Whether you were a fisherman looking for advice, a politician looking for an endorsement, a surfer looking for a drinking buddy or a sandhill crane looking for a morning snack, Jack Genung was your guy.
From 1948 to the early 2000s, Genung’s Fish Camp sold bait and tackle but offered so much more to anyone willing to give some time to the locally adored institution at the end of Cubbedge Road in Crescent Beach, just south of the State Road 206 bridge.
Now, after a few on and off years, Genung’s is back in business under the observant eye of Walter Coker, a former photographer and owner of Coastal Traders, a St. Augustine store selling imported Indonesian art and furniture.
Matanzas Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon has an office at the waterside camp, too, and the two friends make the perfect pair to revitalize what has been a cornerstone of fishing the Matanzas for nearly seven decades.
“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 on a recent day, after making it to his new office through a typical Interstate 95 traffic jam.
“I’m delighted,” said Pat Hamilton of Coker’s and Armingeon’s moves to the fish camp. Hamilton is a neighbor and one of eight neighbor-owners of the property since Genung died more than 10 years ago
When Hamilton told Armingeon there was an opening at the camp last year, Armingeon tried to devise a way to move his operation there. But he didn’t think there was any way he could handle it himself.
Then Coker stopped by, just to say hello.
“Well, I’m interested,” he told a disbelieving Armingeon.
“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 an office that, while small, has 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 11,000-acre Matanzas State Forest to the west, and 2,200 acres of Moses Creek Conservation Area to the northwest.
It’s also one of the last remaining places in Northeast Florida where 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 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 for the job.
“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 and some art and furniture from his store, is to keep things pretty close to the same.
“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 [restaurant]. 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 was scheduled for Saturday, a benefit for the Riverkeeper organization.
Soon, the fish camp bait shop will be operating at full strength, too, with live bait, tackle and other fishing gear for sale. And Armingeon will have his Riverkeeper boat fixed up and on the water, ready for river tours.
There’s already kayak rentals, beer and soda sales, dead bait and boat slip rentals in the camp’s small boat livery. Those who remember Genung’s the way it used to be look forward to its revitalization.
“It’s a holy spot,” Hamilton said. “One of the hearts of the beach.”