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Jack Vadas, bait shop owner who fought to protect perch, Lake Michigan, has died

John E. 'Jack' Vadas, a bait shop owner on Chicago's East Side who fought to protect Lake Michigan and its perch and was hailed as a ”major figure in Lake Michigan fisheries,” has died at 86.

John E. 'Jack' Vadas, a bait shop owner on Chicago's East Side who fought to protect Lake Michigan and its perch and was hailed as a ”major figure in Lake Michigan fisheries,” has died at 86. He's seen here in 1999 at Vet's Bait, 10150 S. Indianapolis. | Sun-Times files

Fried with a little butter, yellow perch is one of Lake Michigan’s sweetest treats. John E. “Jack” Vadas, operator of Vet’s Live Bait & Tackle — a 65-year-old family business on the East Side that sold minnows, leeches, crayfish and night crawlers to generations of anglers — loved fishing for perch. And eating them.

When their numbers dipped, he co-founded Perch America in 1993 and served as president. The group met with political leaders and natural resources officials, writing letters and organizing protests to help ensure their favorite indigenous fish — and Lake Michigan — would flourish.

“Anything that had to do with the land, the fish, the animals, the air, they would write letters,” said his son James Vadas.

Mr. