You can see them from Lake Shore Drive this time of year, the men in raincoats with their fishing poles at the Lincoln Park lagoon. Their form of fishing is the most barbaric one—snagging.
In the fall, coho and chinook salmon of a certain age come into the shallows to spawn and then die. The fish aren't feeding, so the sport fishing philosophy has always been that it's permissible to take them in any way possible, including using a weighted treble hook (think a miniature grappling hook) to snag them in the head, the tail, the fins, or the side. Snagging has been practiced here since salmon were introduced into Lake Michigan in the 60s and 70s. It's legal at the lagoon, and in a few other areas on the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan, from October 1 to the end of the year.
"It's tradition for this season," said snagger Alfred Sosa on a recent sunny afternoon at the lagoon. "They're gonna die anyway."
"It has its purpose," said Stacey Greene, owner of Park Bait at Montrose Harbor. "The salmon come in, they spawn, they die."
Yet more recent research has shown that while the fish won't feed, they will still strike at a lure if agitated, as with a glittering swirling spoon dragged in front of them. This calls into question the rationale that if they're not taking bait in any other way, it's OK to snag them and drag them in. All other states bordering Lake Michigan have banned the snagging of salmon.
There's also the issue of the sportsmanship and fair play many anglers pride themselves on. "I don't bother snagging," said Steve, who declined to give his last name but said most people call him Fishtank. He was sitting behind the counter at Park Bait. "I don't look down on it. I just don't care for it."
"Snagging is just different," said Isaac Escobedo, a snagger, as he was leaving the lagoon one morning. The fish sometimes put up a sporting fight, he said, but other times not. "It depends on where you catch them." By that he meant not where in the lagoon, but where on the body.
Both Sosa and Escobedo took five salmon out of the lake in the first two weeks of the season, in spite of sunny weather not conducive to fishing—fish tend to stay away from the surface on sunny days. Windy, rainy weather emboldens the fish, and the recent stretch of it brought snaggers out to the lagoon in droves in their raincoats and winter parkas.
Sosa's biggest fish so far this season was 20 pounds, Escobedo's 30.
Whether the snaggers eat their catch depends on its condition. "Some of the ones that get snagged are a little older, a little raggedy," Greene said. Fishtank said that many people smoke the salmon for taste and keeping.
Both Sosa and Escobedo seemed a little abashed about snagging, and both are conventional anglers the rest of the year. They said they simply snag in the fall because it's the best way to catch big fish from the shore.
"Conventional fishing is better," Sosa said, not least because of the heavy equipment snagging requires—stout rods, weighted hooks, and heavy test line—and the endless effort of casting the hook out and reeling it back in with vicious jerks intended to snag anything in its path.