Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fish Camps

Occasionally in this blog I have mentioned "fish camps." In December a reader left this comment: "Where and what and when were the fish camps?"

In August of 2012 I wrote this: "Fish camps are part of a long tradition on Ocracoke. Primitive camps [constructed of bull rushes] were erected "down below" (that's the part of the island north of Ocracoke village) many years ago. More recent camp buildings from the early and mid twentieth century were simple wood frame constructions.

"Alton Ballance, in his book Ocracokers, quotes old timers who described the original camps. They were constructed from black needle rushes near the tidal creeks. Alton's source, Sullivan Garrish, says they were A-frame huts, but at least some of them were shaped more like yurts. Cooking was done outside whenever possible. If it rained they would cut a hole in the roof to let the smoke out."

An Early 20th Century Fish Camp

The photograph above is from "The Fishes of North Carolina," by Hugh McCormick Smith, North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, plate No. 20, published by E. M. Uzzell & Co., Raleigh, North Carolina, 1907. The other structure is a net drying rack.

In his book, The Waterman's Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, David Cecelski comments on the integrated 19th century mullet camps at Davis Ridge in coastal North Carolina. Cecelski writes, "Out on those remote islands, black and white mullet fishermen lived, dined, and worked together all autumn, temporarily sharing a life beyond the pale of the stricter racial barriers ashore."

He reproduces an engraving of mullet fishermen at their camp on Shackleford Banks ca. 1880.

Engraving by George Brown Goode, ca. 1880

"Look closely," he writes, "and what stands out immediately are the equal numbers of black and white fishermen, their intermingled pose, their close quarters, their obvious familiarity -- one might say chuminess -- and the unclear lines of authority."

By the 20th century most fish camps consisted of small wood-frame buildings.

In December of last year I published a mid-1970s photo of two small rental cottages which I mistakenly believed were built from lumber salvaged from the old Navy Base. Ocracoke islander Charlie O'Neal made this correction: "They were moved from the fish camps by Stanley Wahab. There were a total of four moved there!"

"Fish Camps" moved to Ocracoke Village after WWII

Since the mid-1950s, when the National Park Service purchased most of the land outside Ocracoke village, the old fish camps have been demolished or moved. However, a number of small, current day "fish camps" with boat docks have been erected along a boardwalk on the marsh bordering a tidal creek at the end of Cuttin Sage Lane in the Oyster Creek area. They have been described as the original "man caves."

Ocracoke Fish Camps, 2016

For a description of modern mullet fishing (not all that different from the 19th century method) read this paper from the North Carolina Maritime Museum (a "stop net," also called a "set net" is a type of seine): .

For more information about renting a coastal North Carolina fish camp, read this 1996 article on the web site of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of Capt. Horatio Williams and his schooner, the Paragon. You can read the story here:


  1. Debbie Leonard8:39 AM

    Very interesting! I didn't even know those fish camps were there. I guess I don't get out much!

  2. Anonymous3:22 PM

    Thanks for this interesting explanation of the tradition of fish camps and the fine photographs. Memories continue as tradition evolves.

    "Where and what and when" anonomyous

    "Where, what, when" anonymous 12/11