Carp Fishing in America

Mick Thill shows us how it’s done.

By Ted Kleine

“Kind of wild to see Mick Thill here,” drawls the fishing fan from Sugar Grove, as he watches a diminutive Englishman with thinning white hair and Ben Franklin glasses assemble a pole on the bank of the Fox River. “I’ve seen him on TV and read his articles, but I’ve never seen him in person before.”

Not many distinguished visitors stop in the village of Montgomery, Illinois. Thill, a member of the angling team that won the 1982 World Club Championship, is leading a school of fishermen in the fourth annual Mid-West Team Challenge. The winners get to represent the U.S. at next summer’s world championships in Italy.

As Thill sets up his tackle for the three-hour-long afternoon round, he’s hoping to recover from a disastrous morning, in which he pulled in only three fish. It was a big disappointment for a man who once caught 440 fish in a single day at a tournament in England. The bad start, he says, was due to two factors: his celebrity and a really terrific-looking babe in a bright T-shirt.

“There was a very attractive girl standing behind me in a white shirt,” says Thill. At any other time, Thill, a perpetually on the lookout bachelor, would have been happy to see her. But today he’s more interested in attracting carp than women. Thanks to refraction, fish can see what’s happening on the bank, and bright colors make them flee.

“She was nice to look at, but she was scaring the fish away,” Thill says. Also “a lot of people came up and talked to me. I’m trying to be nice and promote the sport and give people advice, but I have to concentrate.”

Everyone wants to talk to Mick Thill. He’s been on MidWest Outdoors. He writes articles for Fishing Facts. He has his own line of fishing tackle. During the lunch break a group of anglers in T-shirts and baseball caps sit at his feet, like students gathered around Socrates, watching him twirl a gossamer fishing line around a hook smaller than the nail on your pinkie. His hands are fine and nimble, like a harpist’s.

A few minutes before the end of the break, Thill realizes he needs to talk strategy with a teammate who’s setting up far downstream. He looks around desperately for a quick form of transportation.

“D’you mind if I borrow your bike?” he asks a woman whose two-wheeler is lying in the grass near the river. Thill, who’s wearing rubber Wellingtons, camouflage pants, and a backward-turned baseball cap, mounts up and rides off madly.

“Kind of an eccentric guy, isn’t he?” says the bemused fan from Sugar Grove.

Even before the air horn sounds to start the afternoon round, Thill has begun his attack on the aquatic fauna. He attaches a lead weight to his line and plumbs the bottom of the river, looking for a drop-off that fish might hide behind.

“Fish love structure,” he says. “I’m building up a visual picture of what’s underwater.”

Once he’s found the spot where he wants to drop his hook, Thill chums it, sprinkling a salad of bread crumbs, cornmeal, and “two secret ingredients” on the surface. It’s like tossing hundred-dollar bills onto the floor of the General Assembly. The fish swarm round.

The air horn blares. Thill baits his hook with a niblet of Jolly Green Giant corn, and within minutes he hooks a carp. It’s a beautiful struggle to watch, a confident angler wearing down a fish. At first the fish, full of thrashing indignation at the barb in its mouth, swims powerfully back and forth in a broad ellipse, tugging hard at the line. Gradually the laps become narrower, as the fisherman draws in his prey, until the fish appears as a gray blur just beneath the limpid surface of the water. When the fish shows its pale belly and lolls its head above the water, as though gasping for air, it’s beaten. By then it’s a relief to sink into the angler’s net.

“That’s the strongest carp for its size I’ve ever landed,” Thill says, as he roots the hook out of the fish’s mouth and drops his catch into the keep net dangling in the river.

“He’s fuckin’ amazing,” marvels Lloyd Yelton Jr., who drove down from Canada to see his father fish in this derby. “The first cast, he’s got something.”

Now Thill is landing carp every five or ten minutes. As the carp flock to him, so do the fans. They perch on a picnic table, a respectful distance from the red-hot angler. He could be Poseidon, his command of the water is so powerful. Thill is so compelling that two men walking their dogs along the river stop to watch.

“This is the Michael Jordan of bank fishing,” a man whispers to his son in a golf announcer tone.

By the end of the afternoon Thill has 58 pounds, two ounces of fish in his keep net, just a bluegill or two short of his personal three-hour record of 59 pounds. (After weighing the fish, he returns them all to the river.) Thill’s team wins. During the awards ceremony he reads off all the results and hands out all the medals. If Thill actually is the Michael Jordan of bank fishing, this is like Jordan organizing his own Gus Macker.

Mick Thill’s passport reads “United States of America,” but everything else about him is English, from the Wellies on his feet to his love of the Queens Park Rangers football club. Thill spent the first 12 years of his life in Morton Grove, then was taken to London by his mother after his parents split up. He learned to fish in Lake Michigan, catching perch in Montrose harbor and on the breakwaters off Waukegan.

“I lahved being on the water, I lahved the thrill of catching a fish, the fascination of watching a float, watching it come to life,” he says in his nasal London accent (think of a superexcited soccer announcer).

In England he discovered that the anglers were much more sophisticated than their American counterparts. English sportfishing has a history going back 500 years, to A Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle, and most rivers and streams in the crowded country have been fished at least that long. The fish are so smart, so wary, that they know the rhythm of the week. When they feel footsteps on the bank on a Saturday, they know it’s fishermen.

