Bill “Willie” Robinson remembers the first time he went to a fish camp.
He was a “young blade” he says, working and chasing ladies through the hills of North Carolina when a buddy said, “Hey, let’s go up to the fish camp on Friday night.”
Thinking his evening would be used-up wrangling worms and palling around with some guys near a lake, Robinson, a bit perplexed, responded ‘on my Friday night, I’m not going to spend time in some darn fish camp.’
‘Oh no,’ the friend replied, ‘a fish camp is a restaurant.’
Call it a loss of translation but fish camps are usually reserved for boat ramps and tackle, at least in Florida. That was before Bill caught wind of the southern staple. One night at Jack Lineberger’s fish camp and he was hooked for life.
He couldn’t understand it. Out in the middle of the sticks, you’d find these restaurants with 200 people waiting to get in. He had to show his Florida what a real fish fry tasted like.
The problem was Bill didn’t know a thing about the restaurant business. He was 34 and had spent the bulk of his years working for someone else’s dream. From the Air Force to Winn Dixie and then Xerox, it was high time he did what he wanted to do. Knowing he’d be no competition for fish camp king Jack Lineberger, Bill asked him to teach him everything he knew.
“I said to him ‘I’ll work for nothing if you’ll show me what to do’ and he said ‘you ain’t gotta do that, just come in here tomorrow’,” Bill said. “So I showed up the next day with a pen and note pad. That was my sole restaurant experience before I worked here.”
Bill copied every detail of Lineberger’s place. He wrote down equipment serial and model numbers, got the recipe for hush puppies and even pulled labels off boxes of fish as they came in.
He would later come back home to Florida and find the perfect location right off Front Street in Valrico. Occupied or not, Bill knew what he wanted. After borrowing $10,000 from his mother, he bought the century-old building and turned the existing Pan-Tree restaurant into Fat Willie’s Fish Camp.
“The night before we opened up, I put the word out and had my relatives come over for dinner,” he said. “Next morning I called them up and they were all breathing so we opened up.”
Thirty-four years later, the place has hardly changed. There was a minor setback in 1998 when he sold the place and subsequently took it back over and renamed it Willie’s Seafood Restaurant when things didn’t turn out so well.
Then there’s the menu. The first menu had catfish, shrimp, oysters, scallops, flounder, mullet and devil crab, with your choice of french fries, hush puppies or coleslaw. Take it or leave it, Bill said.
He ventured into pastas for a while but settled on a New Orleans slant about 10 years ago. Their biggest claim to fame is still the fried fish. With a light breading and a tinge of heat, it sells 80 percent more than anything else and it’s the reason people still travel from all over the state to dine at the fish camp.
When it first opened, Fat Willie’s was the only true fried fish joint in Eastern Hillsborough County, according to Bill. State Road 60 was barely four lanes and the only attractions on his part of town were two restaurants and some orange groves.
The term “fish camp” has thrown a few people over the years. Anglers used to pull up to the restaurant with boat and tackle in tow, and he still gets a few calls about the price of his worms, but for those who have dined at this fried fish mainstay, there’s only one thing that comes to mind when they think fish camp, and that’s ol’ Willie’s.
“I’ve never found a place better,” Bill says. “Every now and then I’ll say this is as good as ours but never better.”
Tips for serving an authentic Southern fish fry by Bill “Willie” Robinson
• Your fish fry is only as good as your fish. Start with fresh bought/caught catfish and bread it in a half mixture of corn meal and flour.
• To add some flavor to the breading, sprinkle in some salt, pepper and lemon. Bill says the more breading you use, the more oil that gets soaked in. So “dust” the fish lightly.
• Fresh vegetable cooking oil is suggested. The key is to keep the temperature of the oil around 350 F.
• In order to keep it consistent, Bill recommends bumping the temperature up to 360-375F, because the cold fish will knock down the heat once fried. A frying pan or deep fryer will work. The cooking time will vary based on the fryer and size of the fish, so watch it carefully.
• The fish will bubble profusely once soaked in oil. This shows oxygen and moisture leaving the fish. Make sure you remove it when the bubbles have subsided, but not disappeared. Pulling it too late will leave you with dry fish.
• Serve with a side of hush puppies or sliced potatoes. Or, if you want to be truly Southern, serve with a side of cheese grits.