The Fish House

J.B. Bagby

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N.C. history lives on in squadron couple’s coastal property

Watermen tie up their boats to unload their catch at a fish house. Here, they hang out and repair their nets, clean and ice or salt their catch, and maybe cook or smoke some of it. Fish houses are generally close to land transportation routes. As one waterman put it, “A fish house is to a fisherman what a barn is to a farmer.”

Fish houses are embedded in the history, life and culture of coastal North Carolina. Like a country store, many have a potbellied stove and serve as the local gossip center and gathering place.

They have given rise to a particular style of storytelling that encompasses the sea, the catch and the life of the waterman. These stories preserve the oral history of wrecks and rescues, family and community. Some are tragic; others are humorous and stretch both the imagination and the truth. Such tall tales are called “fish house lies.”

‘The Old Salts Gathering Place’

Frank and Polly Styers moved to Morehead City in 1975 from Winston-Salem, where he was commander of District 27’s Winston-Salem Sail & Power Squadron. The couple bought property on Peltier Creek off Bogue Sound that included two homes, a fish house and a working marina. Here, they provided rental dock space and limited services to boating friends.

Although still called The Fish House, the building had already ceased commercial operation when they acquired the property. Frank and Polly converted the 1940s fish house into a marina clubhouse with a bathroom/shower, living room, kitchen, covered porch and deck.

A sign in the parlor proclaims, “The Old Salts Gathering Place. Where sailors of yesteryear recount their adventures and tell tall tales.” A 5-foot-tall oil painting of Frank transports visitors back to the golden age of piracy.

A placard on the side playfully proclaims, “Peltier Creek Yacht Basin and Country Club.” Frank built four chipping and putting golf holes and an outdoor pool. Another sign marks its truthful history: “Fish House–Est. 1942.”

Boating friends gathered for cookouts and relaxation on the waterfront covered porch and deck, and the fish house lies began.

Frank was a great storyteller. When asked where the red velvet chairs and couch came from, without hesitation and with a straight face he said, “I got them in D.C. when they were renovating the box seats at Ford’s Theatre. There’s a bullet hole in the chair.”

A tradition lost to time

A 2012 study funded by the North Carolina Sea Grant program found that working fish houses in North Carolina, which numbered 117 in 2001, had dwindled to only 78 in 2009. According to the study, economic, political and environmental changes are affecting the livelihood of commercial fishermen and reducing the economic viability of the fishing industry in North Carolina and nationwide. Declines in numbers of fishermen, fish houses and seafood landings have accelerated in recent years.

In Morehead City, the tradition of fish house liars is kept alive by Rodney Kemp, named the N.C. Historian of the Year in 2003. Involved with the Carteret County Museum of History and Art since 2001, Kemp has made it his life’s work to collect, teach and tell the region’s stories.

As fish house tales are embellished, they often take on the character of the speaker. Speaking with Coastwatch magazine in 2003, Kemp said, “When you start telling stories like I do—and people halfway believe you—they give you a label, a term of endearment. People started calling me a common fish house liar.”

Keeping history alive

Sadly, Frank died in early 2024, and Polly passed away in 2023. On sunny afternoons, their squadron friends, slip holders and boating enthusiasts from all over North Carolina gather at The Fish House to keep this local tradition going. It doesn’t take much bourbon and branch water for the stories to begin.

J.B. Bagby

J.B. Bagby joined America’s Boating Club of the Crystal Coast in 2004 and has served as squadron commander twice. He served on the national Communications Committee and rewrote the portion of the Operations Manual dealing with squadron organization and functions. He served three years as District 27 secretary.

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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

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