On a mild afternoon in late March, Elijah Bishop leans forward in a lawn chair that’s parked on the north bank of the Calumet River just off the parking lot of the Streets & Sanitation facility at 92nd and Ewing. Bishop, who’s 74, keeps a tight grip on his fishing pole, which bows toward the water with a taut line making zigzag patterns in the waves. He reels in his catch to the amazement of several onlookers, who’ve risen from an assortment of portable chairs, overturned buckets, and coolers to get a better view.

“Doubles,” says John McDonald. “Look at that.”

“It’s the spark plug that did it,” says another man, referring to Bishop’s improvised sinker.

Bishop removes two gasping yellow perch from the line and throws them into a bucket. He baits the two hooks again with minnows, then casts. McDonald and some of the other anglers duck to avoid getting hit by the spark plug. The line lands farther out on the river than any of theirs.

“Three times today I caught doubles,” says Bishop. “That’s rare. It doesn’t happen regular. I’m really not a good fisherman. I don’t know if I’m just at the right place at the right time–or are they back?”

Ten years ago the tasty panfish–with their distinctive black stripes, white bellies, and yellow fins–were taken by the hundreds from the Calumet River and other favorite fishing spots along Chicago’s shoreline. On peak perch-biting days, cars lined Ewing Avenue at either end of the 92nd Street bridge, and fishing lines formed a veil over the water.

“We used to fish the bridge, and people took everything up there with them,” says Charlotte Markowski. “But when the bridge would be raising, people wouldn’t get off until the last minute–and their buckets would go flying and hit the cars. Now you get a ticket if you do that.”

An angler lost an arm trying to retrieve a bait bucket from the bridge gears, and soon No Fishing and No Parking signs went up near the bridge, says Bob Sadowski, sales manager of Henry’s Sports & Bait Shop. “That drove a lot of people away.”

But people were leaving anyway, because the perch weren’t biting. “Nineteen-ninety was the last good perch run here,” says Marcus Hunter. “From ’90 on, it just kind of slowed.”

Sportfishing groups, such as the Greater Sports Fishing Council in Elmhurst and Perch America in Hammond, blamed the scarcity primarily on overharvesting–particularly of larger females–by commercial fishermen. “The perch started crappin’ out about five or six years ago, just about the time when we tried to get the commercial fishermen off the lake,” says Jack Vadas, vice president of Perch America. “Now there’s some three and four and five inches. You haven’t seen too many yet, but they’re making a slow comeback. It’s nothing fantastic, but it’s a good sign.”

Biologists point more to exotic invaders such as zebra mussels, which have cleared the water of plankton and caused the perch to seek cover in deeper recesses of the lake. They also maintain that the mussels may be eating the zooplankton that very young perch need. “We’d gone practically ten years without a strong year class for perch,” says Tom Trudeau, a program administrator with the fisheries division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, referring to a year’s hatch that survives to adulthood. “Nineteen-ninety-eight appears to be a strong year class, according to preliminary information.” He says more will be known once the DNR does an official assessment in June using nets specifically designed to catch two-year-old perch.

In response to growing concern over low numbers of young perch in the late 1990s, Illinois followed the lead of other states surrounding Lake Michigan and banned commercial fishing of perch. It now enforces a moratorium on all perch fishing during the month of June, when perch spawn. It also implemented size limits of more than eight but less than ten inches (bigger fish are considered prime breeders) and a daily catch limit of 15 for sportfishermen.

The restrictions may have had the intended effect. “In about three or four hours we catch our limit,” says McDonald. “Uh, what’s the limit again?”

But many people still don’t make the limit. “It’s a far cry from when we’d get 300 in a day,” says Robert Irwin.

Alma Irwin says, “There were times when we’d be cleaning fish from three in the afternoon till midnight.”

Many of the perch coming out of the water these days are smaller, a hopeful sign–as well as an annoyance to those who enjoy eating the fish. Marian Noland recently moved back to Chicago from Seattle, where larger saltwater fish like flounder and mullet were plentiful. “Perch would be OK if I could find a big one,” she says. “These little bitty ones–they make you mad trying to eat!”

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