Ken and Scott feed newspapers to the fire in the trash can, rubbing their hands above it. It’s ten degrees out, and a lot colder with the wind. A few feet away sits a bucket of salmon eggs, and three fishing rods rest over three holes in the ice. It’s past 2:30 and they have only one small perch to show for four hours of standing on the ice in numbing gusts. Every so often Scott goes to round up more wood for the fire, and Ken fiddles with the rods. One of the rods has a contraption that pops a yellow flag if there’s a bite. But the flag hasn’t moved all day.
Ken and Scott drive delivery trucks for the Sun-Times, which leaves their afternoons free, and they often spend them at the lagoon in Lincoln Park, trying to catch fish.
In the summertime, the atmosphere around the lagoon is quite different. Joggers and strollers pass picnickers and sunbathers along the paths. On the high stone embankment around the lagoon the fishermen stand elbow to elbow, casting for perch, crab, or trout. The buzz of the reels fills the air. Faces, if not names, are familiar along the canal, and over the months and years at least a few words are exchanged between regulars.
Today Hank’s been luckier than the deliverymen. He’s caught a beaut of a rainbow trout. He comes over across the ice every few minutes to get warm at the fire. Hank lives in a mission and spends much of his time fishing. Fiftyish and toothless, he resumes his mumbled, demonic, incomprehensible monologue with each trip to the fire. It seems to be about fishing. Ken and Scott stopped listening hours ago. They nod politely until Hank, warmed up again, wanders back to his rods.
On a cool fall afternoon, the summer crowds have vanished. A dozen fishermen stand snagging for trout and salmon.
Rify comes to the lagoon almost every day. He’s a short, broad-faced Filipino, middle-aged, and wears thick glasses. He and his wife came to the United States a few years ago, and he still fumbles with English. An unemployed cook, he comes to the lagoon in the afternoons after scanning the classifieds.
Today he’s had no luck, but he continues to snag again and again. Snagging is a method of casting out a large, baitless hook and reeling it in with quick jerks in the hope the hook will “snag” a fish. All along the embankment the rods jerk and the reels buzz.
A few triumphant shouts go up, and Rify looks grimly at a Hispanic man in an Army coat and dark sunglasses who’s lifting from the water a large, thrashing salmon.
“He’s one of . . .” Rify searches for the word. “One of the best fishermen,” he confides. “He wears the glasses, so he can . . . see the fish under the water . . . but that’s . . .” Rify disdainfully flicks his hand.
There’s one woman among the regulars. Even in the hottest weather she wears a ski mask and a hood, but on this fall day, it’s getting cooler and the mask looks almost appropriate for the weather. She’s short and slightly stooped, walks a little stiffly, and seems to be middle-aged. She sits on the grass by her pole and eats lunch through her ski mask.
A short, mustached Hispanic man dashes over to borrow a net from Rify. Lagoon etiquette does not require that Rify give his permission–the fish could be lost in the time it takes to ask. So the net is snatched and the short man runs back to help bring up the catch. It’s a huge salmon, and a murmur goes around the lagoon.
The woman in the ski mask wanders over for a closer look. On her return, she stops and peers at a sick one Rify has caught. It’s a small salmon covered with white patches of growth. She bends over it, and nudges it with her shoe. She glances at Rify and points to the fish with the sadness in her eyes showing through the holes of the ski mask.
“That’s a sick fish,” Rify says. She nods sadly, nudging it again with her shoe, and walks back to her pole.
A postman stops at the embankment and shouts, “Catch anything?”
Ken points to Hank: “He’s got the Catch of the Day.”
“Got a rainbow!” Hank calls, and waves the trout over his head like a trophy The fish is frozen stiff as a board, its mouth and eyes wide open, as though in shock. It looks like a gag prop for a vaudeville bit.
“Wanna sell it?” the postman calls.
“Sell it? Sure!” Hank says, and trots to the embankment with the fish. The postman examines it; they confer. Ken and Scott watch as the postman hands Hank a few dollars.
“You can mount it on your wall just like it is!” Ken laughs.
“I’m gonna clean this baby out and eat it!” the postman says. “What’ve you got today?”
Ken grins and holds up his frozen perch. The postman shakes his head and moves on, holding the gawking trout at his side. It’s a disconcerting sight.
Ken and Scott go back to the fire to wait for another catch. Hank trots up to join them and launches on another rambling speech. Ken and Scott stare at the fire blankly until Hank leaves.
For those with a day off from work fishing the lagoon is a pleasant way to spend the hours, a way to escape the perhaps too-familiar confines of home. But for those who can’t work, or won’t work, whose days stretch before them like an endless row of hurdles to get over, the lagoon is a refuge.
Rify, in his uncertain English, maybe best explained the lure of the lagoon: “It’s good to come here . . . and fish . . . you know . . . and talk a little . . . it takes your mind off things for a while.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.