At sunrise on March 26, all of Montrose Harbor was anticipation and birdsong. Like the migratory birds in the wooded sanctuary behind them, the 20 or so fishermen who dotted the harbor were from everywhere: Kenosha and Cambodia, Elk Grove and Ukraine, Logan Square and Germany. They woke up at two and drove from Indiana; they slept on their sisters’ couches. They biked here from West Ridge, tackle boxes and buckets rattling in a little wagon behind them. The salmon were running, was the word: they were there to catch them, and I was there to see them do it.
I myself was also running—from the bait shop where I’d parked my car to where the harbor juts furthest out into Lake Michigan—late as always to meet up with documentary photographer Lloyd DeGrane, who’d suggested this adventure. Despite living here for years, I’d never seen the sunrise break over the water, but I made it just as the sun burst up from the lake, a fiery orb. Then I found Lloyd with his camera, watching a man with a flashlight on his head struggle with two fishing lines as he complained in a language neither of us spoke. One line had crossed with another, creating a mess, but not for nothing: the water rippled. His friends clustered around him, narrowly avoiding kicking over the Dunkin’ Donuts coffees on the ground next to their gear. One grabbed a net; another began to reel.
We watched for a while. The white noise of the waves mixed with DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The man with the flashlight freed one of the lines and stretched it out along the pier. Minnows were strung evenly along it like Christmas lights; the ones that were still alive twitched. From farther down the harbor, I heard a sound like the firing of a Nerf gun but much louder. A puff of vapor floated above a man crouched near a five-gallon bucket with what appeared to be the upper half of a broomstick protruding from it. Attached to the broomstick was a reel of fishing line crowned with a little gold bell. Next to the man, a red extinguisher, filled with CO2 instead of chemical fire retardant. This was powerline fishing. With a weighted line, a pressurized canister, and a little Big-Shouldered chutzpah, fishermen at Montrose Harbor have been catching fish this way since the 1950s, when they invented the method right here, according to the owners of the Park Bait Shop 100 yards behind us. (They may have a business interest in keeping that story alive, but, family-run since opening in 1958, they were also here to see it.)
With this technique, fishermen can shoot their lines a couple hundred yards out, reaching the cooler waters preferred by coho and Chinook salmon, stocked in the Great Lakes since the mid-60s. Books can and have been written about the choice made by former Michigan state fisheries chief Howard Tanner to fight the invasion of one non-native species of fish (alewives) with the introduction of another (salmon). Since then, alewives have vastly diminished, but to lure hobby fishermen and their dollars, Great Lakes states continue to stock salmon, albeit in fewer numbers—partially because there are fewer alewives to sustain them and partially because the fish are now breeding on their own.
Suddenly, a few feet in front of me, there were shouts and a splash. The fisherman who’d been reeling held up his catch, beaming—not a salmon, but a heavy brown trout, slick and gasping. There was a little red blood on its mouth and gills. As it writhed, scales fell through the air like glitter and landed, shimmering and wet, on the concrete of the pier. He hooked the fish through the mouth and gill, attached it to a new line, and threw it back in the water, where it’d swim, leashed, until it was time for it to die. The man turned to us with a ruddy, cheerful face. “Nice work!” said Lloyd. This is how we met Andrew, 50, from Glenview via Ukraine, and got to talking.
My name is Katie, and I’m with the Chicago Reader. Can I ask you about what you’re doing here?
I mean, I’m just here first time with my friends. . . . [Sheepishly smiles] I just come here with the two coffees, you know?
How do you like it so far?
Like it so far. You see, I just get it!
We saw! Congratulations. Are you going to clean it yourself?
He probably going to do it. [Jerks his head to a friend.] Like I say, I’ve never been here. I fish regular fishing, off the shore on fishing rods, not on a powerline. I want to see what’s going on. How have that happened? It’s kind of surprise. You have to check [the powerline]; it has multiple hooks.
I get here like 6:15, 6:20—
—With the coffee?
With the coffee. [Laughs.] Dunkin’ Donuts, get coffee, but so far we didn’t even have the time to sip it, because all this action. That’s pretty cool.
You had to drive to get here. Is it worth it?
I mean, worth it? Yes! And it’s a really nice day, you know? I’m not gonna stay that long because we have plans with my family; we have lunch—
Are you bringing lunch?
—at the restaurant. [Laughs] I mean, I can definitely bring at least one fish and cook.
And they’ll believe that you are here. Proof.
My mom’s still in Ukraine. My dad, my family’s here. My mom, she don’t want to come here. She was a couple times here, but she’s old generation. My brother is there too. I’m from Liev, by the Polish border. Really bad up there.
I hope everything is OK for your family.
Can I ask what your name is?
Andrew? Andrew, but actually in Ukraine? I’m Andrii.
