The No Fishing signs appeared around the lagoon on the landfill at Northwestern sometime in the late 1980s. The university brought in a dredger and a contractor to remove silt and generally upgrade the lagoon, which connects to Lake Michigan at its north and south ends.

Even with the silt buildup and the worsening summer algae blooms, the lagoon had been a great fishing hole. Snaggers, with their surf rods and treble hooks the size of small anchors, lined the bridge elbow to elbow at the south end, oblivious of the skateboarders, bikers, students, and elderly strollers who crossed the bridge in a steady stream. In the summer, perch fishermen replaced the snaggers on the bridge, while anglers accompanied by their families spread their blankets and picnics along the banks and tried their luck at perch, carp, bluegills, and bullheads.

A smaller group of anglers, the lagoon masters, cast for trout and salmon in season, but also knew a secret–the lagoon brimmed with largemouth bass, some weighing five pounds or more, as well as large panfish. These anglers typically fished in the early morning before work or just before dusk–the hours when bass are most active.

When the dredging and upgrading was completed a couple years later, the No Fishing signs stayed up. The university had adopted a new policy. The anglers, particularly the snaggers, were an insurance liability. Henceforth the lagoon would be off limits to fishermen. The university even erected a fence to block access to the rocky point on Lake Michigan, known to anglers as “the Rocks,” just beyond the southeast tip of the lagoon, a popular spot when the salmon were running.

The ban remains in force. Snaggers don’t come here anymore. Neither do the families, the old men who fished all night by lantern light, or the preteen boys who came to the lagoon on their bikes with rods and night crawlers.

But the lagoon masters never stopped coming. Word had spread that if you did get nailed, the campus cops would let you go with a warning, but getting caught could mean a $40 penalty. So the lagoon masters keep a low profile.

On Labor Day, for instance, a day that was supposed to be rainy but turned out to be gloriously blue. In the early evening two fishermen were working the far north corner, the spot of choice both for its vantage point (good for spotting campus cops approaching from any direction) and because it’s where the outtake pipe drains into Lake Michigan. This attracts fish like a magnet.

Stan, a man who looked to be in his mid-40s wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “I Fish, Therefore I Am,” had been fighting a fish for nearly ten minutes when I first approached him. He finally reached into the water and heaved out a dun-colored fish twice the length and about the width of a large ham. He held it up for me and my two boys to admire and then eased it back into the water. “They’re great eating if you let them swim around in your bathtub a couple of days to get the stink out of them–which is usually not an option if you got a wife.”

For the hour he fished, Stan appeared and then disappeared from the bank like a phantom. His tackle box, net, and other gear were stashed in a nearby pine grove. He crouched behind a tall clump of Queen Anne’s lace and blanket flowers when his paranoia overcame him and then reemerged after scanning the terrain for reassurance that no campus cops were on the prowl.

“Today I’m just having fun with carp,” he said as he put a kernel of corn on his hook. “My friends josh me about going after carp, but they’re great fighters, and there’s some huge ones in this lagoon. I’m sure there’s some over 40 pounds. The secret to catching them is to use a small hook, no bigger than a number eight, and either a sliding sinker or no sinker at all. The carp must feel no steel or any resistance when he takes the bait or he’ll spit it out.”

Stan said he had been fishing the lagoon for 15 years. “Any fish that swims in Lake Michigan will show up here. I’ve heard of people pulling 20-pound northern pike out of here.” I told him about the pair of otters that spent the summer in the lagoon back in 1986. Every time I visited the lagoon that summer I saw the long, sleek creatures chasing each other, doing underwater somersaults, doing the things otters do. I pointed them out to people who knew about wildlife and they all agreed they were otters. But a county naturalist laughed when I said otters were living in the lagoon. “Probably muskrats,” he said.

Stan pondered this for a moment. “Like I told you, if it lives in Lake Michigan, anywhere in Lake Michigan, and I’m not just talking fish, it will show up in the lagoon.”

“I mainly come here on the rainy days,” said the other fisherman, a guy in a Cubs cap who was casting for bass with state-of-the-art spinning gear. “Not so many people, and the fishing tends to be better. But day in and day out, this is one of the most productive places I’ve ever fished, even in the bad old days when it was full of silt and sheets of that brown, stinky algae.”

He seemed unconcerned about getting caught himself. “I was fishing on the bridge a couple of weeks ago, catching huge bluegills with a little popper when two campus cops drove their cruiser right across the bridge. I was standing there with a seven-foot fly rod and they didn’t give me a second look. Only once was I ever told to leave and that was two years ago.”

Emboldened by his reassurance, I signaled for my two boys to fetch our rods and tackle box from the pine grove where we had stashed them next to Stan’s.

But no sooner had I rigged up the first rod and flipped a line in the water than a tall man in a suit and tie suddenly topped the rise behind us, spotted me fishing, and began moving slowly in our direction. Everything about him–the deliberate way he walked, his stern expression, his impeccable dress–radiated authority. At the very least, I assumed, he was head of campus security or maybe director of the physical plant. “Where’s the No Fishing sign?” he asked, as I sheepishly reeled in my line and turned to face him.

“I don’t think there ever was a No Fishing sign right here,” I said, playing dumb.

“No, there was a No Fishing sign right here, but it looks like someone took it down.”

“Yeah? I’ve never seen it.”

“Well, it was definitely there.”

I squatted beside my tackle box, feigning great interest in its contents.

“Doing any good?” the man asked.

“I just threw a line in. But those guys…” I scanned the banks, but both of the others had disappeared. “Uh, some guys that were here before were catching carp and a few bass.”

“There’s some monster bass in there,” the man said. “Some big northerns, too. I even caught a muskie in there. That was back in ’83.”

I threw my line back out and handed the rod to my older boy. My younger boy, oblivious to the potential danger this man presented, was kicking through the strip of wildflowers along the bank trying to catch grasshoppers.

“I got a rod in my car. I ought to go get it.” The man stood beside me in a minute of silent reflection. “I heard the campus was cracking down on fishermen, but I don’t see any No Fishing sign.”

“There’s signs everywhere else along the lagoon,” I offered. “But not here.”

I noticed my line moving slowly through the water. “Set the hook!” I shouted to my older boy. He picked up the rod and dashed up the bank, holding it over his head, until the rod bent nearly double, stopping him in his tracks.

“You put corn on your hook?” Stan yelled from near the pine grove where he had been hiding.

“Yeah,” I shouted back.

“Wow! A big carp! Look how it’s running.”

“Let it run, that’s the way,” I counseled my boy. I turned toward the man in the suit, but he was gone. I looked up and saw him in the distance, trotting toward the parking lot.

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