came up. We'd fish like madmen until late in the morning when we'd set up camp. Get some vittles going. Take naps in the hot afternoon. Go sailing or surfing (although no surfing on Boliver). Water Ski. Take the boat fishing on the bay side of Boliver. Go crabbing at various bay locations at the end of forlorn looking gravel and dirt roads and paths.

We also frequented lakes Livingston and Conroe, as well as certain Central Texas and Hill Country rivers.

My family had a place for years in East Texas that had a huge freshwater creek running through it, about 20 feet wide and 10 or so feet deep. Nice sized, year round creek, mostly springfed. It was fairly close to Houston, and it had a cabin built post WWII by a rich Houston architect. Rustic, but very sturdy, it was a two story number and was wired for electricity. Interestingly, although it was plumbed complete with kitchen sink, no water well or tank had ever been set up to run water through the system. I guess they just trucked in their water with them.

So it was a great base of operations. In fact, the coolest thing about the cabin was that it was on a bluff overlooking the creek, and was just steps away from the creek and the large pier we built out on it for fishing. It was in the middle of hundreds of acres of surrounding farms, and we owned 35 acres of it ourselves.

Of course, that closeness to the creek, despite being elevated about 25' above it on a bluff, led to it's downfall in the early 1980's when a horrendous flood came through and just leveled it to the foundation.

But back when that cabin was there, it was the perfect place for friends and I to go during high school and college, really up into my thirties, and set up a fishing camp. The cabin had electricity and ceiling fans and such, and offered a nice safe place to sleep and hang out, much nicer than a tent. An outhouse some distance away provided those services, but we had a small tank inside for running clean water to the kitchen.

We had some homemade large size picnic tables out near the pier where we could set up shop under a large, telephone pole mounted streetlight. If the creek was up, as it most often was, we'd use johnboats and 2 hp. motors to run trot lines up and down the deep eddys that ran though our property. If the creek was lower, we'd have to work a little bit harder and paddle the johnboat out of fear of grounding out the long shafted motor we had.

We'd cook something, whatever one of the master bbq cooks we always seemed to have in our crowd, ready to show off their prowess with brisket and sausage. Sometimes there would be a keg or mini-keg or just ice chests full of beer and water.

On the lakes, it was easy to find a nice shady spot on a slope above the water, where camp could be set up. We'd use tents and canopies or trailers, using Coleman lamps and campfires to keep camp lit up at night, when the best fishing was usually to be had in freshwater. We had a nice spot at Livingston that we hit for several years, with a nice sloping bank that was suitable for beaching a 17 foot skiboat in the soft mud of the shallows, and that was not too difficult to push the boat out of.

At beaches or on the bays, it's nice to have a trailer or a couple of truckbeds full of firewood. Bonfires at the beach are so nice at night, and although in some remote spots large driftwood logs are plentiful, sometimes they are not. Or they are too soaked to burn well. It was common for us to get a half a cord or more on some of our fishing camp expeditions to areas with little or no available wood.

Sometimes nowadays, Billy Ray and I set off on adventures. Last spring, we set up our fishing camp on the Llano river and had a blast. We didn't take a boat, although jon boat would have been ideal for running some trot lines. We just put out big rod holders pounded into the ground with saltwater fishing rigs tied to trees baited with chicken livers for catfish. During the day, we fly fished and spin/bait casted for bass and perch. It was great.

We want to set up a camp on the San Marcos River in the near future. Somewhere out near Martindale, at one of the private campgrounds that are on the river out there. In the fall, folks get busy with football and such, and the attendance at these campgrounds drops massively. The water is green and clear and large bass and catfish lurk in those emerald waters.

Back in my father's time, and my grandfather's time, fishing camps were not only for fun but for feeding the family. A successful fishing trip might mean months of meals for several families. My grandfather used to tell me of how they'd catch fish and clean them and freeze the cleaned fish, trying to maximize space in cooler boxes because they would catch so many fish. During the depression, he would tell me, fishing camps were a necessity of life.

Later, when scores of vets returned from WWII and The Korean War, as the masses were attending college on the GI Bill, many were spending weekends in fishing camps, enjoying their return to civilian status.

One of my older friends tells of the fishing camps he and his war/college buddies set up on the Medina River above Bandera each year. They'd drive down from Austin and set up a weeklong camp and have all kinds of fish to take back home with them.

And like my friends and I, they'd take with them memories of good times at fishing camps.

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