Fishing in Chicago
When I told people I was writing an article about fishing in Chicago I got a lot of blank stares. Verbal responses were less than encouraging. Are there fish to be caught? If so, how many eyes do they have? You can’t be thinking of eating what you catch, can you? Oh, and my personal favorite: People still go fishing?
Yes, yes they do. All over the city you can find people casting a reel, snagging and drinking, chatting and ice fishing… Ice fishing? Yeah, we go year-round in Chicago.
Where can you fish and what can you catch?
Lake Michigan is home to dozens of fish, many of which are catchable right off the shore. Though most of what you’ll catch is likely to be yellow perch, depending on the season you can find coho and chinook salmon, smallmouth bass, rock bass, brown, rainbow and lake trout, as well as the occasional walleye.
Chicago’s harbors tend to be great spots for fishing. One of the more well-regarded of these is Montrose Harbor, which tends to see a lot of perch action. The Harbor also features its own bait shop, Park Bait Co. The first day of smelt fishing season attracts a bit of a crowd here, as fisherman from around the city gather to share beers, brats and stories while waiting to drop their nets.
Burnham Harbor, located downtown on Northerly Island, is also a smelt destination, as well as an excellent spot for catching trout (both brown and rainbow).
Snagging, a semi-controversial type of fishing that involves tossing a weighted, three-pronged hook into the water and jerking it back to catch salmon, is also common at Montrose and Burnham, as well as at Jackson Park, Belmont Harbor and the rowing ponds in Lincoln Park, near Diversey Harbor.
While the lakefront and its connecting ponds/lagoons are the primary fishing areas in Chicago, we’re also lucky enough to be able to fish in the river. The north branch tends to be a bit cleaner, and features catfish, bass, carp, walleye, saugers and northern pike.
Gomper’s Park, located on Foster in the city’s Albany Park neighborhood, is a busy fishing destination because it features both the ability to fish in the river and in the recently restored Gomper’s Park Lagoon. The lagoon is host to all kinds of aquatic wildlife, including stocked fish, crayfish, turtles, tadpoles and frogs. Deepened in 2000, this one-acre body of water is adorned with boardwalks and limestone fishing-stations, making it a great place to fish and enjoy a picnic.
Further east along Foster, just between Kedzie and California, is River Park, another well-known fishing spot. This special area is where the north branch spills down into the north shore channel. Not only does this create one of the only waterfalls in the city, it’s also one of the more productive fishing spots along the river.
Do people really go ice fishing in Chicago?
Believe it or not, the answer is yes. One of the things that makes Chicago an amazing place to live is that we get to fully experience all four seasons. For many locals, winter means snowball fights, sledding and lots of Glögg. For a few it means ice fishing.
Montrose and Belmont Harbors tend to be the most popular ice fishing spots, though I do use the word “popular” loosely. While not many fisherman enjoy being on Lake Michigan during a blizzard, every year the die-hards can be found plugging away for perch. Tips for ice fishing swirl like high school gossip; someone always knows someone who had a big haul using minnows, but the next guy you talk to swears he caught six keepers with cut bait. Part of the jive seems to be throwing others off the scent of the fish. If someone nailed a few in the morning, he’s probably telling people he got his best hits at night. For more information you can check out this Chicagoland ice fishing forum.
Can I eat what I catch?
That depends. Some restaurants do serve local fish caught in Lake Michigan, and a batch of self-caught perch can make for a thrifty and tasty dinner. However, you would be ill-advised to eat fish caught in the river. Though the city has made an effort to clean up the river in more recent years, the average person would be well-suited not to chow down on something from water that’s been used as a dumping ground for centuries.
If you do score some lake fish that were just too big and tasty looking to catch and release, take ’em over to Hagen’s Fish Market in Portage Park. Aside from being home to a cheap and delicious carry-out menu, Hagen’s is also home to Chicago’s only natural hardwood smokehouse. That kind of apparatus was outlawed years ago, though the one at Hagen’s has been grandfathered in. This is the only place in Chicago to get your fish smoked. Imagine how impressed your friends will be!
Where can I get what I need to go fishing?
First off, you’ll need a fishing license. These can be acquired here from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for only $15. Fishing for certain types of fish requires an additional “stamp” for your permit, but they can be bought for under $7. Penalties for fishing without a license include fines of several hundred dollars, as well as being forced to release any fish you caught. Not worth it.
As far as purchasing bait goes, there are several options in Chicago. The previously mentioned Park Bait Co. (600 W. Montrose Ave, 773.271.2838) at Montrose Harbor is ideal due to its proximity to the lake. Henry’s Sports, Bait & Marine (3130 S. Canal, 312.225.8538) sells everything you need for a fishing expedition, including licenses, and offers fisherman “up to the minute local fishing reports.” Further south, Mac’s Bait Shop (2322 E. 75th, 773.978.3120) is conveniently located near both Jackson Park and Rainbow Beach.
For the seasoned or the ambitious, Coren’s Rod & Reel Service (6001 N. Nina, 773.631.5202) specializes in equipment for the fishing rod builder. If you’re not up to building your own, Coren’s also offers rod repair and restoration. The small shop is the only place in Chicago that offers all of these services, and yet there’s no air of superiority about the place. Aside from helpful tips and friendly banter, they also carry fishing-related gear.
Hey, what about fly fishing?
For some information about fly fishing in Chicago, including lessons and equipment, check out Chicago Fly Fishing Outfitter Ltd, either online or at their brick-and-mortar store at 1279 N. Clybourn in Old Town.
For more information on fishing in the city, including information on more places to fish in and around the Chicagoland area, check out WindyCityFishing.com. The Chicagoland Fishing Forum is another great resource, especially if you’re looking for current information straight from other fisherman. Speaking of fisherman, I’ve got to thank my father, Gene Wagendorf Jr., for all his help, both in writing this article and in teaching me to love fishing. I can’t wait to crack a beer open and cast with him again.