Perhaps we’ve pegged Chicago’s first salmon catch

SHARE Perhaps we’ve pegged Chicago’s first salmon catch

As an aside, Walt Thomas Jr. said he ‘‘just wanted to mention that my dad may have been the first fisherman to catch a salmon from the Chicago lakefront.”

That got my attention.

While I was considering whether there was any way to track that down, I realized I was only 8 when the stocking of salmon in the Great Lakes began.

The median age in Chicago is 32, meaning that when Howard Tanner first stocked coho into the Great Lakes in Michigan in the spring of 1966, it would be another 14 years before half of the city’s current population was alive.

Considering that, a history primer seems apt while we ponder whether Walt Thomas Sr. was the first to catch a coho in Chicago.

In the 1950s, alewives began showing up in Lake Michigan. Without many predators, because of sea lampreys, the population of alewives exploded. By the 1960s, they were washing up dead in stinking piles along the shoreline.

By coincidence, Tanner, head of fisheries in Michigan, had a chance for some surplus coho salmon eggs in 1964. He took the chance, then grew salmon for the Great Lakes. It worked.

In 1966, Michigan stocked 850,000 coho into the Big Huron River, the Platte River and Bear Creek. That worked far beyond expectations, too.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources account on, ‘‘In late March of 1968, some pioneer fishermen in Illinois made fishing history when they caught salmon in our own Lake Michigan waters. Within a stone’s throw of popular swimming beaches, piers and harbors, fishermen were taking coho salmon, along with steelhead and brown trout up to a size of 11 pounds.

‘‘Lakeshore park properties, which during cold spring weather are inhabited only by seagulls and a few night-time smelt fishermen, became crowded elbow to elbow with anglers trying their luck. Early-morning traffic reports from helicopter observers commented on the unusual activity on the lakefront piers, and even airline pilots began looking for fish while coming in on their landing patterns to Chicago airports.”

That brings me back to Thomas Sr. His son might be off by two years in his memory, but the time of year is right for his father to have caught the first coho off Chicago. And any chance to remember Rocky’s & Sons Fish House is good.

‘‘Our friends had a bait shop on the South Side of Navy Pier – Rocky’s Bait Shop [with proprietors] Paul and John Panzo – and they were also commercial fisherman,” Thomas Jr. emailed. ‘‘In the mid 1960s, John and Paul mentioned that they were catching salmon in their perch nets. I don’t remember the exact year, probably 1966. However, my dad, Walt Thomas Sr., being inquisitive by nature, as he was a retired Chicago police detective, went to work on the case. No one realized that salmon were lurking off the Illinois shores.

‘‘He assembled some of the techniques he learned from salmon fishing on the West Coast during the time he was stationed in Washington during World War II, fishing Puget Sound.

‘‘First time out trolling near the Chicago Lighthouse, it was early March, possibly 1966 [probably later]. Bingo, the rod went over and a beautiful silver, spring-run coho was landed. Approximately one week after his salmon was caught, a fisherman caught a salmon while casting from the Montrose Horseshoe, and this was so newsworthy that articles appeared about the incident.”

Maybe it’s 44 years later, but Thomas Sr. gets his own column.

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