Chicago River: The surprising business of fishing

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The view from the South Branch of the Chicago River on the way to a day of fishing with Capt. Pat Harrison.
Credit: Dale Bowman

As we arranged wet bags and coolers, Capt. Pat Harrison said, “First thing in the morning when I come down here, there’s thousands of minnows.”

He gestured to the space between the pier and wall last week at the Richard J. Daley Boat Launch on the Sanitary Ship Canal.

Across from the launch, a great blue heron stalked near shore. Mallards floated.

Harrison grew up at 23rd and Damen. He would swim off the concrete by the “Jackknife Bridge,” still distinctive and just downstream of the launch.

“Whenever I played by the river, my mother would say, `Whatever you do, don’t touch the water, you will get polio,’ ’’ Harrison said. “It blows my mind to catch fish where my mother said not to touch the water.”

He earned his captain’s license three years ago and has built his guiding service since. He understands he is offering the ambiance of what might be the most picturesque urban angling in the world.

This is not pie-in-the-sky plans by city planners, it’s a boat-on-the-water, money-on-the-line plan by Harrison.

“I turned 60 on Aug. 11,’’ he said. “I told my wife I am no longer a general contractor. I am a fisherman.”

His business is guiding the Chicago River. He has real sponsorship deals with Lake County Watersports, Princecraft, Evinrude and Grandt Rods.

Even with the changes on the Chicago River system, history and memories hang on.

As we motored upstream, Harrison signaled to silos, artfully graffiti-covered, and said, “I played in those grain elevators as a kid.”

Harrison runs a Princecraft Nanook with a 75hp Evinrude, quiet enough that he can tell stories while running. His favorite bridge is the “Amtrak Bridge.’’ My favorite is now the nearby “Viagra Bridge,’’ a name Harrison hung on it with a story I can’t repeat here.

I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it, it’s stirring to see the Willis Tower from the South Branch (photo at the top).

Capt. Pat Harrison holds one of the better crappie caught on the main stem of the Chicago River.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Capt. Pat Harrison holds one of the better crappie caught on the main stem of the Chicago River.
Credit: Dale Bowman

We started at the community hole by a discharge near the Sun-Times. Harrison caught the first fish, a bluegill. We added white crappie and largemouth bass.

Harrison’s initial method is a small white twistertail on jighead thrown on medium light 6-6 or 7-foot Grandt Rods with light tips. With regular customers, they fish and he handles lure changes and the boat.

Normally, Harrison picks up customers at the bump-and-run by City Winery on the Chicago Riverwalk. Customers can come from nearby hotels or via Metra, South Shore or CTA. He has had customers from 23 states and seven countries.

As we fished, an L rumbled by and Harrison said it sounds like “Let’s Go Blackhawks.” Ever since, I hear an L and think of that.

We pushed on to Ogden Slip, but didn’t do a thing. So Harrison locked through the Chicago Harbor Lock. We fished the “Red Rocks” south of Navy Pier, then the breakwalls north of the Jardine Water Purification Plant.

Dale Bowman with the big fish of the day, a 27.5-inch catfish, caught off the breakwall north of the “Play Pen.”<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Dale Bowman with the big fish of the day, a 27.5-inch catfish, caught off the breakwall north of the “Play Pen.”
Credit: Dale Bowman

Off a breakwall, I boated the fish of the day, a 27.5-inch catfish. Harrison added smallmouth bass.

We planned to fish the outside of the breakwalls, but a building storm chased us back through the lock. We sheltered under “Ryan Whitacre’s Pike Bridge.’’

When we went back to fish the discharge, the weather change had shut down the fish. So we started back toward the launch.

At Ping Tom Memorial Park, under a bridge, a man played what I think was a suona horn. It was haunting, slightly odd.

“That’s a day on the water,” Harrison said. “It is just so cool.”

It was time.

For Harrison, go to

Capt. Pat Harrison loads his Princecraft after a day of fishing.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Capt. Pat Harrison loads his Princecraft after a day of fishing.
Credit: Dale Bowman

HUNTING: Corn harvest through Sunday hit three percent statewide, though none had started in the east or northeast, according to the Illinois Crop Progress report. This week should bring much harvest, probably but probably too late for early Canada goose season, which ends Thursday. . . Teal season ends Sunday.

First hedge apple of 2016.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

First hedge apple of 2016.
Credit: Dale Bowman

WILD THINGS: I found my first fallen hedge apple Sunday on my morning ramble with Lady, our family’s mutt. I brought it to my wife, who half believes in the magic of the fruit of the Osage orange.

The day before my wife found the first woolly bear caterpillar in her flower garden. It was “cream yellow.’’ Read into that what you will.

STRAY CAST: Believing in the Chicago Bears this season is like divining woolly bears.

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