The topic switched to the birds flying over our heads. “It’s beautiful,” said Andrii, “it’s so very nice.” He wanted to try some bird-watching next; he’d heard Waukegan was a good spot, as well as Zion, Illinois. Then, we said our goodbyes and good lucks.
Twenty feet down the harbor, a 15-year-old boy with black hair and shy dark eyes was unwrapping tamales. “Sure,” he smiled and said to his shoes when I asked if we could talk, “but I’m not an expert. I’m with my uncle.” The boy’s name was Jake. It was his second time powerline fishing. They hadn’t caught anything yet, but his uncle had just redone their shot. “It feels like a good one,” Jake said. His uncle, who had been messing with the line at the water’s edge, came over. “You get anything out of him yet?” Brian, 45, joked.
Both uncle and nephew were new to powerline fishing. It was Jake’s neighbor who’d put Brian onto it, inviting him out for his first time three weeks before. The next weekend, Brian rigged together some gear and crossed his fingers. He caught eight salmon then, three over the state limit of five per day, releasing back what he couldn’t keep. The rest went to a friend who owned a restaurant. “On the record, he doesn’t serve it to customers, and I can attest to that,” Brian told us. “But he does like to eat the fish.”
Each trip brought with it a new lesson, and this Sunday’s was to pack more food. “I hope he’s liking it,” Brian said a little anxiously, watching Jake squat at the harbor’s edge and study the water. They’d driven in from Elk Grove Village and arrived before sunrise, up so long that they were almost ready for lunch. But as ever in Chicago, there was a Tamale Guy—a man further down the harbor, Brian said, named Jose, who makes tamales weekly to sell while he fishes himself. “They’re really good,” confirmed Jake.
A few yards off the harbor, bufflehead ducks dipped under the frigid water, wriggling their tails toward the still-brightening sky. Everywhere, I heard gulls crying and men complaining. The water was too still, the weather cold but sunny—too nice. “Weather that’s good for people is bad for fish.” “Nothing’s biting.” “They crossed my lines!”
We kept walking. Two friends in their 20s dangled their legs over the harbor’s edge, catching the sunrise before turning in after a family member’s all-night quinceañera. Nearby, a man wearing a Cubs hat used an empty container of mustard as a floater. “It’s my good luck charm,” he explained. Down the way, a 60-year-old white man with a sun-creased face and a flannel jacket sat rather forlornly in a camp chair. He looked like an extra from Jaws but had an accent straight out of the Wisconsin woods. Next to his chair, an old-fashioned red wagon held his canister of CO2; on top of his tackle box sat a doughnut and a Diet Dr. Pepper. His name was Tommy, and he also recommended the tamales from Jose (“They’re real authentic, stuffed with chicken”), although according to Tommy, Jose didn’t charge. Maybe Jose just didn’t charge Tommy; the way the latter talked, Jose was another buddy he’d gotten to know at the harbor, along with two others who now and then made a trip to visit him and ice fish.
How ya doing?
Oh, not too bad. Wish the fish would cooperate.
We’re powerlinin’ for salmon.
How often do you come here?
Oh, I don’t know, one or two times a week.
What time did you get out here?
Oh, really early. Got here at five o’clock this morning. Coming from Kenosha. This is what we’re fishing for [shows picture of filets on his phone].
Yup. Usually when we catch them, we clean them, filet them, bake ’em, or put ’em on the grill. But it’s been slow this morning. [Sighs, squints, and looks out to the horizon.] You never know with these fish. They could start anytime.
Last week, we all did really good. I hit my limit. So did my friend and his son. I’m only fishing today here ’cause then I’m going to La Crosse [Wisconsin]. My friend texted me—they’re getting a lot of perch.
Oh, so you’re a fisherman, fisherman.
Oh yeah, we’ll probably go for two, three days.
Behind Tommy, on the stone stairs that lined the harbor, Jennifer, 20, and Mary, 21, sat in hoodies and blankets, clutching gigantic Starbucks drinks and switching between Spanish and English. “We just came to see the sunrise,” they told me, in near unison. The sun was higher now; the sky spilled paint. The colors were taking on a pewter hue that would only darken as the day went on, the clouds eventually dumping snow. But right now Jennifer was happy. When she drove in from the north side to watch the dawn two days before, it was so cloudy she couldn’t see the sun.
A few feet from Mary and Jennifer, a handful of white men from Indiana huddled quietly around a kerosene heater. The shimmering heat it gave off made their faces look wavy as it rose up, carrying the smoke from their Marlboro Light 100s with it. A German shepherd puppy named Noah pointed his nose hopefully toward a wire wagon up on the steps: inside, a coho salmon, the first I’d seen this morning, lay freshly dead. Noah’s owner was a plumber from Indiana named Doug, 38, here fishing for his fourth year. He told me he’s never had much luck line fishing, and this year, neither had the rest of his crew. But, “I used to work with these guys, and this is the only time a year I go out and really see ’em,” he said with a shrug and a smile, a Busch Light in his hand. Just then, one of his buddies hollered. One of them had caught a salmon. Doug began razzing. “Push him in the water!” he called out. “I come here specifically so that he doesn’t catch a fish.”
