Emerging from wetlands southwest of Melbourne, this section of the St. Johns was once a bass fishing mecca. Drainage canals and farming destroyed much of the natural wetlands. River restoration projects have been underway and conditions have improved dramatically. Former fish camps are making a comeback as entertainment venues, with a focus on ecotourism, food, and music.
Camp Holly... www.campholly.net/ 6901 U.S. 192, Melbourne, FL 32904 (2.8 mi. west of I-95)
First built in 1923, this fish camp is undergoing a reincarnation. Currently it's snacks, bait shop, and airboat tours only. A new restaurant, shop, music stage, and alligator pen are in the works. Look for completion in early 2018. Tour boats include a few smaller (some say more fun) airboats.
Lone Cabbage... www.twisterairboatrides.com/fishcamp.html 8199 SR 520, Cocoa, FL 32926
West of Cocoa, near Orlando and Disney, airboat ecotourism is big here. Great water views, weekend music, and a variety of inexpensive food make this a popular getaway with locals. The wine comes in plastic cups, red and white. A few "old Florida" buildings remain, providing fond memories. Tip: a sweeping vista (and maybe a gator) along boardwalk/fishing pier next to boat ramp, on opposite side of highway.
Jolly Gator... www.facebook.com/thejollygator/ 4650 E. State Rd 46, Geneva, FL 32732
This location offers expansive, unobstructed views along the waterway. Here the river becomes slightly larger, as the Econlockhatchee River enters about a mile upstream (south). For eats, definitely try the swamp cabbage. We also enjoyed the gator, blackened not fried. (Note: sometimes the gator can be chewy during gator season, but still tasty.) The jam sessions on the 1st and 3rd Sundays are fun. Independent airboat tours operate from the adjacent County park. (Jolly Gator jam session video, 11/2017, a cornucopia of musical talent)
Black Hammock... http://www.theblackhammock.com/ 2356 Black Hammock Fish Camp Rd, Oviedo, FL 32765
Located off the main river channel on Lake Jessup, this former fish camp has reinvented itself as a mini-attraction that kids of any age will enjoy. Feed the parrots. Use a hot dog to "fish" for alligators. Take an airboat ride. Cool off the bar and gift shop. Plus, a restaurant that uses real plates, metal utensils, and wine glasses. Civilization at last!