Fish camps have a long and storied history all along the East Coast. By most accounts, they sprung up in the early 20th century when fishers would set up camp, go fishing, drink and tell stories, then cook up their fresh catch over a campfire. From there, the definition gets murkier. Fish camps evolved to include places where you could buy bait and tackle, ice and gasoline, rent out a fishing boat, camp out along the water, or sample great seafood with a great view.
“To me, a fish camp is on the water, has decks and screened-in porches,” said Andrew Paul Williams, author of the culinary guide, Good Eats Jax. “Mostly fried seafood, but also crab legs, low country boil and classic fare. It’s also meant to be somewhat rustic, like a camp.”
Whitey’s Fish Camp, located just south of Orange Park in Fleming Island, has all that and more. It’s one of the oldest fish camps in Florida, dating back to 1963 when Whitey Ham opened up a small tackle shop along Swimming Pen Creek, a tributary of Doctor’s Lake. He served sandwiches, beer and sodas to local fishermen with little more than a toaster and nine barstools. That little shop has since undergone multiple expansions, and now includes a large restaurant and outdoor bar, RV park, boat rental and boat launch. That, the owners say, is what makes Whitey’s the only authentic fish camp in the area.
“None of them are fish camps,” Whitey’s co-owner Elaine Cassala told Folio Weekly. She said other restaurants in the area misuse the term. “We’re the real fish camp,” she said with a small laugh. “Just sayin’. There’s not any other real fish camps around.”
Cassala is Whitey’s daughter, the oldest of five siblings. She’s been running things for nearly 30 years alongside her brothers Luke Lawley, who came onboard after retiring from the Navy, and Billy Ham, who’s been in the family business since he was two. But it’s pretty clear who’s in charge.
“We never argue, we never fight,” said Cassala.
“Cuz you always get your way!” Billy, the youngest brother, added jokingly.
Whitey’s has always been a family affair, with every member of the family being involved in some way.
“Our dad started catching catfish,” Cassala explained, “and our mother started cooking those. And that’s how the restaurant evolved.”
The fish is still good, but the gator tail might be their most popular dish. It’s served as an appetizer, hot and crispy, with a spicy ranch sauce that’ll make your mouth water. They won’t give us the secret recipe, but our guess is it’s an aioli with a generous helping of cayenne pepper. We recommend pairing it with a pina colada and a full tumbler of water. If you haven’t tried it before, don’t be scared. It tastes just like chicken.
Whitey’s menu features mainly traditional Southern fare, from popcorn shrimp to all-you-can-eat fresh local catfish. There’s some unexpected options, too, like the ahi tuna tacos and a large selection of specialty salads. The décor is classic Old Florida, a mix of exotic and country, with thatched umbrellas and a bamboo bar outside, marlin and turtle figurines inside. There’s even a few taxidermy specimen hiding in the rafters.
“It’s so rural Florida feeling to me,” said Williams. “Like stepping back in time.”
In the early days of the restaurant, when hardly anyone lived on Fleming Island, Whitey’s was a destination. Now the area is one of the fastest growing in Florida, as well as the second wealthiest ZIP code in Northeast Florida (after Ponte Vedra).
“I used to play jacks in the middle of the street here for hours without worrying about a car coming,” Ham reminisced. But with major developments in Eagle Harbor and Fleming Island Plantation, business is booming. “It’s been really good to our family. There’s never a dull moment.”
On any given weekend, you’ll find crowds of locals and tourists flocking to Whitey’s waterfront deck, dubbed the Tiki Bar, for live music, good food and tropical mixed drinks served strong. The summer is especially busy for Whitey’s when the family hosts its Working Man’s Bass Tournament. Every Thursday night, from April to August, you can join in the competition or come for the drink specials and live music, typically country and Southern rock and usually played by local bands.
You’re just as likely to find legendary local musicians as you are up-and-comers. Donnie and Johnny Van Zant, brothers of Lynard Skynard’s original frontman, Ronnie Van Zant, used Whitey’s landscape for one of their album covers. And Bobby Ingram, guitarist for Jacksonville hard-rock band Molly Hatchet, still frequents the fish camp, just a short drive from his home on Lake Asbury.
“I was 10 years old when I first walked into Whitey’s,” Ingram said. “It was just one room then, and sold fishing worms. And you know, through the years, they built the restaurant and the dock. I still go in there all the time.”
Ingram has known the family since the beginning, more than 50 years ago. His band even performed at Whitey’s 50th anniversary party.
“We don’t normally play for stuff like that, but they’re like family. The whole Molly Hatchet family feels that way.”
The love for this place, the food, the water, the people, runs deep in Fleming Island. It reflects, and defines, the culture of the area: country, laid-back and down-home. Proud of their history, and in no rush to change, the family says they hope to pass it down to their kids one day. “That’s the dream,” said Lawley.
Whitey’s has woven itself into the fabric of the community. It’s the place locals come to celebrate special occasions, teach their children to fish, go out dancing on a Friday night, or just enjoy some great food.
“Lot of memories there,” Ingram sighed. “Great people, great food, great family. May God bless them. I hope they’re around another 50 years.”