It's a calm August evening and about ten people are fishing for perch off the 100-yard-long cement pier in Calumet Park. Surrounded by water and seated on coolers, lawn chairs, and buckets, they wait. An easy southwest wind blows steadily, and not many perch are biting. Before long three people quietly gather up their buckets and poles and leave.
They pass Leah Lopez, a youthful-looking grandmother seated on a folding lawn chair. The platinum-blond curls piled high atop her head shake as something bites and she excitedly reels in a small fish. "Maybe this is a perch," she says hopefully.
It's not. Upon closer examination, Lopez decides it's a rock bass. She holds the glistening finned creature in her well-manicured hands for quite some time, trying to decide what to do. From across the pier her friend Juan Quijana shouts for her to throw it back.
Lopez knows she might be here a long time before she catches a perch.
Because of a shrinking yellow perch population, sport fishermen in Illinois can legally take in only 25 perch a day. For the last two years that's been the limit, except in June when the limit drops to zero (in previous years that was the month when the most fish were caught).
"Twenty-five's a good limit," says a fast-talking, chain-smoking sport fisherman known as the Jig Man. "You don't want to have to clean more than 25. The limit should stay that for eternity."
Lopez says she's heard of only two fishermen last summer who managed to catch 25.
The four states surrounding Lake Michigan are considering banning perch fishing altogether to preserve the species. For five consecutive years perch have experienced what biologists studying the lake call "reproductive failure." Perch do spawn successfully in the spring, but the larvae do not mature into viable fish. There are many theories as to why this is the case. Eddy Landmichl, an ironworker and relentless advocate for the perch, believes they're starving to death. "They live off the food in the egg sac for three days," he says. "When the baby perch swim up to the top to eat the plankton, there ain't any."
Angry sport fishermen accuse commercial fishing operators of overharvesting the perch. "Those fuckers raped the lake" is a commonly uttered refrain. But biologists disagree with their assertion. "The fishermen do not take larvae," says Ellen Marsden, director of the Illinois Natural History Survey's Lake Michigan Biological Station.
Legal perch limits for commercial operators licensed in Illinois have been reduced by 65 percent since 1995, but the reduction is based on an honor system, which "stinks" to Jack Vadas, president of Perch America, a Lake Michigan perch preservationist group.
Still other causes account for the demise of perch. Nonnative species such as zebra mussels, round gobies, three-spined sticklebacks, and spiny water fleas, which enter the lake in ship ballast, have appeared in great numbers and have begun to drasti-cally alter the lake's ecology. The scenario has played itself out across the nation in lakes, rivers, and streams. Two U.S. senators have pushed for the reissue of the National Invasive Species Act, which asks international freight vessels to take measures to decontaminate their ballast water, but these controls also would be voluntary.
"What's the matter with these guys?" rants Vadas. "Don't they have the balls to pass some laws? Shit, when I read that 'voluntary' shit I wanted to throw up. What's that mean? If you want to poison our water it's OK? If you don't want to that's OK too? We want 100 percent decontamination. You can't be nice to these people. Just like the commercial fishermen. They're rats. They have no honor. In my mind, the only thing that can cure this country is another revolution."
For years guys like Vadas, Big Mike, Coho Harry, the Walleye Kid, Ha Ha, Pete the Polack, and even the Jig Man have fished the Chicago lakefront in all seasons.
"For the average guy on shore, this has not been a good year," says Big Mike Starcevich, sport fisherman and maker of Mik-Lurch lures. "There aren't as many perch along the shore, and the perch are acting like walleye. You have to keep moving and cover a lot more ground. For boaters it was good. But a lot of the perch were in the 8- to 11-inch range. Those were older fish, so it's not looking good for the future."
Some choice sites for perch fishing from shore also have been lost in recent years due to construction changes. The three-block drive to the Montrose horseshoe has been closed. Consequently the horseshoe no longer draws the old-timers with the homemade bait and tackle carriers fashioned out of two-wheeled shopping carts. "It's too far for them to walk now," says the Jig Man. Another deterrent to shore fishing is the $6 to $18 parking at Navy Pier, which replaced the meters often used by retirees living on fixed incomes.
Noticing an eerie absence of sport fishermen, Mayor Daley recently initiated an effort to improve fishing accommodations. The Jig Man has even been named to a special committee for just that purpose. The loss of shore access to the lake concerns the sport fishermen, the Jig Man says, but it's nothing compared to concern over the decreasing numbers of perch.
