The magnet is designed to search for ferromagnetic objects (meaning no gold, silver, or bronze—only iron) in the water. Think old pipes, keys, nails, bolts, shopping carts, car parts, and sometimes—for the lucky sportsman—a gun, knife, or treasure. Credit: S. Nicole Lane

About a month ago, I saw a magnet being hurled over the 18th Street Bridge. Initially, I brushed it off and I continued to stroll along the Chicago River bank with my friends. But the sound of the splash carried some weight, like an anchor or rock colliding with the water. I expected the line to be empty, but then I saw that the two magnet throwers on the bridge were pulling up what appeared to be a barrier gate (the kind you see at large concerts). This is when I was first introduced to magnet fishing: the activity of metal scavengers cleaning up waterways all around the world. 

Instead of hauling in a Lake Michigan salmon, these fishermen are anglers of rust and steel. Similar to metal detecting on land, magnet fishing finds submerged items below the surface of rivers and lakes. The simple outdoor activity involves approximately 50 feet of strong synthetic rope which is tied around a carabiner and attached to a magnet (ranging from 200 to 1,000 pounds of pull force). The magnet is designed to search for ferromagnetic objects (meaning no gold, silver, or bronze—only iron) in the water. Think old pipes, keys, nails, bolts, shopping carts, car parts, and sometimes—for the lucky sportsman—a gun, knife, or treasure. 

Although mostly harmless, magnet fishing does come with the possibility of danger. One Kentucky fisherman found a grenade earlier this year which required a call for the bomb squad. Two fishermen found a handcuffed body in England. And in 2018, a father and son drowned while “catching” metal. A day for adventure can result in risky business.

Fishing with magnets and catching rays while standing on a boat floating in the stretch of the Chicago River near 18th Street. Credit: S. Nicole Lane

Any place with water can be an area for magnet fishing, as long as it isn’t private property, where magnet fishing is usually not permitted. Magnet fishing is legal in 49 states except for South Carolina and no fishing license is required. However, on some bridges, standing and fishing are illegal which may draw some attention to authorities. There are pages of videos of fishermen on YouTube where police stop fishermen for being a nuisance. The prime locations for the exuberant fisherman include canals (these areas where transportation of local goods takes place provide a bountiful supply of metals); rivers (as with canals, rivers often host transportation and the Chicago River in particular has bounties under its bridges from passersby dropping items in); and old wells. Magnet fishers suggest looking into old wells for the occasional hidden treasure that was stashed there and also old coins that were tossed in over the years. 

Even though all bodies of water can be fished in, some fishermen have their eyes on hot spots. Mark Freeburg, a 45-year-old former Chicago resident, says that he scouted out Bubbly Creek when he fished in the city. “I researched on a lot of blogs and Reddit forums. I didn’t know the history of the south side so I decided to begin fishing in the notorious part of the creek,” he says.

The south stretch of the Chicago River, flowing from what used to be the country’s largest stockyard, can be found between McKinley Park and Bridgeport. It was once known as the Stock Yard Slip—aka a dead animal dumping ground in the meatpacking industry—causing illnesses in the neighborhoods along the creek. The methane and hydrogen sulfide gas from the carcasses created a sludge so thick that folks could walk across it. It also led to gas bubbles, giving the creek its noxious name. As Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, “Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out.”

In 1919 the gruesome Stock Yard Slip was filled by the city of Chicago, but Bubbly Creek is still considered an “environmental quagmire.” Somehow, after 100 years of animal carcasses, heavy metal objects, additional litter, and an oil spill in 2017, the creek perseveres. 

In January 2021, it was announced that Congress passed a bill that will begin the conservation and restoration of the 1.25-mile stretch. Until then, Freeburg says, “I go to Bubbly Creek whenever I go into the city. It has so much history. It was a literal dumping ground. I’d like to stick a camera to my magnet and see what it sees when it goes underwater.” 

A fisherman holds his casting rope as he floats in the water near Ping Tom Park in Chinatown. Credit: S. Nicole Lane

Jake Harold, 33, from Hammond, Indiana, sees magnet fishing as an environmental duty rather than a search for treasure. Two years ago, while volunteering at a Wolf Lake cleanup, he saw someone magnet fishing on the shore. “As someone interested in helping our environment,” he says, “I purchased a $50 magnet online and began exploring local watering holes.” 

When iron breaks down, it turns into ferric oxide. And when enough builds up, it becomes toxic to underwater life. In fact, rust is the number one threat to drinking water, with cities in the U.S. spending $50 billion a year cleaning rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers where our water travels through rusty pipes that have been there for up to 100 years. 

Urban areas and waterways become a dumping ground for metal parts that find their way to the bottom of river beds and remain there undisturbed. The ferrous metal objects impact the underwater ecosystem when iron combines with water to form rust and begins to corrode and flake off. Of course, low concentrations of metal exist in water naturally, and corrosion doesn’t happen overnight, but for folks like Harold, every little bit counts. “Sure, I’m not lifting up cars or preventing oil spills, but I do feel a sense of duty to keep my water safe,” he explains, “even if it means hauling in some trash and twisted metal from the bottom of the Chicago River.” 

