At 4:25 AM on June 30th, Luke Welsh is already fishing for perch off the pier at Belmont Harbor. It's the last day until August that perch fishermen are allowed to keep what they catch, and the end of the best month of perch fishing Luke has ever seen. Some of the old-timers claim to have seen better, but Luke, 40, has fished the north woods of Wisconsin and a good number of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes without ever seeing such an abundance of big perch. He's reached the limit of 15 at least a half-dozen times this month, and is looking to have one more go.
Often he leaves his home in Bartlett, 40 miles away, at four o'clock to arrive at the pier by five, fishes until nine, then grabs some breakfast before heading to the offices of Blind Pig Records on Milwaukee Avenue to put in a full day of work. One day last week he got to the pier a little late and caught only two lousy fish. So last night he called his friend (and my brother-in-law) Lewie Faustino and told him, "Just get down there as early as possible." Lewie made it to the pier by five.
"For a while I'd get up and take a shower and all that, but I finally learned that it's not worth the effort," Luke says.
"I knew that already," says Lewie.
On the nights before Luke goes fishing, he sleeps on the couch so the alarm won't wake his wife and 18-month-old son when it goes off at 3:30. Lewie, 39 and unmarried, doesn't have those kinds of concerns.
Lewie and Luke don't hang out much except on the pier, but they have more than fishing in common: Although they both have jobs they need to get to later this morning (Luke markets blues records, Lewie is a painter and plasterer), both also harbor entrepreneurial dreams of locating or creating a niche market that will put them on easy street. In 1994, Luke produced a cassette and CD called Goin' Fishin': The Greatest Fishing Songs Ever--15 Classic Country & Novelty Catches. In 1997, Lewie developed Weenie Babies, a line of plush toy penises with names like "Hand Solo" and "Chewcocka." In 1999, Lewie took a few hundred of Luke's leftover Goin' Fishin' tapes to Uncle Fun on Belmont, where they've sold pretty well. The Weenies, however, never quite found their market, and Lewie still has about a thousand of them in his apartment.
Positioned high above the water on a concrete pier, the 20 or so fishermen at Belmont Harbor aren't worried about scaring off the fish, but they're quiet; standing shoulder to shoulder in the darkness, each man seems alone with his thoughts. Some men, however, tire of being alone with their thoughts sooner than others.
"Hey Luke, you got a DVD player?" Lewie asks.
"I got a great DVD for you: The Making of 'Who's Next.'" Oh man, is it cool! They got a little thing on Keith Moon in there--" Lewie is interrupted by a tug on his pole. He reels in a small, dark, ugly fish with a square jaw and heavy jowls.
"What is this?"
Luke says it's a goby, an invasive species. "It's from the Baltic Sea or something. Came in on a freighter. It's like a zebra mussel with fins."
"He's got a grip," Lewie observes while removing the hook. "I can't even do Edward G. Robinson with him." It's one of Lewie's standard routines: if the goby would oblige, he'd manipulate its jaw and have it say, "Yeah, see? You'd give your left eye to nail me, wouldn't ya? I'm a goby, see? Yeah."
Luke tells him to throw it on the ground and stomp it instead of throwing it back, but Lewie says he can't do it, see? He tosses the goby into a little hollow on the cement pier, where it will asphyxiate among cigarette butts, bottle caps, and the corpses of other gobies.
Lewie catches another small fish, this one a smallmouth bass. He kisses it and throws it back. "Kiss him on the head, kiss him on the lips, and throw him back in."
"It's good to kiss a fish," Luke agrees.
It's 5:30 now; Luke has been here an hour but hasn't caught a fish. "Sometimes they don't come out until 7:30," he says, "and when they do, they're jumping all over the place. They've got their own special clock."
Any number of theories have been floated as to why the perch have been so big and plentiful this June. At least some credit goes to Perch America Inc., which successfully lobbied the state six years ago to ban commercial fish companies from netting perch in the Illinois waters of Lake Michigan. Lewie observes that the perch run is cyclical anyway. Luke points out that because of the cool spring, the fish are running late this summer. "They come in to spawn, they don't come in until the water starts warming up and usually that's, like, April. I suppose if you want to come out and fish just for the fun of it, July will be incredible. But you can't keep any fish," he says. "Some people, I'm sure, will try, and they'll get busted."
The man fishing next to Luke catches a good-size perch. It's his second of the day. Nobody's keeping score, but everybody keeps watch. No one has even come close to the limit.
Luke switches bait. He's been using minnows; now he starts using soft-shell crab.
Lewie lights up a Marlboro. "So you quit smokin', huh Luke?"
The guy next to Luke catches another perch, larger than the last, and puts it in his pail. Lewie catches a perch that's not quite a foot long and puts it in Luke's container.
"I came up with a new Weenie," Lewie announces. "Called 'Weapon of Mass Eruption.' It's always looking for Bush." That gets a laugh out of Luke, but nothing more. Lewie reels in another perch, this one only about half a foot long, too small to keep. Luke asks him how many that is.
"Twelve," he lies.
Luke has continued to collect fishing songs since Goin' Fishin' and says he has around 800. "I've been building to it for years, presiding over the world's largest collection of fishing music," he says. He thinks he's found a use for it all. "There's probably a hundred different radio shows where guys get on and talk about fishing," Luke says. He aims to tweak the format with "'The Anything Goes Fishing Show'--the only fishing radio show that plays only fishing music." He says he has a meeting scheduled with someone at WDCB, the station at College of DuPage.
Lewie asks him what songs he's got. "I've got 'Moby Dick' by Frankie Laine. It's a rarity," says Luke.
"What about that rare song, 'Goby Dick'?"
Luke doesn't respond. He's looking at one of his soft-shell crabs. "It was frozen and it's alive still. Now it's thawed out." As it wriggles in his hand he tears off the back end, sticks it on a hook, and casts. He's also got "Moby Dick" by Led Zeppelin, he says, as well as "Mud Shark" by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and "Some Days There Just Ain't No Fish" by Pearl Bailey. "Ain't no fish, ain't no perch, ain't no flounder!" he sings. There's one that's gotten away so far: a New Duncan Imperials song about carp that he heard at one of their shows but has yet to find on CD.
"I want that song for the radio show," he says. "And if everything works out right I'm going to do Goin' Fishin' again as a multi-CD set: one folk, one all blues, one all country rock, one all classic country, one all bluegrass, and one comedy."
"Did you see that thing on the news with the Asian carp?" Lewie asks. "These things were jumping into guys' boats, and I'm talking about, like, seven- to ten-pound fish, OK? If they get up here, we're screwed. It's all over for Great Lakes fish."
But Luke doesn't answer. Finally, at 7:10, almost four hours since he rose from his couch in Bartlett, he's caught a perch.
Lewie says the one he caught is bigger. Five minutes later, Luke catches another one, bigger than the last. And two minutes later, another one. He smiles broadly. "If things pick up I'm calling that boss of mine and tellin' him to go to hell," he says. "'Hello, boss? Go to hell!'"
When Lewie leaves for work at 8:15, Luke's got all the fish he's going to catch. There may be better days ahead in August, but by the time he heads off a half hour later he has seven perch, which is plenty of fish to clean in the alley behind the offices of Blind Pig during his lunch break.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.