To outwit their slippery fish, English anglers developed the float, a long, thin buoy that’s lighter than a bobber and easier for a fish to pull beneath the surface. Fish may shy away from bait held up by a bobber because they can’t suck hard enough to yank down the beach-ball-shaped implement.

“If they feel the resistance of a bobber, they let go,” Thill said. “That would be like you biting into a hamburger and suddenly feeling it being pulled out of your mouth. Our first reaction, and their first reaction, is of shock and fear.”

It’s much easier for a fish to inhale bait on a line held up by a slender float. Once it feeds, the next thing the fish feels is a hook piercing its mouth.

“In England what they love is the challenge of catching the fish,” Thill says. “It’s the art of not scaring them. You have to find the depth and find the structure. You determine where the fish want to be. It’s like a massive chess game. The only difference between chess and catching a fish is a fish can suddenly do something it’s not supposed to do.”

Driven by his mania for fysshynge wyth an angle, Thill captured major tournaments on the Thames while a teenager, winning the Southwick Open at Windsor and the Maidenhead Festival. At the same time he had another passion–art–and it was his work in the art world that led him to his true calling as a fisherman.

In 1972 the lithographic printing company Thill was working for transferred him to New York City. A year later he took a job as director of a contemporary art museum in Atlanta. Down in Georgia he tried his English fishing methods on naive American fish, which haven’t had hooks dangling in front of their bulging eyes every weekend since Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee. One Saturday at a pond in Decatur, Thill caught 45 fish in half an hour “and nobody else caught any.” It was like a basketball player who’d learned his game on the playgrounds of the south side walking into a pickup game in Sri Lanka. A few days later Thill visited a tackle shop in Atlanta and saw it had no floats, only bobbers. That was when he decided: he was going to be English fishing’s apostle to the Americans. Others had introduced European-style bank fishing to this country, teaching a few seminars and going home. But Thill had an advantage the earlier promoters lacked.

“Because I was an American citizen and I understand American fishing, I had a unique opportunity,” he says.

Thill returned to England in 1976 and prepared for his conquest of the New World. He became a full-time professional fisherman, earning his living by writing magazine articles, designing tackle, and consulting with a bait company. He also secured his credentials as a world-class angler. In 1982 he not only won a gold at the World Club Championships, he also won the silver at the individual championships in Ireland. He was a true Brother of the Angle, as Izaak Walton, author of the seminal fishing book The Compleat Angler, would have put it. By 1985 he was ready: he moved to the Chicago area and began selling his own line of floats.

In England, bank fishing is so highly regarded that one of the sport’s champions, Robin Harris, was knighted by the queen. In America, most anglers cast their lines from dry land–just look at the action at Wolf Lake or Montrose harbor any weekend–but if you watch a fishing show on the Nashville Network or the Outdoor Channel, you’ll see nothing but Bubbas in bass boats.

“The Saturday-morning TV fishing shows take place in South America, Canada, Alaska,” Thill complains. “The vast majority of fishing shows are geared toward where the money is, and that’s travel, boats, electronic equipment.”

Thill’s audience is the urban angler who can’t afford a boat or the driveway to park it in, but wants to fish in nearby ponds, harbors, and rivers. Thill himself is thoroughly citified: he lives in a tiny one-bedroom condo in Skokie, a place littered with fishing magazines and tackle and decorated with prints of pastoral English fishing scenes. He listens to Handel while he works. He loves wines, movies, nightclubs. Every year he spends several months in London, where he makes regular trips to the British Museum reading room to research a book he’s writing on the history of English fishing.

“It was a standard joke in England,” he says. “My friends socially and my fishing friends don’t mix. My whole life I’ve had two different lives–of my friends being film buffs and my friends in the arts. How many people have met David Hockney or Jim Dine? I was at the opening of the Pompidou. If you mention Duchamp’s work to the average bass fisherman here in America, he won’t know what you’re talking about.”

Several years ago Thill founded a group called Chicagoland Bank Anglers as a first step toward making competitive bank angling a national movement. This year the group has sponsored tournaments on the Chicago River and in McKinley Park. Its membership is exemplified by people like its president, Steve Somen, who lives in a Loop apartment tower, and Irv Margolis of Lincolnwood. Both speak of Thill as though he brought them religion.

“I’m a disciple,” Margolis testifies. “I am a sworn disciple. On rainy days you can see the bright effulgence on my head, so you can see some of the great luminary’s effervescence has descended on me. What he taught me is an area of fishing in Europe called float fishing. It’s an area of fishing we didn’t understand in the U.S. until he brought it back to tell us about it.”

Before meeting Thill, Margolis caught “an occasional fish,” he says. After, “my best day was a day of about 40 pounds of carp.”

Chicago “is the mecca of bank angling in America,” says Somen. “The movement was born here. We’re going to be talking about this in historic terms someday.” Bank angling’s popularity “is due to Mick’s influence. He’s the father of it. He brought it here and spread the word.”

The word has not spread far. Competitive bank angling is popular in densely populated Europe because for most people it’s the only way to fish. But in vast America there are thousands and thousands of lakes in which to launch a boat. It remains to be seen whether bank angling will find a following outside the big cities. It’s unlikely that Thill will take his team to the world championships next summer, because he can’t find a company to sponsor it. What he really wants is an all-American company to give its benediction to his very European sport.

“McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, when they get behind us that’s when this’ll take off,” Thill promises.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.