He typically walks alongside a river or stream with his magnet for two hours a day on the weekends. “I bring some beers, pack a snack, and try to clean up as much as I can. I pack it out using a bucket or bag,” he says. “The midwest is filled with so much water, yet our communities abuse and neglect it. It breaks my heart.” 

Harold says he usually packs out quite a bit of objects from the streams near his home. Bolts, screws, and corroded metals all fill his bucket which he throws into his truck bed and stores in his garage. 

Although Freeburg isn’t as interested in the environmental component of magnet fishing, he says he’s hauled a good amount of debris. “You have to weigh through the garbage to find some treasures,” he says. Last year, while searching the Bubbly Creek area by the Chicago Maritime Museum on 35th, Freeburg pulled up a large knife from the river. He’s found several bicycles in the creek as well as riskier hauls. A few years ago, he lugged up a .38 caliber revolver which he assumes was tossed after a crime. If you find a gun, remember to treat the gun as if it’s loaded and keep it pointed in a safe direction. Rust and debris can also cause the gun’s mechanisms to operate poorly, so don’t bump or throw the weapon.

 “Most of my buddies, and YouTubers, want to find guns or weapons. We know we won’t be finding many treasures. The thrill is finding something a little bit dangerous.” Freeburg—who isn’t really a fan of photos—called 911 after finding the gun in the river, but other folks take snapshots and videos of their hauls before contacting law enforcement. 

Legally, folks are required to turn in all weapons that are found or they face the consequence of up to seven years of prison time, since it might be considered an illegal possession of a firearm. The majority of magnet fishers will call the authorities immediately after finding weapons rather than risk going to jail.

A quick YouTube search will yield results with videos named “Unbelievable!! Machine Gun Found Magnet Fishing! *Police Involved*” or “Chicago Magnet Fishing. Gun Found. Police Called. Lake Michigan.” These clickbait titles invite and entice new treasure-hungry fishermen to try out the hobby. The sensationalism of solving a crime creates a vigilante approach. Reeling up weapons, and turning them in to the police, gives Freeburg in particular the feeling that he’s a crime-stopper. 

Of course, when law enforcement arrives on the scene, they simply tag and bag the weapon and send it to the lab. Since all guns have a serial number, they can be traced and tracked. However, if a weapon has spent long amounts of time in the water, the serial numbers may rub off. 

The 1982 murder of Dianne Masters, whose body was eventually found in her sunken Cadillac in the Cal-Sag Channel near Willow Springs, is also on the mind of some fishermen. “I remember that murder since my family lives near La Grange,” says Freeburg. “Divers went down and found all kinds of stuff. It was a huge dumping ground for stolen vehicles and objects.” 

Masters’s car was pulled from the water late in 1982, and her body was discovered in the trunk. Since then, police have regularly looked at the Chicago waterways for potential cars, trucks, and evidence to help solve crimes or find victims. “I’m always thinking about that when I fish,” says Freeburg. “I want to find something that could help someone.” 

But not every outing ends up like an episode of Dragnet. The appeal for magnet fishing enthusiasts also involves treasure hunting: the possibility that one might find a small token for themselves. “I never know what I’ll find but I always know I’ll never leave empty,” says Freeburg. “Chicago’s got so much water and so much to search. I’ve found watches and jewelry. Not sure how it ended up there, but it does and goes right into my pocket.” 

A magnet that can withstand 200 pounds of pull force is connected to a carabiner, which is attached to a strong synthetic rope. Credit: S. Nicole Lane

Freeburg’s technique for magnet fishing is simple. “I make sure no one is close by to prevent any injury. Then I wrap my rope around my waist. I throw the magnet into the water as far as I can, usually from a dock or bridge. Then I slowly drag or walk alongside the area where I’m standing.” Freeburg says he makes sure the magnet isn’t right on the bed of the water but a few inches above. “It feels like something has bitten your line, similar to a fish. There’s a slight pull to it,” he explains. By hovering the magnet above the bed, you can pull out items from the silt and sand easier. 

When Freeburg finds an item, he immediately lets it dry out. While wearing gloves he uses a small wire brush to wipe away any metal or debris. If it’s something worthwhile, he uses white vinegar to remove the rust and applies WD-40 to protect the object from rusting again. “I think what I find most interesting are the things I don’t recognize. I like researching these weird blobs of metal after I pull them up and figuring out what they could possibly be. It’s learning a little bit about Chicago history,” he says. 

For most fishermen, it’s the thrill of what they may uncover. “Feeling something hook to my magnet is super fun and exciting,” says Harold. Like Freeburg, he’s hungry for what’s tugging on his line below. In the last year, during the pandemic, magnet fishing has skyrocketed in popularity as folks yearn to get outdoors while safely distancing themselves. “I came out here every weekend to busy myself and get into nature while having a blast,” says Freeburg, who usually goes with friends or his 15-year-old son. Magnet fishing may seem tedious for some, and others might miss the point, but for treasure hunting enthusiasts and environmentalists, the hobby has hooked their curiosity. When walking around Ping Tom Park on a Sunday afternoon, you may spot someone practicing tai chi under the bridge, a DJ set on the pagoda, a water taxi pulling up, or a fisherman tossing his rope from the bridge. It’s just another day near the water’s edge in Chicago.