By Ellen Fox
You don’t have to leave town anymore to spend a day waterside with the rod and reel. Yes, you can go fishing right here in Chicago—on the Lake as well as on the much-maligned Chicago River—and this summer the folks at the Chicago Park District are seeing to it that you’re encouraged to catch some.
“Clean-up efforts have revitalized the water and revitalized the fish, ” says Park District special project manager Bob Long (“the fishing guy”), and over the last few years, word of better fishing has really gotten around, says Henry Palmisano of Brideport’s stalwart Henry’s Sports & Bait Shop. Should you need any more proof of the renaissance, the prestigious Bassmaster Classic will be held along the Lakeshore—its first time in Chicago ever—this July.
But while the fish may be jumpin’, the question remains: Can you eat this stuff? If it’s from the Lake, says Long, go ahead. Just don’t eat the brown trout—which are bottomfeeders—or salmon over twelve pounds: too polluted. If it’s from the river, throw that polluted sucker back in. “The water’s doing well, but not that well,” warns Long. “It’s clean enough for natural reproduction, but they’re not fit for human consumption yet. If you eat it and you shouldn’t, you’ll know it.”
To get started, pick up a fishing license at Park District fieldhouses near lagoon sites, or at a local bait shop. The cost is $13 for Illinois residents, $6.75 for ages 65 and over, and it’s free to the blind, disabled, or anyone—resident or non-resident—under age 16. If you want to snag salmon, an additional $6.50 stamp on your license is required; a twenty-four hour license will run you $5.50.
While you’re picking up a license, get your hands on the city’s “Let’s Go Fishing, Chicago!” pamphlet. In addition to listing fishing-oriented hotlines and Websites (the Henry’s hotline—(312)225-FISH—has some ebullient updates), the pamphlet also tells you which species are plentiful during which months, and includes diagrams of fishing areas citywide.
If you’ve ever spotted folks fishing in shallow inland ponds—say in Washington Park, or along Lincoln Park’s Stockton Drive—and wondered what on earth they could be catching, the answer is bluegills and catfish. Fishing in Chicago’s numerous lagoons is a safe bet because the Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocks the lagoons with 33,000 bluegills in May and 30,000 pounds of catfish in June, July and August. Why do they do this? Just so people can catch them, says Long. Really! Best of all, the fish are farm-raised, so they make a tasty meal.
If you can’t wait until the lagoons are stocked in late May, head out now towards a spot that many favor along the river: Bubbly Creek—so named for the decomposing gasses from the old stockyard waste. “One of our guys caught a Northern [pike] there,” Henry Palmisano raves of the rarity. Just over the Ashland Avenue bridge near 27th Street, you can find bass, bluegills, catfish and crappies on either side of bridge, he says, though the west-side Canalpoint Riverwalk—a beautified length of pavement that circles the Sun-Times printing plant—includes park benches and metal rod-rests. Problem is, you’re stuck looking at heaps of scrap metal and the yacht repair-yard across the way.
The view’s much better on the trash-strewn east side of the bridge, where plans for a park are posted but have not yet been carried out. A recent Sunday afternoon found 54-year-old newcomer James Perry catching quite a few 15-inch carp. “The water don’t look too polluted,” he figures. “I guess it’s as good as any river.” A few minutes later, a speedboat races by, its ripples sending the fish—literally—jumping.
More central to the city, by the Adler Planetarium, is where 29-year-old Rick Shen reels for trout, still wearing his button-down shirt and tie after work (he keeps his rod in the car). Though Solidarity Drive, south of the Planetarium, is a popular spot for those eyeing the lake’s bounty of perch, rock bass or salmon, Shen prefers the north side of the Planetarium because the vent that connects the lagoon to the lake attracts trout, which may get the urge to swim against its current in the early spring. Like many, Shen doesn’t take home what he reels in, “I feel no particular need to eat it,” he says. “I’m just more in it for the catching.”
Further north last weekend, at the edge of the pier on Diversey Harbor, a fiftysomething shop-owner had already tethered six, snack-sized perch by mid-afternoon on Saturday. “This is a lobotomy for your brain,” the man says, as streams of joggers whiz by and boatfuls of sunbathers headed out of the harbor. Sporting an ultra-light rod and a pack of Pall Malls, the man warns against arming yourself with expensive gear or taking one’s mission too seriously: “Some of these guys get a Moby Dick complex, thinking that it’s something that they’re doing. They’re just not there,” he argues. “If they’re in there, you’re bound to catch them.”