Having grown up fishing in Pennsylvania, where the Susquehanna River and its many tributaries provided great fishing opportunities year round, a fishing trip in Illinois has always felt like a half-assed venture. The state's fisheries are neither as robust or clean feeling as those in Pennsylvania.
It's our own fault as fisherman, of course. Plenty of Illinois fisherman do well in the lakes, rivers and streams here. But living along the Fox River back in the 1970s when it was a cruddy channel of pollutants and grey water took away some of the thrill for us. Not sure our attitudes ever recovered from those years.
30 years ago my brothers did embark on the unusual sport of fishing for salmon, lake and brown trout in Lake Michigan. The states of Illinois and Wisconsion both had regular stocking programs for big fish species that ate and grew to good size, then came to shore each fall seeking a place to breed.
Their natural instincts would be thwarted, of course. Most of the King Salmon swim around a couple weeks, die and rot away. Other species give up and go back out to deeper waters.
Fisherman with big vessels go out and catch boatloads of salmon in the chilly depths of Lake Michigan. Those of us without boats fish from shore. That is what my brothers began doing and had some luck. Both have considerable fishing experience and instincts. They thrilled to the catch on big salmon every fall.
Several years ago one of them invited me out to fish at Waukegan pier, a long cement jetty sticking out into the lake. At the end sits a smug green lighthouse with a single light at the top. The merest of warnings for ships coming in and out of the harbor.
There was also a fat line of rocks piled south from the pier where fisherman would clamber out to spots lining the inner harbor. King salmon and brown trout came tearing in through the channel, jumping as they go while fisherman thrashed the water with an assortment of lures. On a good day perhaps 10 fish might be caught between 40 fisherman. There were also many days when the fish don't show. They like it when warm water blows out from the shore and cool water comes rushing in to take its place. West winds are therefore favorable. East Winds kill the run.
One has to be determined to fish for salmon in the big lake. They don't bite very often. You cast and cast for hours, perhaps feeling a nip or a tug every hour or so when a coho runs by your lure to check it out. Favorite lures include big Mepps spinners, brassy and furry as they whirr through the water. An thin Rapalas and minnowlike lures than wobble and give off vibrations. Some lures have tiny bits of metal shot inside to give off sound as they wiggle through the green depths. Finally, some fisherman use lures that light up at night, the better to attract attention from choosey salmon.
For 7 hours we cast one raw afternoon. Rainstorms came and went. Then the sun shone and the light changed and a cast that plunged into the green lake waters resulted in a tug, then a rush of power at the end of the line. The giant King salmon came rushing past as my line went slack. Then it curled around a rock near shore and 'pwing!' the line snapped.
"I told you to keep it away from the rocks!" my brother screamed. It was no use. The fish was gone.
Hurriedly I tied on another lure that had been getting some hits. Then with an eager eye, I threw the lure into the water and 'bam!' another strike right away. The fish took off in the other direction, into the harbor. I felt the line stretch, then hum and shiver, then release. The fish had stolen the lure because it was not tied on tight enough.
After 7 hours of casting to get two fish on in two minutes was both exhilirating and frustrating. My brother stood on the rocks below, staring up at me. He really wanted me to have the thrill of landing one of the big Kings.
It was not to be. The day ended quietly, and in darkness. We crawled back the scary rocks to the pier, stepping over 10 foot chasms as we went.
It was the last time I got a fish on. Two successive years of trying did not turn up a good day for fishing. The wind was always wrong. The sun was too hot.
The long drive up to Waukegan felt less and less like a joy and more like a chore each year. This year we're not going at all. The Internet may be abuzz with news of salmon and trout runs but we're letting it go. Too many other life commitments call us this year to sacrifice 8 hours on the cement banks of Lake Michigan to catch fish thrown in the lake and coming ashore because their instincts tell them it's time to breed.
We never resorted to the brutish sport known as "snagging," in which large poles armed with thick lines and quadruple hooks are used to cast into the shallow harbor to snag fish any way you can grab them. Simply too crude. Vicious. Desperate.
The artifice of such fishing is hard to sustain in many ways. And these days the symbol of those wealthy boat fishermen heading out well-stocked with giant rods just seems to send the signal that the 1% will always catch more fish than the humble 99% on the shore.