Stilt Houses in the Gulf of Mexico: Historic Fishing Lodges
We take Florida vacations at least a couple of times a year, and we've seen some pretty amazing sights. One of the most fascinating sights we saw on our recent vacation to Port Richey, Florida, was a stilt house. In fact, we floated right past several of the unique structures on our flats fishing trips. It was a surreal experience to view houses out in the Gulf of Mexico, but there they were. It was no mirage. Since this was our first trip to the Port Richey area, the stilt houses were incredibly eye-catching and unusual to me. On our fishing trips for fishing the flats, we saw several of these old fishing lodges. All looked abandoned, with birds as their only tenants. Cormorants used a few of the houses for perches to search the water for a meal. Of course, I just had to learn more about these rustic vacation houses, so I began talking with Port Richey locals.
History: From Fishing Lodges to Fishing Vacations for Celebrities
All the stilt houses are located just off the coast of Pasco County, Florida. Originally, over twenty of these structures were built. No one knows for sure when the first stilt house was constructed, but most locals agree it was some time around the beginning of the twentieth century. There’s even a debate about who built the first of the stilt houses.
Supposedly, the first stilt houses were built as fishing lodges or fishing camps. Before gas or diesel-powered boats were commonplace, boats were poled out to the flats for fishing – especially for mullet fishing. Huge schools of mullet would run through the flats periodically, and many local fishermen depended on flats fishing for their income. The fishing lodges provided a place for the fishermen to rest and eat before poling their catch back to the mainland.
The original owners of the structures didn’t buy the “land” from anyone – it was more of a squatter’s rights deal. They scoped out a likely spot and proceeded to build a house on stilts. This process was difficult, to say the least. All the lumber had to be floated out to the site, and pilings had to be sunk into the ground beneath the gulf waters to support the houses.
The houses were often used for fishing trips by the owners, most of who lived fairly nearby on the Florida mainland. Flats fishing in the area was very good for mullet, trout, flounder, reds, sharks, snook, and cobia. Tarpon fishing was and still is superb. Decades ago, local anglers on gulf fishing trips would often seek refuge in any vacant stilt house when a storm approached or when they needed a place to rest. The stilt house owners didn’t mind, and to return the favor, the fisherman would often give part of their catch to the house owners.
The stilt houses were also used as vacation houses, especially for fishing vacations. Although such vacations and fishing trips were largely without modern conveniences, the beautiful scenery and the array of water activities made up for the lack of fresh water, air conditioning, television, and telephones.
As vacation houses, the wooden structures placed their owners in the midst of perfect locations for flats fishing, swimming, crabbing, boating, and water skiing. The water around the houses is crystal clear, and at high tide, it’s about ten feet deep. At low tide, the water is only a couple of feet deep around most of the stilt houses. Before heading out on fishing trips to this part of the gulf, make sure you know how much draft your boat requires before fishing the flats.
The stilt houses were so unique and in such a specialized location for flats fishing, they’ve been frequented by some famous people. Johnny and June Carter Cash visited often whenever they wanted to enjoy some fishing on the Florida flats. Reverend Billy Graham also spent a couple of fishing vacations in a stilt house.
In October of 1968, most of the stilt houses were completely destroyed by Hurricane Gladys. The Florida legislature didn’t want the stilt houses rebuilt, but when the owners put up a spirited fight, they were “grandfathered in.” Owners of the stilt houses were allowed to rebuild on the original sites, but they had to lease the land supporting their fishing lodges. These leases were scheduled to expire in 1999.
The owners of the stilt houses were devastated to think that their vacation houses and fishing lodges that had been in their family for generations would be destroyed, so they petitioned for an extension. The extension was granted. Now the stilt houses are safe until 2019. No one knows what will happen to these historic structures after that.
Stilt Houses Today
Today, there are nine stilt houses left. Both locals and tourists appreciate the unique houses, not just for their fascinating heritage, but also for the fish they attract. Each time we went to the area for flats fishing, several boats surrounded the stilt houses, casting lines underneath the docks and around the wooden pilings. They provide structure for flats fishing, which attracts and holds fish.
Fresh water still has to be hauled to the stilt fishing lodges and vacation houses. Most of the structures now have pumps, however, for salt water, which is sometimes used for washing dishes. Electricity is provided by generators, and propane tanks provide cooking and heat. The stilt houses use chemical toilets in the bathrooms.
See the Stilt Houses
If you’re ever near Port Richey, take a boat out for some great flats fishing. Fishing the Florida flats, or even taking a pleasure cruise around the area, is a great way to spend a day or an afternoon.
The stilt houses are located in a line off Port Richey. If you’re heading out of Port Richey on the Cotee River, you’ll see the old wooden fishing lodges as you enter the gulf. If you’re new to this area, don’t let the water fool you – it’s much deeper than it appears. Even so, it does get shallow around the houses at low tide.