Across the water, a greenish tint hung over the Indiana coast, pretty and alarming. This lurching two-step—admiration for beauty and bounty, followed by the realization of the man-made damage present in both—defines my relationship to this water. The Great Lakes are less polluted than they used to be, and that’s no small thing, but it’s still not recommended you eat the fish from them more than twice a week at most. “Eating just one freshwater fish a year can dramatically increase the amount of toxic forever chemicals coursing through a person’s blood, according to a new study that reflects more than a half century of pollution contaminating the Great Lakes and rivers nationwide,” reported the Chicago Tribune this January.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, is a chemical found in paint, firefighting foam, stain repellents, and nonstick cookware. Thanks to industrial pollution and anemic federal regulation, it’s also now found in our Great Lakes. PFOS builds up in human blood, doesn’t break down in the environment, and triggers health problems such as liver damage, impaired fertility, immune system disorders, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and reduced vaccine effectiveness. Long-term exposure might also cause cancer. The fishermen of Montrose Harbor are keenly aware of the presence of PFOS and other forever chemicals in the fish. (It came up in conversation with nearly everyone I spoke to.) But what interested me was that, instead of repelling them from the water, this knowledge drew them closer to the lake. Each shared with me their tips and tricks for preparing the fish, their appreciation for the vital, unique nutrients their catches still supply (and for the relationships built through this hobby), and their attentiveness to the lake ecosystem’s health and cycles by fishing in season and abiding by catch limits set by the state. It struck me how intimate they were with the lake and its creatures, how they seemed to understand themselves as part of both. There were some bittersweet memories and some dark jokes, but I didn’t hear any despair.
“Since I’m not having any kids, coho is OK to eat,” joked David, 46. Originally from Germany, he was fishing with his friend John, 50. John, born and raised in the city, sported a brown mustache and kind eyes and looked like he knew where to find a good Chicago hot dog. At three and four years old, he’d hunt for crayfish under the boulders that used to line the harbor, before it was manicured and paved, while his dad fished.
Did you see the guys shooting the weights with the extinguisher? When I was little, they did it without the extinguisher. Yeah, they would just use a railroad spike.
And a guy would just [gestures lassoing] like a cowboy overhead. My dad was a big fisherman down here. He was a butcher at Jewel for 35 years and would come down here every morning before work. Clarence the butcher. He just loved it.
Do you eat them?
It depends. Coho if they’re younger and not as big, so you wouldn’t have as much of the PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals] and stuff like that.
Do you filet them, smoke them?
Filet ’em, and he just made a smoker last year.
David: Oh, yeah! We’re hoping to get some this time so I can try it out. Also, if you are concerned about forever chemicals, smoking is a good way, because it melts out a lot of the fat, and all those things you don’t want are in the body fat. You’re trying to already trim off the belly fat, and then yes, smoking is pretty much the best way to go about it.
Unfortunately, not everything in the fish can be cut or melted away. Mercury, for example, is stored over time in muscle, not fat, which is why John only eats coho that are younger and smaller. “Cooking does not destroy chemicals in fish, but heat from cooking . . . allows some of the contaminated fat to drip away,” confirms a fact sheet issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health. “You can reduce the amount of these chemicals and your exposure by properly trimming, skinning, and cooking your catch.”
As we walked back up the harbor, Lloyd and I passed Andrii and his friends. More had arrived, including two little boys wearing overall snow pants. Brothers, perhaps, cherry-cheeked and under the age of ten—one tended to the fishing reel while another turned pork kebabs over a small impromptu grill. Bows and arrows, made out of sticks and the rubber fishing line shot from the canisters, were scattered on the stairs behind them.
Even though we had poles to share as children growing up in Michigan, my brothers and I liked the collaborative work of making our own. The water lapping at our calves, we’d dip our lines, tied to foraged sticks, into our town’s inland lake and pull out pumpkinseed and bluegill no larger than our hands. We never ate those fish—the run-off from the homes crowding the water made that a bad idea. But from the Au Sable River, a tributary of Lake Huron, we pulled bass and perch to eat with our dad, who grew up on those waters and loved showing us what he’d learned.
Cultural and intergenerational, fishing together provides a kind of sustenance that goes beyond the universally tainted flesh. Through fishing, perhaps the brothers in snow pants and Jake with his uncle will develop their own relationship to the water and each other, and when they grow up, pass on their own understanding of how interdependent we all are. In the meantime, on the harbors of Chicago at least, there are always tamales to tide you over until all the fish are safe to eat in any amount once more.