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On tilt: The uneven rhythm and rituals this spring around Chicago outdoors

Dealing with the impact of the coronavirus has thrown off the rhythm and rituals of spring around Chicago outdoors, as with many other things.

A sign of the times, the sign ending the bank fishing area on the center dike at Heidecke Lake is on tilt. Credit: Dale Bowman
A sign of the times, the sign ending the bank fishing area on the center dike at Heidecke Lake is on tilt.
Dale Bowman

MORRIS, Ill. — Another angler cast the riprap by the bridge at Heidecke Lake on Wednesday just after dawn. After a few minutes without action, we both began spot-hopping the center dike at our own paces.

Rhythm and ritual.

Just after dawn, the world came alive. Cockbirds crowed in the fields at Goose Lake Prairie, where sandhill cranes krooed and rose skyward. In the ditch down Heidecke’s embankment, red-winged blackbirds trilled. Mallards flew off the shorelines.

But Wednesday was for fishing, actually more to get out and on a more even keel. To be truthful, fishing a local pond would be more productive.

My spring started off in rhythm. Like other years, Braidwood Lake, the cooling lake in southwestern Will County, opened March 1. In recent years, I walked the shoreline on the south (hot) side to the end of the west riprap. This year, I boat-fished with Chaser Ellison and his dad, Jimmy. We had a solid morning of largemouth bass and catfish.

By March 15, opening day for LaSalle Lake, the cooling lake south of Seneca, times were changing. Social distancing and not congregating were buzz words.

In earlier years, I would ride with Pete Riedesel or the late Jeff “Woody’’ Roberts; in recent years, I’ve shore-fished. This year, I fished the morning and had a couple dozen fish, saving enough bluegills and yellow bass for a family feed. A couple hours after I got home, all Illinois Department of Natural Resources sites were shut down.

My rhythm has been off in the two months since.

My only ritual now is waking up hours early and wondering what day it is.

I am not alone in this.

At least an angler ducking as a boat goes under the bridge at Heidecke Lake is normal. Credit: Dale Bowman
At least an angler ducking as a boat goes under the bridge at Heidecke Lake is normal.
Dale Bowman

April 1 is the traditional opener at Heidecke, the former cooling lake near Morris. Usually, I split opening days between shore fishing or riding with somebody like Riedesel. Obviously, that didn’t happen this year.

Nor did smelt netting on the Chicago lakefront. My usual April 1 ritual is Heidecke in the morning, then checking smelt netters at night.

But there’s no rhythm, no ritual, anymore.

Among the surprises of the partial reopening of IDNR sites May 1 was the unexpected reopening of Heidecke. Braidwood and LaSalle remain closed. Once word got out, Heidecke drew unusual interest in it’s prize walleye, crappie, muskie and hybrid striped bass.

I couldn’t make it until Wednesday.

Even getting into the rhythm Tuesday night of filling a Thermos with coffee and another with orange juice felt balancing. As did retying rods and checking my tackle bag, my prepping ritual.

I have a usual searching method: one rod with a live-bait or jig setup, a second with an in-line spinner and the third with a rattle bait in spring, a topwater or crankbait in summer and fall. I should switch the third rod to a Jack Hammer.

I was reminded of that as we walked away from the bridge and the other angler said he had a small walleye on a ChatterBait three minutes in. Curious bait to catch a walleye on, but that keeps life interesting.

My ritual is to move at 100-yard increments, then cast first with the live bait set-up or jig, then fancast with the spinner, then finish fancasting with the rattle bait.

Great blue herons fished the shoreline of the center dike, so bait was around. Pairs of Canada geese gave me hell as I passed.

That was a normal routine.

I missed a couple of small fish, probably yellow bass or fiddler channel catfish, on the jig and crawler chunk. Surprisingly, they were on the calmer north side of the dike. I had focused on the wind-blown south side.

Two other anglers reported small walleye. By the looks of guys trolling, there were walleye caught in the north pool.

Social distancing was being practiced, including limiting to two people per boat.

It’s a mile-plus hike to the end of bank fishing on the center dike. The guy ahead of me pulled out, so I got a few casts in and promptly blew a smallmouth bass when I didn’t have my drag tightened. The screaming drag drew Joe Iskrzycki to poke his head up from the other side to see if I needed help.

No, just out of rhythm.

The recently retired Morton West teacher and I chatted about the pandemic and what it meant to the outdoors, then on to wilderness areas and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Earlier, he had remarked as we passed each other, “I guess we will take what we can get. I wish we could fish a few more places.’’

All of us are knocked off our rhythm and ritual, which was longer than we expected. The sight of the end fades.

Shoreline moss has come early this year at Heidecke Lake. Credit: Dale Bowman
Shoreline moss has come early this year at Heidecke Lake.
Dale Bowman