Sterling Bledsoe checks his reel at Jackson Park lagoon.
Sterling Bledsoe checks his reel at Jackson Park lagoon. Credit: Marc Monaghan

Some people wouldn’t eat anything pulled out of Lake Michigan or other area waterways. Sterling Bledsoe and Ted Marcus are not among them.

“Bass is my favorite,” Bledsoe said one afternoon last week as he watched a bobber in the lagoon behind the Museum of Science and Industry.

“You have it with eggs and rice in the morning,” said Marcus, who was sitting on a bucket nearby. “I actually got a girl to—” He laughed. “I better not talk about that, but it was because I fixed that for her for breakfast.”

Bledsoe, a 68-year-old retired construction worker, said he had been fishing the Jackson Park lagoon and nearby lakefront since he moved to Chicago from Kentucky in 1958. For many years he was accompanied by Marcus’s father.

“I actually used to come out here with them,” said Marcus, 46, a security guard. “So I’ve been out here about as long as he has.”

The two were using nightcrawlers as bait, hoping to catch crappie but willing to catch anything. “We’re just out here fucking around today,” said Bledsoe.

Many people who don’t fish don’t understand why anyone would, especially in industrial cities like Chicago. When I bring up the subject around here, people tend to respond with their best toxic-four-legged-fish jokes.

It’s true that fish—and fishing—have been imperiled by the region’s ecological problems. Environmental officials say there isn’t a waterway in Illinois where fish aren’t contaminated with mercury, for example, and invasive species have dramatically altered the food chain.

But none of that stops people who love to fish—who are drawn to the challenge of trying to catch something they might actually eat, and to the possibility of finding an oasis, a connection with the outdoors, a distance from the speed of the world.

Marcus shrugged off the notion that there may be toxins in the fish: “We’re breathing air pollution right now.”

When it warms up, he and Bledsoe will move to “secret” spots along the lagoons, area rivers, and the lakefront in search of smallmouth bass and perch.

“You’ll get some 12- and 14-inch perch,” Bledsoe said. “But it don’t last all summer like it used to. Now it’s two or three weeks. And smelt? I haven’t caught one of them in years. It was before Mayor Daley got elected. I was with your daddy, probably 23 years ago.”

“Before the first time he got elected,” said Marcus. “Not the third or fourth time.”

Bledsoe checked his line. “You know what the problem with him was? A guy gets in there and he gets comfortable. He stayed too long.”

“To me he was never that great,” Marcus said.

Marcus’s bobber dipped. He picked up his fishing pole and gave the line a tug. Nothing there. He reeled in. The worm was gone.