Fishing poles dangle over the edge of the Chicago Riverwalk, as fish dart between tethered hooks and honking ships. It’s lunchtime in Chicago’s Loop business district and at least eight fishermen line the river, methodically casting their lines and then rebaiting.
Fishing on the historically polluted Chicago River has taken off in the last few years, coinciding with improvements in the river’s water quality. According to Pat Harrison, a licensed captain with 35 years of fishing experience and owner of fishing company Pat Harrison Outdoors, there have always been fish in the Chicago River. But, he notes, they used to be mostly rough fish that aren’t sensitive to pollution, such as common carp. Now, with improved water quality, more kinds of fish are thriving.
“I am pretty sure there are over 70 species swimming in the Chicago River now,” Harrison says. “Cleaner water means the sun can penetrate deeper and grow weeds. Weeds produce photosynthesis, which makes oxygen, which brings in little fish, which in turn brings in big fish.”
Dale Bowman, outdoors columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and longtime fishing enthusiast, says fish act as a barometer for the health of the river. But Bowman adds that a healthy fish population tells us more than just the cleanliness of Chicago River’s water.
“I think what fish add is that they are accessible to everyone,” says Bowman. “Even if you’re not a fisherman, you had a dad, an uncle, a grandpa or grandma that used to fish, so it appeals to you. If you see someone fishing in the river, and they actually catch something, it says ‘this isn’t a dump, it’s actually clean.’ It’s a psychological effect.”
With the opening of the Riverwalk in June 2015, more people have access to the edge of the Chicago River than ever before. Pat Gorney, a Chicago native, has been fishing along the Riverwalk at lunchtime ever since it opened.
“I catch a lot of crappies and white bass, and last week I caught a beautiful walleye,” he reports. “I’ve caught about 14 different kinds of fish out here.”
Harrison and Bowman have had similar experiences in the wide range of fish they have caught in the river. Harrison recounts that he and his clients have found smallmouth and largemouth bass, white bass, hybrid striped bass, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill, yellow perch, common carp, and freshwater drum. Bowman has found sunfish, carp, and crappie, and notes that people can now actively target bigger sportfish like bass and walleye.
Steve Pescitelli, stream specialist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says he is seeing a growing number of species in the Chicago River every year. Through his work monitoring Asian carp, Pescitelli has been able to observe the diversity of fish in the river.
“Overall, the number of fish is steadily improving,” Pescitelli says. “The DNR’s latest report now measures 72 species total in the river.”
ELPC went to check out the urban fishing scene and asked people about the importance of fish in the river and what they think might be lurking beneath Chicago River’s water.