The beauty of fly-fishing is often linked with the American West and the Norman Maclean novella “A River Runs Through It.”
Instead of using bait — sometimes called “worm-dunking” — fly-fishing uses a hand-tied artificial lure. Sometimes, it’s just a hook, with feathers or fur. Too light to cast far, the grace of the toss, like a rippling lariat, is everything.
A river ran through Bob Santangelo’s life. He practiced the art of fly-fishing on the Kankakee River, in the Lemont quarries and at Heidecke Lake, a 1,900-acre basin of beauty 65 miles southwest of Chicago where he got his fill of bass, muskie, walleye — and peace of mind.
“He mastered things at Heidecke Lake no one had done,” said Greg Katello, owner of the Fishing Connection in Tinley Park, catching “striper [bass] and muskie on the fly and even some of the rough fish — freshwater drum.”
“He tied his own jigs [lead-weighted lures] and flies,” said John Miao, founder and designer of Xcaliber fishing rods. “The fish had never seen them before. It was innovative, in both the Kankakee River and the Heidecke.”
“He caught all kinds of fish with the flying rod,” said his brother, Neal.
In addition to casting and fly-tying lessons, Mr. Santangelo taught retrieval. In fly-fishing, anglers don’t use a reel. They tempt fish by wiggling the line with their hands, and they collect a catch by pulling in the line manually, inch by inch. “It’s like hand-to-hand combat,” Katello said.
Mr. Santangelo, 59, who also offered conventional fishing tours with his two-boat Kankakee River Valley Guide Service, was found dead March 9 at his Matteson home.
Born and raised in Worth, he attended St. Michael’s grade school in Orland Park and Stagg High School in Palos Hills. He got the fishing bug early, on family summer outings near Spooner, Wis., a 2,600-person town that bills itself as “Just North of the Tension Zone.”
“You saw deer, you’d see an occasional bear,” his brother said. “The mosquitoes were very obvious. But the good thing about it, the lakes had great fishing.”
He worked for several years as a Willow Springs police officer, but an off-duty car accident injured his head, his brother said.
“That had an effect on his memory,” Neal Santangelo said. “It was a severe concussion.”
Mr. Santangelo, who had learned to cook in the kitchen alongside his Italian-American father, Salvatore, wound up in the food industry. He was a partner for a short time in a restaurant, Santangelo’s, and also worked as director of food services at a Resurrection Health Care facility in Northlake, according to his brother.
For years, Mr. Santangelo helped care for his elderly mother, Alice.
“He used to say, ‘I gotta get home, I gotta check on my mom,’ ” said Noreen McCormick, who worked with him when he managed the SPG Green Garden Country Club in Frankfort.
He went on to operate his tours full-time. If customers didn’t catch a fish, he’d often take them out again at no charge, Katello said.
He loved Heidecke Lake in Grundy County, known as a “cooling lake.” Man-made, it was built to cool the water from the Collins Power Plant. Stocked every year with fish, it produces trophy-size bass. Nearby is 2,500 acres of prairie, Illinois’ biggest remnant of what used to cover the Prairie State, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
It was at Heidecke Lake that Mr. Santangelo caught what’s thought to be the largest hybrid striped bass taken on a fly rod in Illinois. He recounted that April 13, 2010, catch in an interview with Chicago Sun-Times outdoors writer Dale Bowman.
Bob Santangelo with the hybrid striped bass believed to be a record catch.
“So after about 40 minutes of battling this fish, I finally was able to net this beast, and she measured out at 32.25 inches long by 19.125 inches in girth,” he said. “I formulated her weight to be between 18 and 19 pounds.
“That fish definitely owned me,” he said. “I couldn’t horse her at all. She would have broken that rod.”
Like most of the fish he caught, it went back into the water. He was a strong believer in catch-and-release so other anglers could continue to enjoy the sport.
“I would bring him halibut from Costco, and he would enjoy that instead,” Miao said. “He envisioned that that lake could be returned to its glory if they practiced catch-and-release, and you could have a world-class fishery within an hour of Chicago . . . . In Heidecke, there are 40-pound drum, which are similar to redfish in the ocean.”
Mr. Santangelo hated the litter he saw near waterways. He picked it up himself. Other times, “He would have the kids out there picking up the garbage,” his brother said.
On his Facebook page, he posted photos of trash he collected with the comment, “THE CATCHIN’ WAS GOOD TODAY!” He listed what he ‘’caught,” including “64 plastic bottles. Then I moved on to a better spot where I caught 1 empty gin bottle, 2 Corona bottles, 3 Miller Lite bottles, 3 brown beer bottles no label, 1 Raid hornet spray can, 8 Gatorade bottles, 1 Clorox toilet bowl bottle, 3 milk jugs, 7 Miller Lite cans, 1 bicycle inner tube, 1 four-foot-long piece of heavy gauge wire, 6 empty night crawler containers, and 6 empty soda pop cups, 14-inch-round pink kick ball, a five-gallon black bucket full of something other than water. I couldn’t take it. I will have to make a special trip back for this one was heavy. I think it’s roofing tar. None fight as good as smallmouth but there’s plenty of them that will keep you occupied all day long!’’
Mr. Santangelo was protective of his prime fishing locations. People used everything from charm to misdirection to get him to divulge his best fishing haunts — to no avail.
“Bob would never give up his secret to where he would find these fish,” McCormick said. “He would bring out pictures of the fish he caught to the customers at the country club.”
Mr. Santangelo was about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 100 pounds.
“He used to say, ‘Us little people, we gotta stick together,’ ” said McCormick, who’s 5 feet 2.
Mr. Santangelo is also survived by another brother, Raymond, and four nephews. He hoped to have his ashes scattered at some of his favorite fishing spots.
Contributing: Dale Bowman