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Northerly Island reopening, fishermen's take: Chicago outdoors

Fences and rocks prevent shoreline access at the reopened Northerly Island.Credit: Dale Bowman

Fences and signs are back at Northerly Island.

How long and how strong are the key questions.

OK, the signs are not as offensive as the “NO FISHING ALLOWED ON AIRPORT PROPERTY” signs fishermen unbolted when the former airport was replaced by a lakefront park. These signs say “Natural Area Development in Progress,” which could take five years, and visitors are warned to “Stay on designated paths.”

At this point, fishermen have lost more than half of their access to the water’s edge: southern tip north up the east side.

There will be fences to be mended when the Mayor’s Fishing Advisory Committee meets this week.

Considering no group has the kind of historic significance to Northerly Island that ordinary fishermen and women do, a lot of disrespect was shown both in the Northerly Island Restoration Project and in the lack of formal invites for the grand opening.

Fishermen and women are the ones who blew Northerly Island open with the first modern public event in June, 2003, a perch derby by Henry’s Sports, Bait and Marine.

It remains the greatest morning of my outdoors writing career. There was a fury of exhilaration in the 400-plus fishermen and spectators. People stood on vehicle roofs to better see and document the event. Some of the kids were taken back by the emotion in their parents and grandparents: adult tears, belly laughter and curse words.

For roughly half a century, that lakefront space was for the private use of people at an exclusive airport. The general public could kiss off. Authorities ran off or in any fisherman hiding in the rocks by the water’s edge.

That perch derby was a lot more than fish and anglers.

It was people taking back the people’s space.

And celebrating with orgasmic fervor.

Understand why some fishermen were so irate when they walked around after the grand reopening and saw fences and rock keeping the public away from the water’s edge.

All fishermen want is to be able to reach the water’s edge. They don’t need million-dollar projects, simply the ability to walk the water’s edge.

Sounds simple, but it almost always gets screwed up when designs are drafted.

On Thursday, I did a complete tour.

Workers piled into the concert venue on the north end. A few joggers/walkers and bikers circled “on designated paths.”

I started on the northeast end. Fences corralled everyone “on designated paths” and away from the patch of natural restoration before the massive rocks on the east side.

There is no break in the fence, though for somebody who grew up on a farm the gates look climbable, for about half a mile on the east side.

That said, the lagoon and hills are beautiful and should be a wonderful urban wild spot in coming years, though I am not sure with how much human interaction.

I had hopes for the bridge over the inlet from the lake to the lagoon, but if you fish that you will need a good net and strong arms and to be a lot taller than me.

I am curious on the inlet, which has plenty of water in this high-water year, but in drought summers like 2012 and ’13, I suspect it may be down to a relative trickle.

At the southern point of Northerly Island, where Mike Osuch caught the heaviest verified walleye (7 pounds, 5.5 ounces) in modern Chicago on Sept. 11, 2008, shore access opens up. I was able to go off trail and walk wire-meshed rock to connect to the cement walk near the mouth of Burnham Harbor.

About a 100 yards away, Yousef Saeedi cast for Chinook. I passed a couple other fishermen on bikes.

The views of the Chicago skyline from Northerly Island, despite the lack of access, remain stunningly wonderful.

Credit: Dale Bowman

The thing that sticks with me was that Northerly Island remains stunningly beautiful as urban wilds against the backdrop of Chicago’s skyline.

The sun behind me caught Solider Field, where the Packers and Bears met Sunday, in a glow.

Northerly Island is worth fighting for and over.

Soldier Field, as viewed from Northerly Island.

Credit: Dale Bowman