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A Disappearing Species

Chicago's Last Commercial Fishery

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A black-and-white steel fishing trawler, the Spirit, churns down the Chicago River past tire yards, boat docks, the hangar-size nightclubs, the roaring blast furnace of A. Finkl & Sons Company. It slows down as the engines are almost cut and drifts under the Cortland Avenue bridge, stopping at a long green dock.

"Steady as she goes," the ship's captain, Larry Champion, yells from the top of the boat's steering house. "We're coming home."

Two men in green slickers, yellow waders, and white rubber boots jump off the trawler and quickly tie the bow and stern mooring lines to the wooden dock.

"Open up the port hatch," Champion yells as he crosses the deck of the 55-foot trawler.

A large steel door near the rear of the boat swings open, and a long conveyor belt drops down through the opening. Champion walks toward the two dozen orange plastic crates and heaps of green nets that fill the back of the boat. Each crate is packed with about 75 striped perch, still flapping away.

Lawrence T. Schweig, the 70-year-old patriarch of the LTS Enterprises dynasty, which also includes his son Lawrence W. (Larry) Schweig and his grandson Lawrence A. (Lars) Schweig, ambles out onto the dock and looks on as the day's catch is being unloaded. Schweig, who's known as the "admiral," no longer goes out with the boats.

The air smells of fish, diesel engines, and the wood fires of the nearby smokehouses, as it has for 72 years at LTS (formerly Schweig Fish Company), the last commercial fishing operation still working out of Chicago. "We hold the oldest commercial fishing license in Illinois," says Schweig, whose gray hair and lined, ruddy face show the decades of working year-round in the lake wind. That Department of Conservation license entitles them to fish Lake Michigan from the Indiana and Wisconsin state lines to the center of the lake, but they can catch only ring perch, yellow perch, or chub.

"The perch that's being brought in will be filleted and sold fresh in our own store and sold to local purveyors and restaurants," says Schweig. "And some of these fish will be shipped to Door County or even the east coast." But most of the flapping fish now being catapulted onto the conveyor will be sold as fried and boned and buttered perch at local restaurants or diners.

Schweig's father, Lawrence A. Schweig, began selling fish at the wholesale market at Lake and Fulton in 1922. "At that time there were 21 commercial fishing operations, and the fish markets stretched across Union, Lake, and Fulton streets," says Schweig, leaning on his cane. "Fishermen would come up the river with their catch, which in those days included chubs, trout, and perch. Prior to World War II there were roughly 28 commercial fishing outfits working the lake from Waukegan to south Chicago. Most of them were small outfits on the south side, men who worked full-time in the steel mills and part-time with commercial nets. Only one or two outfits worked full-time on the south side, with six in Chicago and the balance near Waukegan.

"During World War II the federal government asked the commercial fishermen to fish trout to feed the people and help the war effort. We fished the lake at their request, under the promise that they would restock it. Then the lamprey eel came into the lake, which further destroyed the trout stock. That, combined with the runoff of chemicals like DDT, which gathered in the long-lived trout, hastened the FDA to rule commercial trout fishing illegal."

Today the Spirit is allowed to catch roughly 68,000 pounds of perch and 25,000 pounds of chub each year. To get their quota the crews put in long, grueling hours. "We leave every morning at 4 AM and come in at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon," says Champion. "Even then we usually get here earlier and stay later, mending nets, filling the crates with ice, and making sure the boat is clean, safe, and in exact operating condition."

The Spirit crew uses gill nets with a 2 3/8-inch to 2 3/4-inch mesh that catches the fish by the gills as they try to swim through. The nets are uncoiled out the back of the boat by a "spreader" at a location and depth where Schweig or the captain believes there will be fish. Marked by buoys, the nets are left for a day or sometimes several days, depending on the species being caught and the water temperature.

Schweig says that because the fish they catch tend to hang together in schools at specific depths, few salmon or other fish wander into the nets. "I have been fishing on this lake since I was eight," says Champion, whose father was also a commercial fisherman. "And between me and the admiral, we have a pretty good idea about species and where they are." He points to a box above the wooden steering wheel that looks like a CB radio with a compass on top. "This Loran Navigation System saves us the time and stress of remembering and makes our job a lot easier."

LTS's three fishing boats, including the Spirit, fish year-round, even in January and February. "During the winter the water is icy cold," says Champion, "and when the nets come rolling in through the side door you have to keep everything moving or else you freeze your fingers off and the waves and swells will start dumping cold water inside your oilers."

Schweig says, "Once you get out in the open water the swells break up the ice a bit, so it's toughest breaking out of the river and just offshore. Sometimes you can't really tell which way the winds are blowing, and maneuvering becomes a guessing game every moment. Added to this are the ice blocks, which can go as high as two or three stories, which are also being tossed around by the waves. The boats can take it, but it's tough on the men. Cranking and lifting in those swells can really tear the hell out of you."

Great Lakes fishing vessels have a unique design. Unlike the larger boats that ride over swells in the gulf and the ocean, the Spirit, built in 1946, is completely enclosed, almost submarinelike, which lets the shorter, more compact lake waves break right over it.

"Even though they're built to take the swells, you still have to be pretty careful in steering out of them," Champion warns. "Because if you get the right swell hitting you at the right angle, the wave could crash right through the glass windshield of the cockpit--or at the least get us all seasick as hell."

Today the lake is calm, which has allowed Champion and his crew to make it back to the dock a bit earlier than usual. After the fish are unloaded the crew starts removing the nets from the boats and winding them around several large metal spools on the dock that look like giant spin-casting reels. "What we're doing now is called 'boxing' the nets," Champion says, "so when they go out on the boats they're free of knots, tangles, and ready to go smoothly through the rollers and out in the water. If we don't do this, the nets might get tangled and end up possibly taking a crew member out in the lake with them."

Schweig's grandson Lars is pushing a rack of about 1,000 fresh chub toward the smokehouses. He puts on a pair of leather safety gloves and opens the doors to one of them, releasing a blast of heat into the cool air. "After they're cleaned, sanitized, and brined we smoke the chubs over charcoal wood briquets for about four hours," he says. They also smoke salmon, catfish, herring, and shrimp that they buy from wholesalers.

On the floor of the steel and cement pillboxlike room are about 30 ventilated metal buckets filled with glowing red mesquite coals. Above them are about 1,000 chub brought in earlier in the day, hanging upside down like bats from rafters. Their silver skin has turned brownish yellow from the smoke. The smoked fish will be sold at LTS's retail store, Joe's Fisheries, on Cortland Avenue, or sold to local wholesalers.

"The lake's fish belong to all the taxpayers, whether they're sportsmen or not," says the admiral. "We're the last local outlet still providing a resource for the people of the state."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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