"When things were really rolling with the perch, 95th Street was packed," says Big Mike. "There were gangbangers fishing and socializing with regular people. Without the perch crime is probably going to go up."
In summers past, at 5 AM on Saturday mornings, fishermen flooded the parking lot of Henry's Sports & Bait Shop on 32nd and Canal with cars, trucks, campers, and low-slung station wagons. The store was so jammed patrons had to take numbers or forget about being served. And while they were waiting discussions would rage over just what the perch had a taste for.
"Jigs and maggots."
"No! Soft-shell crayfish."
"No. No need to spend so much; night crawlers are fine." Sometimes, when a customer couldn't make up his mind, a store employee would say, "Look, they're biting. When they're biting, anything works. When they're not, nothing works. So what do you want?"
Now, "the bait shops are hurtin'," says Big Mike, who sells his lures to shops from Montrose Harbor to the Port of Indiana. "Several are closing, and that's because of the perch."
Urban anglers used to follow the perch year-round, from odd places along the rim of the lake to tall pylons overlooking the water or beneath railroad bridges. They've fished the warm-water discharges of the Commonwealth Edison power plant, and even trespassed a toxic-waste site north of Calumet Park.
In early winter, when the perch were plentiful, anglers threw bricks into Burnham Harbor to break up the ice. Winter deepened and the ice grew thick. The diehards drilled holes with augers and camped out on the ice for the day in huts warmed by propane heaters.
Huge schools of perch swam up the Calumet River to warm themselves in the current, drawing countless anglers to both sides of the 92nd Street bridge at Ewing. Nylon fishing lines gleamed thick and numerous in the sun, waving in unison like a wedding veil over the river.
Thanksgiving morning, 1992. I took a pole out of the garage, grabbed a big empty plastic bucket and a bait bucket of shiners off the back porch, then drove to the mouth of the Calumet River.
After parking my car on Ewing, just south of the 92nd Street bridge, I climbed down a couple flights of stairs and through a hole in a chain-link fence. At the side of the river a cluster of ironworkers fished--red-fingered, cold-handed, delicately unhooking those gasping little perch. With soft white underbellies, black stripes, and yellow fins, they looked like tigers that had decided to become fish. They were tasty, and the fishermen had numerous pan-fry recipes, all of them calling for white flour, garlic salt, pepper, or lemon pepper.
Ha Ha was a strapping man with a round German face, a big belly, and a huge laugh that punctuated every comment his friends made. The other fishermen were longhaired and scrappy, wearing caps with ear flaps and three patterns of camouflage or insulated jumpsuits. Chunks of rusted scrap metal fell from a tall conveyor behind us. Amid the tangle of chain-link fence, fishing lines, and bait buckets stood four pairs of steel-toed boots.
A fellow named Joe saw me blowing on my fingers and decided to be chivalrous. He started removing the perch from my line, even when it came up with doubles.
All the while Ha Ha was out on the pylons in the river screaming "Fish on! Fish on!" every couple of minutes. He wore a hat that must have belonged to an aviator at the turn of the century. Ha Ha was so excited I could see down his throat, even though he stood several yards away. He kept laughing hysterically, almost as if he'd lost his mind, until a barge went by and churned up mud.
"Shit, fun's over. Fish can't see the bait. It'll be 15, 20 minutes before they start biting again." His voice boomed across the river, then he fell silent.
I must have had 20 perch by then, in the days before the limits. If the fishing frenzy had been over, I'd still have been happy with my catch, but the perch came back biting with a vengeance. Ha Ha started yelling again. He snapped up his rod, but the tip stayed down. The school of perch came by in a wave. All the rods went up in succession, all along the river, like a series of bridge lifts.
My bucket had a good 35. A light snow started falling, and I'd lost feeling in my hands. It was time to leave.
For the last couple years the narrow space in back of the Cozzi scrap yard and the pylons in the Calumet River have been vacant. The sport fishermen are gone from those places and many others along Chicago's lakefront.
"Relative abundance" is a term biologists used not so long ago to describe the yellow perch population of Lake Michigan, and it may never again apply to the species--or the perch fishermen.
"Wisconsin already has a five limit," says Big Mike. "Wisconsin and Michigan will be the first to go. It's not as bad in Illinois and Indiana. We'll be the last to go.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jack Vadas, Carlo Nelson, John Hindahl, Ken Schneider, Eddy Landmichl photo by Lloyd DeGrane.