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Worth the Drive: Bobby’s Fish Camp

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Tombigbee River fish camp serves up catfish, with a side of history

Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay

At the end of a winding, red dirt road in Bladon Springs, Ala., past silver Airstream trailers and a little white cottage nestled among the pines, you’ll find a thin stretch of the Tombigbee River. And just over to the right, on a small bluff overlooking the water, sits a modest cinderblock building with a small deck out front.

It’s Bobby Dahlberg’s Fish Camp, and it’s been in this spot for almost 60 years. It is so tucked away that folks just a county or two over don’t know it’s there, while others as far away as Canada never miss a chance to stop in and fill up on fried catfish. It’s the river that brings the people from out of state and out of the country; much of the fish camp’s business arrives by boat.

Owner Lora Jane McIlwain, Bobby’s daughter, explains. “Among people who travel the river, my dad’s place is known over the world,” she says. “We’ve had visitors from Germany, Spain, Sweden, Hawaii, Canada, Chicago and more.” McIlwain keeps a book for guests to sign, and it’s full of names from places many, many miles away from rural Alabama.

Most are cruising all or some portion of the “great loop,” a water journey that takes boats from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico via parts of the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers and the Tennesee-Tombigee manmade waterway, then through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Florida and back up the Atlantic Coast and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the Hudson River in New York. They often stop at Bobby’s for a break. It has fuel, cabins to rent, water and electricity hookups on the dock and wi-fi.

The Fish Camp also gets emergency calls at least once a month. “Our part of the river can be tough to navigate, and sometimes folks get stuck out there. We help or get them help. We’re the rescue squad around here,” McIlwain says.

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While Bobby’s plays several important roles for the current river traffic, the offering that’s really made the place famous is the food, specifically the catfish. If you choose fried filets (you can opt for a whole fish), they’ll arrive still warm from the blazing oil. The meat is mild with no muddy taste, and the barely-there crust is salted just right. “We still use my dad’s recipe, and after 60 years, it ought to be good!” McIlwain says. “And we always get good fish. We do some pond-raised and some river fish, and our customers are particular about which they want, so we make them all happy.”

They’re both served with a choice in sides like sweet, ice-cold coleslaw and hushpuppies, whose amber exteriors crack open to reveal pale yellow insides punctuated with air pockets that make each bite light with just a hint of chew. “We use the same old recipe for those too and make them fresh daily and fry them in peanut oil,” McIlwain says. Burgers, shrimp, chicken and other items round out the menu, but catfish is by far the most popular dish. “It’s definitely our claim to fame.”

But Bobby’s serves more than traditional Southern fish camp meals. It dishes out a bit of Alabama history too, sharing the long story behind its particular bankside spot. “We’ve tried to be a kind of mini museum and informational place about our area for the travelers,” McIlwain says. “We may be only place in Alabama they ever visit, and I want them to get a good impression.”

The interior of the low-slung structure is dominated by folding plastic tables with framed newspaper clippings, yellowed by age, and vintage photos covering the walls. They tell the site’s tale. The Fish Camp sits on a former docking point and warehouse for the steamboat traffic that chugged up and down the river in the mid-1800s. It was called Bladon Landing and was a major hub of activity since before the railroads, steamboats were a key part of transportation and communication in the area.

“In 1880, my great grandfather bought Bladon Landing and the lands around it, and our family ran the warehouse and would ferry boat passengers to two area resorts by buggy when they docked,” McIlwain said. These relatives had come to America from Sweden only a few decades earlier, and there’s a tribute to that heritage lining one wall of one of the dining rooms.

When the trains did come in the early 1900s, things changed at Bladon Landing. With fewer and fewer steamboats, there was no longer a need for the warehouse, which had been used to store goods being shipped on the boats. The family closed it down, but opened a general store across the street.

In 1956, when he returned stateside after serving in the Air Force in Japan, McIlwain’s dad Bobby decided to open a restaurant at Bladon Landing. “They were beginning to build the nearby lock and dam on the Tombigbee Waterway as well as the paved highway and the big bridge across the river, so there was in influx of men and engineers coming to do the work,” McIlwain says. “He knew they’d need a place to eat.”

He was right. They came in droves then, and Bobby’s has done a steady business ever since. Bobby passed away in 2010, and his daughter took over. “I’d been helping him full time since 2000, and the place has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. We even lived in the back room at the restaurant when I was just a baby,” she said.

She’s made some improvements over the years, but none that affect the fish camp’s unique character. “I want it to always have the feel of the old place,” McIlwain says.

And she doesn’t have any plans to close the doors. “The boat folks love us, and this has been a business of some sort or other in my family for over 100 years and was my dad’s life’s work. I can’t let that stop. We’ve been here a long time, and we’ll stay here.”