As a lad, Dan Pieczonka cadged free liver from Schlesinger’s butcher shop at the corner of Western and Armitage. He and his pals would cut it to pieces, anchor them to lines of string, then toss them into a Humboldt Park pond. When a crayfish took hold they’d yank it ashore and dump it in a bucket. After collecting a dozen or so they’d hop a bus to the North Avenue pier and bait perch with them.
At 61, an expert fly fisherman, fly tier, and rod builder, Pieczonka’s far beyond bait fishing. “Anybody can catch fish with worms,” he says. Fly fishermen “want to make it a little more challenging. We want to come up with our ideas of what it is that the fish are eating.”
Pieczonka still lives in the house where he grew up, the same one his father grew up in, and where he operates Dan’s Tackle Service. He has the biggest fishing tackle ad in the SBC yellow pages, but a first-time customer might walk down his Bucktown block a time or two before spotting the small blue open sign on the front door of his two-flat.
Up a flight of stairs lined with fish posters and photographs, Pieczonka’s second floor is a warren of gear, lures, flies, sinkers, lines, rods, guidebooks, videos, waders, reels, hooks, jackets, and every imaginable color of feather, fur, thread, yarn, or tuft of synthetic fluff you might need to tie a fly. He stocks around 500 different types of line, the boxed spools stacked precariously in front of the window of his grandmother’s old living room.
Somehow customers from all over the midwest find their way to Pieczonka’s parlor. He’s been angling since he was four years old and selling tackle since he was a teenager, and word’s spread that he knows his stuff.
Pieczonka’s parents grew up next door to each other when Bucktown was Polish. His mother’s old house is gone, replaced by one of those narrow cinder-block condos now spread about the near west side like miniature penitentiaries. Dan is the last of his line on the block.
Pieczonka’s mom took him fishing at the lake when he was young, but he owes his passion and his livelihood to her brother Bill, a cigar-chomping blue-collar atheist who took Dan–then a devout altar boy–and his cousin on weekend trips to Wisconsin. The boys would cast their lines while Uncle Bill stationed himself in a bar, emerging periodically to offer instruction and argue about God with his nephew. Pieczonka says his father didn’t fish: “He always used to say, ‘I don’t have to go 70 miles to go to a tavern when I can do it right here on the corner.'”
At age 13 Pieczonka began working at a series of sporting goods stores, including Klein’s downtown, which filled Lee Harvey Oswald’s mail order for the Mannlicher-Carcano he used to shoot Kennedy. He did four years in the navy during Vietnam, an experience he says brought him around to his uncle’s way of thinking about the afterlife: “You go overseas and you meet a bunch of people from totally different cultures and religions, and you find that they’re excellent human beings. And it was like, ‘Well, why are these people going to hell?'”
Pieczonka took advantage of the GI bill on his return and studied philosophy and political science at Loop Junior College (now Harold Washington College) and the U. of I. He took a wrong turn into the bureaucracy of the Social Security Adminis-tration, a job he quit after eight years. He got more out of his degree once he opened the tackle business in 1981. “I spend a lot of time here just talking to people,” he says. “We’ll sit here and I bring out a bottle of booze and we’ll drink and have philosophical discussions.”
One of his favorite pieces of literature is the Treatise of Fishing With an Angle, said to be written by Dame Juliana Berners, a 15th-century English nun. Berners argues for fishing’s superiority over other “good sports and honest games” such as hunting, hawking, and fowling on the grounds that it attends to three necessities: “merry thought,” “work which is not excessive,” and “moderate diet.”
“She’s pushy. She’s selling you fishing,” Pieczonka says. “She’s saying fishing is the best thing to do, and I suppose I would have to agree with her choice. There’s an element of persuasion in the pursuit of the truth–it’s like if you read Plato. He argues with people and tries to get them to where he is.”
Three or four customers a day climb Pieczonka’s steps. He’s built up a clientele of regular joes, CEOs, doctors, and lawyers by putting in appearances at fishing shows and fly-tying clubs. He has contacts with more than a hundred manufacturers and distributors, and a lot of customers rely on his ability to track down hard-to-find items. One friend spotted some rare Japanese bonefish hooks in Boston that weren’t for sale on the manufacturer’s Web site. Pieczonka, who’s only just learning to navigate the Internet, scored about 400 of them by working the phone and speaking to a human. They’re going to try them out next month in the Bahamas.
Pieczonka doesn’t exactly knock off to go fishing, but he often tags along on getaways he arranges for his well-paying pals. He has stacks of snapshots of himself posing with huge, beautiful fish, most of which he releases. The Christmas card he sent out last year shows him triumphantly staggering under the weight of a champion-size red snapper in Cabo San Lucas. He gave that fish to the local guides.
Pieczonka also teaches fly tying and rod building. Much of his clientele has no use for factory-made rods. On a lathe in the back room he custom builds them for anglers with hands too large or small or who have other unique requirements. He once built a three-foot “belly” rod for a guy who wanted to crawl up to the water’s edge so he wouldn’t startle the trout. Last year he outfitted the cast of The West Wing with waders, rods, old books, and flies for an episode.
Alongside thousands of flies with names like Key Lime Squid, Cinnamon Ant, and Estaz Woolybugger, Pieczonka has rows of antique and discontinued gear. Many of his flies are impractical for use and valued solely for their aesthetics–like a gorgeous variation on a Durham Ranger designed by north sider Woytek Medder. Pieczonka’s is encased in Lucite. He still has a reel he used as a kid that was manufactured after World War II by the Zero Hour Bomb Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then there’s the “frog harness” for casting live amphibians, and a chrome lure in the shape of a bat, which he says sold well but didn’t work.
“When you live in one place for 50 years things tend to accumulate,” he says. “It’s kind of like you remain a boy all your life.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.