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Chicago Tue Sep 17 2013

Fishing Along the Walls of Lake Michigan

As the length of daylight shortens from sunrise to sunset by a minute or two each day, so gives way the warmth of summer for the whisk of an autumnal breeze. Aside from dressing a little warmer, mid-September in Chicago means everyone already is complaining about the Bears (or perhaps making Super Bowl plans), the ivy at Wrigley is beginning to turn light brown and the Bulls and Blackhawks are preparing for training camp.

The rough waters that come with being a sports fan in this town, sans the recent success of the Blackhawks, make for a long year, especially as summer comes to an end. But the beginning of fall means the salmon are running to spawn along the rough waters of Lake Michigan, and the breakwalls are lined with those looking to cast and cash in.

Fishing along the lake is about as Chicago as anyone can get, ranking right up there with playing 16-inch softball, chasing a shot of Malört with an Old Style and eating a slab of ribs at Miller's Pub. And really all you need is rod and reel, some tackle that includes at least a few spoons and an Illinois fishing license with trout and salmon stamps included (roughly about $30). Oh yeah, and some rest the night before a 3:30am wake-up call.

There are a few things to consider before you head out to the harbors or breakwalls to catch that night's dinner (yes, the fish in our fair lake is edible. Maybe steer clear of anything in the river, although it could provide for good practice in how to set the hook).

Make sure the weather is safe before heading out the door. The early morning hours mostly are going to be somewhat calm, but there are occasions when it can get blustery. It's best to check the National Weather Service forecast the night before and as soon as you wake up. The site Lake Michigan Angler has a few links that provide air temps, water temps and wave heights. (Click on the "Wilmette Harbor to Meigs Field, IL" and "Meigs Filed to Calumet Harbor, IL" links for our area for daily, up-to-the-minute forecasts.) Big waves can crash up to the breakwall and dump hundreds of gallons of water on you, and before you can alert anyone, you're floating like a helpless bobber in 60-degree water.

There are multiple locations to fish in the city, and all offer up great views of the downtown area. Bigger fish are located off the walls or with the multiple harbors near the shore to make for an exciting battle. On a recent excursion to Belmont Harbor, there was no letdown of the sites and sounds.

Belmont Harbor, 3200 N. Lake Shore Dr. The North Side offers up a great view of the downtown area, especially before the sun peeks over the horizon. Just as daybreak hits the walls behind you, the sails are raised while joggers weave their way above the wall for a morning run. It was around this "magic hour" when the fish were beginning to jump in search of food and a stretch.

After paying for parking to get into the lot (charges is $5 at 5am for parking until 11pm; the price goes up after 6am), the walk to the wall was a short one. A mini-flashlight can come in handy, but the moon's light and random street lights make for a guiding presence to where we needed to be.

Loop.bmpThe wall already was getting a bit crowded, even that early in the morning; those who fish along the shores regularly are dedicated to finding their spots. Ours was one that huddled on a mini curb that faced due east -- darkness to the left, the city's lights to the right and the Orion constellation directly above.

With Zebco rod and reel in hand, glow-in-the-dark spoon attached (these are important when it's dark, as it gives the fish something to see and chase. They can be re-lit with a mini flashlight) and cup of coffee in hand, it was time to cast out into the abyss -- or at least 18 feet deep.

Suddenly, a strike to the left of us. Unable to see anything at the early hour, all that was heard was the tension of 10-pound test running out at the spool and the sudden crash of water in the otherwise stillness of the lake. Not born with the gift to determine the weight of a fish by the mere sound of it splashing in the water, we believed it to have weighed between 10 to 15 pounds.

Lure.bmpThen, suddenly, the chaos stopped and all that was left of the fight was a line with a damaged hook. With early (near) success, everyone else was sure the morning was to be filled with other fish biting.

There was a young boy who caught a king salmon down the way, and an older gentleman who caught himself a smallmouth bass as the sun was up and in full glow. But our four-hour venture proved to be fruitless as all we managed to catch was little sleep and a few bits of interesting conversation.

That's the thing with fishing, it either can be a day with an abundant catch or one that produces tall tales of the one that got away. Even if we did get skunked, it provided a chance to get out and take in the sights of the city from a different angle while listening to sounds of waves hurdling along the walls below during the earliest of hours. Not to mention partaking in a Chicago tradition that has been a part of city life for decades.

The next outing should take place in a few weeks from now. Hopefully this time we'll be able to come home with a catch and a different story to tell.

Photos courtesy of Dave Gilley

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