“It’s all conked out,” says the old bowlegged fisherman with a heavy Polish accent. He’s toting a two-wheeled shopping cart around the horseshoe pier at Montrose Harbor. It’s always chilly here, even on the hottest, sunny summer days, when the waves from Lake Michigan explode against the concrete and sprinkle huge water droplets that shatter like crystal on the pavement.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” says another man, hopefully. “I caught three little perch.”
The two men eye another man’s nine-pound female steelhead with envy. The man brags, “I got it on a night crawler with six-pound line. I didn’t horse it. I worked it a long time, just let it tire itself out. I’m taking this to Hagen’s and get it smoked for a buck a pound. Takes two days, but it’s delicious.”
The big silver trout is still gaping for breath and squirming inside of a plastic bag. It’s 2:30pm. “I caught him around 10:30, one tough fish. He just won’t die.”
With a lake that resembles an ocean, Chicago has its share of urban fishermen and urban fishing spots. From the Montrose horseshoe to the Commonwealth Edison plant just across the Indiana border, Chicago’s lakefront offers prime fishing for perch, steelhead and coho salmon. The region’s forest preserves offer opportunities for bass, bluegill, crappie, catfish, walleye and even northern pike.
People fish year-round in Chicago, but summer is when fishing hits its peak. You can always tell the season has arrived when there are suddenly more people at the piers and lakefront spots—not just guys in the insulated suits. By mid-May, Henry’s Sports & Bait Shop at 31st and Canal is open all night on Fridays. Sometimes the parking lot is packed at 4:30am. Families in low-slung station wagons and vans wheel in and out of the lot, along with a steady stream of pickup trucks and shiny sedans.
Fishing poses some interesting dynamics not found in other sports activities. When motivated to catch something, Chicagoans tend to overlook differences in age, sex and skin color when they otherwise wouldn’t—if for no other reason but to find out, “What’s bitin’?” or “Did you catch anything?”
Male or female and regardless of race or color, Chicago’s urban fishing folk share these common characteristics:
•A willingness to enjoy the great outdoors while tuning out expressway noises, the jackhammers, the sound of falling scrap metal or the constant drone of a power plant.
In spring, before Lake Michigan is warm enough to draw the perch away from the Calumet River, fishermen at 92nd and Ewing know to cultivate patience when a passing barge stirs up the mud. The bridge rises and those fishing the bridge must clear out, but even those who don’t have to move must wait. This includes the ironworkers fishing from the pylons in the river, and the individuals who cast their lines from the back of a nearby metal scrap yard. “The fish can’t see through the mud,” says an ironworker nicknamed Ha Ha. “You just have to wait.”
•Enthusiasm that borders on rabid addiction. When the fishing is really good, night crawlers, minnows, crawfish and bee moths get slapped on hooks faster than a heavy smoker can light a cigarette.
•The more serious fishing addicts show an immunity to wet and cold when fishing the forest-preserve lakes. Some can fish up to the waist, with or without waders, even in a steady breeze. These people also fish anywhere, anytime, unlike those who only fish the state parks and country settings and only on the weekends.
“My philosophy is if you don’t have time to fish, then don’t go fishing, because in order to catch something, you have to be in the right place at the right time,” says a middle-age man trying to squeeze his impressive girth into a pair of jungle-spotted waders.
Mention an upcoming full moon and the potential for an evening of walleye fishing at Wolf Lake in the William Powers Forest Preserve and a mad gleam will appear in the eye any true fisherman or fisherwoman. This phenomena is not supposed to happen because the park closes after sunset, but some diehards have snuck into the park after dark. They belong to an elite group who share warm memories of catching those huge marble-eyed game fish, all the while having fended off notorious pests of the urban night—rats.
Bait and equipment: Most bait shop owners and fishing experts recommend starting with basic equipment. You can go to sports equipment outlets, but you’re not likely to obtain as much knowledgeable advice about how to catch anything. And you won’t be able to obtain fresh bait of any variety. Sports outlets are for those individuals who already know what they need and are looking for good buys. But if you’re a beginner and do go to one of these places, be sure to pick up a free copy of the sporting journal Outdoor Notebook. The publication offers the kind of valuable information that such people as Frank “The Pan Man” deFrancisco, who fishes the local spots regularly, can provide.
If you’re running short of cash and have the urge to fish, you can harvest your own bait. Rainy nights are perfect for catching night crawlers. All you need is a coffee can, flashlight and a pair of garden gloves. The crawlers won’t slip through your hands if you wear the gloves.
If you’re running low on bait, you can always cut up some of your catch and use it as “cut bait.” While you’re at it, cut open their bellies to see what they’re eating. That way you’ll know what they have a taste for.
The trick with bait is… is there a trick to using the right bait? A manager at Henry’s says yes, but also: “If the fish are biting, it all works. If they aren’t, none of it works.” For minnows it’s good to use the Aberdeen hooks with smaller barbs so the minnows won’t die as fast.
Lakefront fishing spots: Montrose horseshoe, Montrose Harbor; Burnham Harbor, in back of Adler Planetarium; and Navy Pier. The latter spot will be less desirable with the newly rehabbed tourist and entertainment center open. Old-timers who used to park their cars for a quarter and fish all morning will have to pay $6, and there won’t be as much pier space, which was once prime for perch fishing. After Navy Pier, there’s McCormick Place, the Pier on 55th Street and Calumet Park. A rather challenging location is found in back of the Commonwealth Edison plant, requiring mountain-goat legs and a bit of endurance, but many men seem to prefer this place. Very few fishing widows or widowers will bother to track their mates down at this location.
Resources: The Forest Preserve District of Cook County publishes a fishing guide that lists local fishing lakes and ponds. To request a free guide, call 708.771.1330. To find out what’s biting and where, call 708.976.HOOK or 225.FISH. (Susan DeGrane)