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LORAN SMITH: Hunter's Cafe a timeless destination for locals, coastal fishermen alike

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

SHELLMAN BLUFF — This coastal fishing village has not changed very much since the '40s when it had its beginnings. Naturally, it has experienced some growth, but it remains a village. It is the place which still attracts fishermen. When you come here, don't get in a hurry. If you do, the locals might think you are up to no good.For years, I have been making my way here to see John Donaldson, a former Georgia player and coach. John has slowed down, but his eyes light up when you talk fishing with him. His memory banks overflow with recollections of those days when every cast brought forth a keeper. Coolers overflowed. Laughter filled the air with anticipation of the fresh fish for the grill.

A lifelong friend of these waters, Donaldson started his fishing excursions at Shellman Bluff when he was growing up in Jesup. When he coached at the University of Florida, he spent his summer vacation at Shellman Bluff, renting a cabin and fishing every day.

There has been very little development at Shellman Bluff, where Indians hung out in the past. It is located in McIntosh County, which has a link to Franciscan friars from Spain. Ruins of a Spanish fort and mission can be found on Sapelo Island, which is nearby. Closer to Shellman Bluff is Blackbeard Island, which is named for the great pirate who hid out in this area. "Coastal Georgia fishing," says one promotional sheet, "is a true fisherman's paradise." Spend a little time here with seasoned anglers like John Donaldson, and you will agree.

Here not long ago, with cooler temperatures causing the natives to shiver, there was plenty of frivolity and laughter at Hunter's Waterfront Cafe. Owned by Steve and Debbie Eason, the restaurant has been in business since 1951. According to Debbie, somebody hauled an old barracks to the bluff from Ft. Stewart to start a hunting and fishing club. Later it became a restaurant. A succession of owners have expanded the building by adding on over the years -- "lean-to" architecture, if you know what I mean. There are screened-in porches and a bar with alluring beer signs.

In the summer, when there is a breeze off the marsh and you are thirsty, you can't find a better place for imbibing and relaxing. To get to Hunter's you have to follow one of the many dirt roads that lead visitors and residents down to the water. Parked outside Hunter's on a recent evening were a number of pickup trucks. You wouldn't expect to see a Lexus or a BMW at Hunter's Waterfront Cafe. However, if the well-heeled showed up for dinner, they would be warmly welcomed by Debbie Eason.

When our waitress, Marie Harn, came to take our order, I was ready without surveying the menu. I ordered fried shrimp. It would have been the biggest shock imaginable if fried shrimp had not been on the menu. "Oh, yeah," Marie said. "We have fried shrimp, and we have plenty of it." As an aficionado of fried shrimp, I'd have to say Hunter's has about as good as I have ever eaten. Marie said we would regret not ordering Hunter's key lime pie. "It is made by a local lady, Rita Lightsey, and nobody anywhere can make key lime pie any better." Following Marie's advice, we ordered key lime pie and headed home, convinced that Marie knew what she was talking about.

While waiting for dinner, I took a look around. My guess is that there is at least 700 to 800 dollar bills, signed and dated, tacked to the walls of the restaurant. "I really don't know how it got started," Debbie said. "Someone started it years ago, and we have people from five or six states away who come in, take out a dollar bill, sign it and add a message. We find a space on the wall and nail it up. We never really promoted the idea, but it caught on. Not long before we will run out of space," she laughed.

Like Shellman Bluff, the passing of time has brought little change to Hunter's which prompts many locals to raise a toast to that circumstance. Vistors, too.

Loran Smith is co-host of "The Tailgate Show." He is also a freelance writer and columnist.