By Susan DeGrane
James Cobbins spent the last Sunday afternoon in August running back and forth on the steep banks of the Marquette Park Lagoon, battling with a grass carp about the size of a torpedo. "Fish had me going one, two hours, maybe three," he says. "I don't know. I lost track of time." When he finally landed the carp, passersby urged him to have it weighed. At about three that afternoon, he entered Henry's Sports & Bait Shop at 31st and Canal. Worn and weary from the struggle, he carried the largest fish ever caught in Chicago, according to record: 61 pounds, 4 ounces.
"When the gentleman walked in, it was like seeing a person carrying a dead body over his shoulder," says Bob Sadowski, the sales manager of the bait shop and a spokesman for Henry's Fishing Hotline, which provides updates on how fish are biting around the Chicago area. "You figure, the man was five-foot-eleven, and the fish was five-three, so this was just awesome. This was a monster. It took three of us--because of the dead weight and length of it--to lift it up to the scale."
The ten customers in the store were "just in awe of the fish," Sadowski says, and for a brief time business was put on hold. "It had barbels dangling at the sides of its mouth and greenish golden brown scales the size of half-dollars. I'm telling you, the thing looked prehistoric." Perhaps even more amazing was the tackle Cobbins used to catch it: 12-pound test line; a number six Eagle Claw hook no larger than the tip of a pinkie; and a small pole, about four feet long, which he'd paid $14 for and recently had repaired.
Grass carp were originally imported to the U.S. from Asia in 1963, and they were first stocked in Chicago's park lagoons approximately two decades ago to control weed growth. Sadowski estimates Cobbins's catch was 15 years old and had been in the lagoon since the mid-80s. Though most carp are considered omnivores, he says, these are vegetarians. He claims all carp are "bulldogs," insistent, furious fighters, comparable in stealth and cunning to trout, coho salmon, and other game fish. In recent years the grass carp has gained popularity among European anglers, who now regularly visit Chicago to compete for carp-fishing prizes. "It took a real master to land this one, no doubt," Sadowski says.
But Cobbins wasn't out to break any records, or even to collect the $100 prize he won from the Mayor Richard J. Daley Memorial Sport Fishing Derby, an annual citywide competition that runs through the summer months. "It was no big deal," he says. "It was just a fish."
Cobbins wanted to put food on the table. He fishes for crappies and bluegills in Lake Michigan, Powderhorn Lake, Wolf Lake, and the Jackson Park Lagoon. He thinks the pond behind the Museum of Science and Industry is a nice place for catching catfish. A self-employed heating and air-conditioning repairman, Cobbins took the grass carp home, skinned it, cut it up, and stored it in his freezer. Over time, he barbecued or panfried some pieces; he wrapped others in foil and baked them in poultry seasoning and lemon pepper. He always doused the fish with Louisiana hot sauce.
Weeks later, Cobbins says, he began to feel bad that the carp had to die, but he'll forever remember the fight. On a chilly day in December, he stands at the east rim of the lagoon recalling that afternoon. The day was hot, and the southwest-side park was crowded with strollers, other fishermen, picnickers, and even a few golfers. "This was my last cast of the day," he says. "I was getting ready to go home. I said this is it. I had a few bluegills already. I was gonna go watch TV. That's when I hit it. It's crazy. I cast across right to that tree over there, and all the sudden something hit on the line."
When Cobbins reeled the line in, the hook was empty. He cast out again. "Boom! Hit it again." He tried to pull the fish in, but immediately realized that wouldn't be easy. "I saw these fins coming out of the water. I said, 'Uh-oh, what is that? I hope it's not mine. I hope it's not mine.'
"Big fins. Looked like 'Jaws' coming out the water. He had a lot of fight; he was smart. First, he run in the water over here. I set the drag on the line. You let the reel itself fight the fish. The reel automatically give him enough slack, but you still fightin' the fish. You tying the fish up. He act like he was tired, went over there by where them ducks at. I thought he was playing slick. He took off, went over by these branches here."
Cobbins let the line go slack, and the fish went deep into the water. "I thought I had lost him. I started reeling again. All the sudden he come back up again. There was a guy sitting over there, having a picnic with his family. He stopped what he was doing and just watch.
"More than anything, it takes patience. You can't just pull the fish in or you'll snap the line. The fish tried to snap his own self. Line took off. He jumped up, shook his head once. Guy across the way says, 'Whoa, you ain't going bring him in. You ain't gonna bring him in.'
"He came in one time, belly up, like he was dead. I let the drag go again. He took off back in the water again. I say, 'God!' Last time he got back in the water he was too tired. I was tired too, so hey...."
Cobbins had to step in the water to fish him out. "Soon as as I brought him in, the line snapped," he says. "I had to sit on the sucker! He was going back in the water. I was sittin' on him, trying to drag him up the hill. He's buckin' like a wild mule. I started sliding back down the bank, thought I was gonna lose him. This gentleman came by. He says, 'I give you hand.' We put him up on the bank. Took about 25-30 minutes just to get him out the water, just to get him up the bank. God dog, what a fight!"
Cobbins says he doesn't expect his record to stand for long. He hears even bigger carp lurk in the depths of the Marquette Park Lagoon.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Cobbins photo by Lloyd DeGrane.