Sunday, June 27, 2021

Flashback 1997: Gone fishin'—though it's hardly a lazy day

The Surveyor in 1997 (Photo from Sun-Times files)

      I'm going out onto the lake for a story later this week, which got me thinking about previous episodes of aquatic reportage. This is from the brief period when I was the environment reporter, and my 12 hours on the Surveyor probably constitutes the most physically unpleasant thing I've ever done for a story. When I phoned the fishery ahead of time, I remember asking if I should bring a lunch. "Bring a big one," Larry Champion said. "Because we're going to eat it." I scoffed that I had watched autopsies at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, and was made of stronger stuff. But he was right. The lake was so rough, at one point I clamped my eyes closed and tried to wish myself ashore. It didn't work.

     Just after 4 a.m., and Captain Larry Champion is walking through Joe's Fisheries, the last commercial fishing fleet operating out of Chicago.
     "I'm going to wake up my Indian friend," he says, going to where his first—and only—mate, Jerry Kingbird, a Chippewa Indian from Minnesota, sleeps in minimal comfort.
     Together they load ice into the Surveyor, a 48-foot steel bulldog of a boat. "Fleet" is a grand term for the three battered and aging boats Joe's Fisheries runs. Today the Surveyor, built in 1944, is the only one venturing onto the lake, leaving the dock at 1400 W. Cortland in search of the elusive chub. The stars are still out. The lights along the river throw gold on black water. Somewhere, a siren.
     "We shouldn't get our butts kicked half bad today," says Champion, 29, waiting for the lake locks to slide open. The day before, 10-foot waves forced them to turn back without hauling in their nets. The state inspector who rode with them in the raw weather is a no-show today.
     The Surveyor is fishing for bloater chub because chubs are the only fish allowed to be taken commercially. The inspector was there to see how many non-chubs ended up in the boat's net. Perch were legal until last spring, when the state banned taking them, citing low populations.
     "It's hard to make a living just on chub," Champion says. "Fishing has gotten so political."
     Once the lighthouse is passed, the water springs to life. Lake Michigan is the roughest lake in the world, and today eight-foot swells rock the boat like a toy—one moment the pilot's window looks up at the sky, the next, down at churning water. Jets of spray explode through the scuppers, as the boat rolls 40 degrees to either side of horizontal.
     "It's like a washing machine out there now," Champion says. "But by this afternoon, she'll be all right."
     The chubs are waiting 12 miles from shore, a churning world unfamiliar to shore-hugging summer boaters. The downtown skyline is a faint thumb-long strip of grey stubble.
     At 7:40 a.m. Champion cuts the engines to half speed. "See it?" he yells to Kingbird. Metal doors are slid back. A yellow buoy is hauled in, then an anchor chain, then two and a half miles of monofilament net.

Bloater chubs (Sun-Times photo)
     That's a long net, hauled in a few feet at a time, by a winch called a lifter. The process takes five hours of non-stop effort. The fish come up in twos and threes. About 90 percent are dead—the net was set six days previous—and have bloated up (hence the name, "bloater chubs"). Some are very dead; split, spilling their viscera. It is not pretty.
     A yard-wide steel table runs the length of Surveyor's lower deck. Champion stands near the front, by an open hatch, and as the net comes off the lifter, he pops the chubs with a spike to deflate them and free them from the net. Kingbird lays the nets carefully in a dozen black tubs.
     Because the nets are set at a certain depth—about 225 feet—most of the fish are chub. One in 15 or 20 is a stray trout or burbot. Other things do come up, occasionally. Champion once hauled up what seemed to be a human thigh bone. What did he do? He makes a thumbing motion, over the side.
     The record for a bad haul is five fish. A good day is 400 or 500 pounds.     "Some days there's only water in your net," says Champion, paid on commission. "Like a salesman; you don't sell no shoes, you don't make no money." Still, he always wanted to fish.
     "As a kid I thought this would be a great way to make a living," he says. "I don't have to deal with the public, out here by yourself with Mother Nature. But now it has become so political."
     Champion would like to be able to fish for perch again—something vigorously opposed by the state's army of 800,000 sport fishermen.
     "Perch should never be open again for commercial fishing," said Henry Palmisano, an advocate for Chicago sport fishermen. "We don't commercially fish anything other than chub, and that should be it."
     At 1 p.m. they pull up the second anchor chain and buoy. Now it's time to put the net back. Champion turns the boat around. He and Kingbird don big rubber gloves. The net, having come in the front, goes out the back, over an inverted U-shaped "spreader," zipping out at five feet a second.
     Champion stands at the boxes and feeds out the nets, chub scales flying off like iridescent snow. As soon as one box empties, Champion kicks it away and yanks the next box over. Kingbird stands by the spreader, trying to keep the net open wide. Neither speaks. Neither wears a watch or buttons or rings— once the net caught on Champion's watch and yanked him off the boat.
     The net takes 40 minutes to go back into the water. "Now it's boogie time," Champion says. With the autopilot steering the boat toward Chicago, the two pour the fish onto the steel table and begin gutting with chub knives. The boat pitches and rolls. Champion once cut his finger to the bone.
     They get back to Joe's Fisheries about 4:30 p.m. -- nearly 12 hours after they started.
     Fishing chub is an exhausting, smelly, dirty, wet living, but it's still a living, and the fishermen plan to do it as long as they can. "This is the only thing I've ever done and the only thing I'll probably ever do," Champion says.
     They weigh their catch back at the fishery—565 pounds of chubs that, after being smoked, will fetch $3.35 per pound wholesale. All in all, a good day.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 17, 1997

Gerald Kingbird (left) and Larry Champion unload chubs onto a scale for weighing at Joe’s Fisheries. (Photo for the Sun-Times by Phil Velasquez).


  1. "Lake Michigan is the roughest lake in the world"

    That aside jumped off the page at me. It's a big planet and our lake is the roughest in the entire world? I spent one of the most miserable days of my life on a boat in Lake Michigan, so I'm inclined to believe it. Do you recall your source for this remarkable fact?

    1. Grew up a couple of miles from Lake Michigan, lived in Chicago and Evanston for half my life. But I've spent the last 29 years living four miles from the shores of Lake Erie. It's far smaller in size than Lake Michigan, giving it a much shorter fetch, which is what allows the wind to build up the biggest waves on the Great Lakes.

      Lake Erie is also much more shallow. It has an average depth of only sixty feet, which leads to far more turbulent conditions than those that occur on the larger and deeper Lake Michigan. Ten-foot waves can build up in a very short time, especially during the bigger storms. So if I had to choose, I'd go with Lake Erie for roughness.

      But Lake Superior, with its enormous size and depth, probably puts both of them to shame. Gordon Lightfoot knew what he was singing about.

    2. I thought that was a pretty bold statement, as well. Just googled it and 2 of the 4 results for "roughest lake in the world" are this post!

      So let it be written, so let it be done?

      A bonus for this throwback column is the quote included from the guy I assume Palmisano Park is named for...

  2. Such a vivid piece of writing. I love a bit of nautical fare on a summer day, though reading this is about as close as I'll get to that churning world.

    "The downtown skyline is a faint thumb-long strip of grey stubble." Never heard it described like that, but, having seen long-distance photos of it, that's gold, Jerry!

  3. I googled choppiest lakes in the world and got this:

    Lake Michigan comes up as the 4 most dangerous lake , behind one that is 190 degrees and it's center is boiling, and two that are sulfuric acid. It's the currents and undertows.

    Lake of the Ozarks is 10th because of drunken boat pilots.


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