As some of you may know, I am leaving my current job at Columbia College Chicago. Next week I will begin working at ChartCapture, doing tech support among other things. You may know about ChartCapture through fellow fishermen like Sam Bennett.

I won’t be spending 3 hours a day commuting like I do now, I’ll be working from home… That means I won’t have the daily opportunity to fish downtown Chicago. Since this is my last week at Columbia, I decided I’d try and make the most of my last chance to fish while I’m there already. I woke up at 4am, downed a few cups of coffee, and hopped in the car, joining the already growing traffic on 290.

I parked at exactly 5am sharp, and reached Burnham Harbor Marina by 5:15. I was shocked and dismayed to find the gate leading to the choice spot at the pipe padlocked. Before I got too bent out of shape, I reminded myself fish can be everywhere, even away from “the good spot.” I set up shop: one rod with crawlers under a bobber, the other with various jigs, cranks, spinners, and of course tubes.

Lake side at Burnham

I fish almost exclusively with lures, rarely fishing with nightcrawlers, and almost never with minnows. It’s not that I’m against it, it’s just convenient to carry all necessary fishing gear in my backpack as I go to work. Trying to transport minnows would make things tricky.

Because of that, I have this idea that if I use live bait- like worms- I’ll have to fight the fish off with a stick. Turns out, this is not necessarily the case. I threw my bobber out, and was astonished it didn’t get a single hit for at least five minutes. After a while, I finally managed to pull up a tiny bluegill, which of course is better than no fish.

Better than nothing!

I worked a small homemade inline spinner along the wall, perhaps hoping for any stray trout or salmon that might be in the harbor, and noticed many follows as I retrieved the lure. But they only followed when I burned the lure through the water super quickly. It reminded me of the baby trout on the Rogue River in Michigan; I only caught some when I increased the speed of my retrieve.

I had trouble keeping the spinner deep while I cranked it in, especially fishing from the pier six feet above the water. No matter what I did, I couldn’t connect with any fish. I remembered some WCF members suggesting if I’m getting follows I’m close to the right presentation, so I tried a few other spinners and cranks. Some didn’t get any follows, some did, but ony when I sped the lure through the water like a bat out of hell.

Frustrated, I decided to fish the other side, the lake side. I hauled my gear over a fence, jumped it myself, and found myself next to very calm water looking north to downtown Chicago. I set up at the pipe, and when I looked down I was amazed at what I saw in the water: a HUGE swarm of fish. The kind you see on the discovery channel on shows about the ocean. There were so many of them! I have no real way of estimating how many but I’d have to guess hundreds.

It was amazing! The water was very clear, and as the school swam around, the sun reflected on hundreds of tiny fish bodies like a chandelier in some underwater mansion. Occasionally I saw a much bigger fish chase some of the smaller fish. That was pretty cool; I don’t often have the opportunity to see that.

And then I remembered to fish, so I did. I was sure one of those small fish would be interested in my night crawler, so I plopped it down in the water in the middle of the swarm. I couldn’t figure out what they were… We’re they shad? Baby bass? Alewives?

None of them were the slightest bit interested in my bait. When I tossed a jig and twister into their midst, they followed it around as long as I kept it moving, but lost interest when it was still. Just like trout.

Were these trout!!?

And then I saw a trio of giant carp, or at least what I thought were carp, cruising around the rocks near the swarm of little unknown fish. I saw another fish that wasn’t a carp, but couldn’t tell if it was a smallie, trout, salmon, or something else. Nothing I tossed into the water got any attention. Night crawlers on a makeshift crappie rig off the bottom, under a bobber, jigged; it seemed no presentation could entice these fish.

Finally I caught a goby. I may or may not have put it back on the hook. And it may or may not have elicited a strike from something, that may or may not have reminded me of a smallmouth bass… But alas, I missed the hook set and it didn’t happen again.

After at least an hour and three gobies later, I decided to go back to the first spot. Some marina guys came and unlocked the gates, finally, so I made my way to the spot at the pipe. When I looked in the clear water, sure enough there was a swarm of fish there too. Still couldn’t tell what they were, but I was excited to watch the fish. At one point I saw something I was positive was a big smallmouth bass, swimming casually a few feet under the swarm, but it was not interested in anything I dangled in front of its face.

And then I started to get follows again, burning a deep diving black and white crankbait through the water. It was very curious; there was a small window of speed, not slow but not like a bullet, where the little unknown fish would follow my lure. They lined up behind it, chasing it all the way back to me. It was exciting.

After about fifty casts parallel to the wall in front of the pipe, I figured out the right speed to attract the most fish. Suddenly, I felt a tiny amount of resistance on my crankbait that told me I had a fish on! And then I found out what those fish were.

Baby steelhead and the lure it took

That swarm of hundreds of little fish were baby steelhead trout! As soon as I realized what I had caught, I took a picture extremely quickly and got it back in the water in as little time as possible. I knew that these little guys would grow much bigger, and in three or four years would become the giant and delicious adult steelheads that I’ve had so little luck catching. I didn’t want to mess up their childhood, I wanted them to grow big and strong. I marveled at the audacity of this little trout, to attack a lure about the same size as itself.

Now that I knew what they were, I stopped fishing for them. I wondered if these were stocked trout rece
ntly released by the DNR. Either way,  I didn’t want to bother them and negatively affect the steelhead fishing in the future. Looking in the water, I noticed another school of fish that looked similar to the baby steelhead, but were brown. Could those be baby brown trout?

I threw a night crawler on the bottom on the off chance one of the giant carp might go for it, although there was no real way I’d be able to land one from the pier. I threw bass lures, trying to bring the smallies- supposedly “in the harbors now”- out of hiding. An hour later, it was time to go to work. I was really happy to add another species to my “species scoreboard 2012” and I hoped I didn’t harm the beautiful little fish.

As I walked back to toward the city, dreams of adult steelhead and brown trout and giant lake Michigan smallies filled my head.

Although my haul of fish wasn’t huge yesterday morning, I’m very happy with the variety of fish I’ve been catching! In the past 7 days, I’ve caught green sunfish, smallmouth bass, bullhead catfish, freshwater drum, bluegill, perch, walleye, gobies, largemouth bass, and this beautiful little steelhead trout. For a while I fished just for largemouth bass, but I see no reason to discount all the other great fish you can catch. They’re all different, they all require different approaches, and I like the challenge of learning how they all operate. Someday when the zombie apocalypse happens, I might be glad I can catch more than just bass. 

Fish are awesome!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *