J&S Fish Camp rides on the lake’s health

OKEECHOBEE — When a person talks about going to a certain place and “seeking my fortune,” he or she usually means just finding a good, comfortable living, not actually expecting to get rich. One can always hope, but for most folks, some level of financial security eventually suffices and they grow old while hoping to arrive at some happily fulfilled spot someday.

For others, they find their fortune in riches that go far beyond the pocketbook and much closer to their actual soul. Such is the story behind the contagious cheeriness of Terrie Birkett, who’s been proprietor of J&S Fish Camp on central Lake Okeechobee for about four years. (Its mailing address is Okeechobee but, as in other locales around the lake, J&S is not even inside Okeechobee County. It’s 2 miles south of the county line along U.S. 441 in Martin County.)

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Eva Perry (left), Gator Hole Tavern owner Terrie Birkett’s right-hand lady and a full-time barista at J&S Fish Camp, says customers love the tiki hut shelter behind the bar.

Says Ms. Birkett proudly: “J&S is THE oldest fish camp in the State of Florida. We’re the oldest business and the coolest, too.” Officially dated back to 1921, it actually already was established as a Lake O outpost back then, when the dike was just a low mound of dirt partly covered with brush and trees. “So they know she’s over 100 years old. And that’s when I bought her in 2015. Now, the cabins out here — there’s five cabins — they were built by the Corps of Engineers in 1929 when the ‘dike’ breached in 1928, so that’s how far she goes.

“Most people came here just to fish. I’m sure there was bootlegging going on, but there was no actual bar. It was basically a place where you’d plop your ol’ ass and go fishin’.”

That’s what drew her. She sought her fortune on this particular lake, saying, “We are connected to Lake O because of fishing. This is the bass capital. So a lot of people come here just to go fishing.

“I bought this camp because I grew up going to fish camps all the way up and down the west coast. From St. Petersburg, we went all the way up to Homosassa Springs, up almost to Suwanee. … So I bought this to go back to my childhood. And it’s a cool place. You know what the best part about it is? People know when you come here, you become part of this — this big, massive, lovin’ mess. It’s a wonderful family.”

“She” is the camp; Terrie speaks of her lovingly as though she’s alive. Which she is, in a way. To all those who visit, especially the kids, certainly. And Terrie wants “her” to remain so. “She’s historical, too, did you know that?” Ms. Birkett received the letter about 10 months ago, she said, recognizing J&S’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places. “She was that old. But it’s long overdue.” Eventually there will be a plaque on the premises and it’ll be put on the official map.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
A framed photograph of J&S Fish Camp from the 1970s is on one wall inside the bar.

Ms. Birkett previously lived in Annapolis, Md., for 30 years, working in real estate, for Mercedes-Benz and as a contractor and agent for The Washington Post. She’s from St. Pete originally and declares “I’m a Florida child.”

What would she be doing if she weren’t here? “You know what? If I wasn’t here I’d be lost. This place grounds you. This is like, I’m not kidding … the air here is so electric, it’s unbelieeeeevable. We just did a benefit. And all of a sudden, out of the blue — actually, I do the Dysfunctional Family Reunion; I have it every year, because if you feel normal, don’t come; we know we’re screwed up, and we’re good. — there’s this guy named Buddy Yates in town, he’s got cancer, so I got a benefit (March 30-31). I pitched in to this benefit, so we did a dunk tank with all the bartenders. We got 10 girls out here to go into the dunk tank, and all the people started bidding on them, and we raised, just from the dunk tank, $2,600. But because it’s a community, they all pitch in.

“They come from Miami, Stuart, Jupiter; you name it, they come from all over. They come because they know that this is the place to be because it’s different, and it gets you that. There’s no pretense here … we don’t care. You can come in; as long as ‘something’ is covered, we’re good. Kids are allowed here; dogs are allowed here.”

What, if anything, ever could drive her away? “Big industry coming here. I don’t want it. We’re literally five miles, maybe six, from any real people.” Although much of the land along Conners Highway (441) nearby is zoned for commerce, “without public water, they’ll never bring it here. That’s the only reason that won’t happen.”

She’s very dismayed about what politicians and “experts” have done to Lake O since the 1990s, heartbroken by the evident maleficent effects of human engineering on Mother Nature’s water system and environment, especially the explosion of algae blooms in the past 20-some years.

To Terrie Birkett, coming here wasn’t just a lifetime dream. “You know, this is my childhood. I’ll be here all my life. I’m going to put her in trust, if I end up doing that (staying here). So she never disappears. So she’s always here.”

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