When Jack wasn’t there with his daily finger mullet feeding, Johnny Bird the sandhill crane would wander up to the window and gaze in quizzically, as if to say, “Where’s Jack?”
From 1948 to the late ’90s, when he wasn’t feeding neighborhood birds, Jack Genung could usually be found just south of the S.R. 206 bridge at his Crescent Beach institution, Genung’s Fish Camp, smoking cigars with the who’s who of St. Johns County, giving neighborhood kids something to do, drinking rum with some local surfers, spooling up some fishing line or fashioning a cane pole for the bait shop.
“It’s a holy spot. One of the hearts of the beach,” said Genung’s longtime neighbor Pat Hamilton.
Now, after more than 15 years and a series of different operators, that holy spot is getting a face-lift, with the help of Walter Coker and Matanzas Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon.
Coker, former Folio Weekly Magazine photo editor/photographer, moved into the Genungs’ old house overlooking the river, and is overseeing operations. Armingeon opened an office on the property, with the best view in town.
They hope to bring Genung’s back to resemble something like it was in its glory days, a fishing institution.
Hamilton said that every fisherman worth his weight in blue fish, along with those who wanted to be, could be found hanging around the fish camp in the early days, swapping stories, sharing and picking up tips.
“Everybody came there for bait and to clean their fish, so you always knew where the fish were, hanging around there,” said Hamilton, who grew up in the house he now lives in, just a few lots south of Genung’s on the Matanzas River. “It was a real advantage.”
During summers, Hamilton and his brother, Bill, would work at Genung’s, sweeping up the shop and packing shrimp Genung had caught in nets into beer flats to be frozen and sold in the winter.
“He was kind of a gruff guy, always with a cigar in his mouth. And he had those dogs, German Shepherd mixes, scary dogs,” Hamilton said. “But I realize now how good he was to us, letting us hang around there as kids.”
People kept their boats at Genung’s, but if it rained in the night, they would have to show up to bail their own boats out. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Genung could be found bailing out a boat after a heavy rainstorm, but whenever he did, people would be buying bait from an angry man the next day.
“We were always a little scared of him,” Hamilton said.
After Genung suffered a stroke in the late ’90s, he and his wife Mary Jane were forced to sell the fish camp. So the Hamiltons and six other neighbors got some money together and bought the place to allow it to stay a fish camp, or at least avoid becoming another noisy waterfront restaurant or eyesore condo.
Hamilton said he is delighted Coker is taking it over, and believes the partnership with the Riverkeeper sets Genung’s up for an ideal future.
Armingeon, who has had several offices since he started as Keeper of the Matanzas in 2013, was trying to figure out a way to move to Genung’s when he heard it was open last year. When he mentioned it to his longtime friend, Coker jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ll never forget that,” Armingeon said, laughing. “I said to myself, ‘Well, Walter has lost his mind.’”
But Coker was serious, and the two worked out an agreement with the owners. A few months later, renovations began, and now Coker lives in the fish camp house overlooking the river, and Armingeon has a small office with a view that would turn any river-lover green with envy.
His window overlooks one of the most pristine stretches of river in the state, bordered far to the south by Princess Place and Faver-Dykes State Park on Pellicer Creek, the Matanzas State Forest to the southwest, and Moses Creek Conservation Area to the northwest.
It’s also one of the last remaining places in Northeast Florida one can safely harvest oysters and other shellfish, between S.R. 206 and the Flagler County line, Armingeon said.
“That’s a substantial public land expanse around here. There are very few places left like this,” he said.
All it was missing since Genung passed away in the early aughts was a bonafide fish camp bait shop, right on the river.
While he might not have bait shop experience, those familiar with him are confident Coker is the man to make that a reality.
“I’ve known Walter for 13 years, he’s one of my closest friends. Walter embraces what I do, he’s a big environmentalist,” said Armingeon, who was the St. Johns Riverkeeper until becoming the first full-time protector of the Matanzas in 2013. “What Walter’s doing here, he’s bringing the fish camp back in a more environmentally friendly way. He has a vision. He’s a visionary.”
That vision, along with a plan to bring in local art along with art and furniture from Coastal Traders, Coker’s store on San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine’s old section, is to mostly keep with tradition.
“For the shareholders, it’s not about making money. Their idea is to preserve it and save a piece of Old Florida. They didn’t want a piece like this zoned commercial and turn into another Saltwater Cowboys or Conch House. We want to turn this into a place to celebrate Old Florida and Genung’s and the river,” Coker said.
But he said he’d also like to make Genung’s a viable business, maybe expand the demographic a little bit beyond the typical bait shop crowd, and give it an environmental bent.
“I see it as not just a bait shop, but a place to have events, a place to celebrate the river.”
The first of those events is on Saturday, April 16 — a benefit for the Riverkeeper.
Internationally known environmental troubadour Dana Lyons will play a sunset acoustic set with St. Augustine band Rivernecks backing him up.
Soon, Genung’s Fish Camp bait shop will be operating at full strength, too, with live bait, tackle, and other fishing gear for sale. (There are already kayak rentals, beer and sodas, dead bait and boat slip rentals in the camp’s small boat livery.) And Armingeon will have his Riverkeeper boat fixed up and on the water, ready for tours.
Those who remember Genung’s the way it used to be look forward to its revitalization. Those who know it now can’t wait to get back out there.
“All hell’s breaking loose at the beach and out on the roads. You come here, this place is timeless. It’s always peaceful,” Armingeon said.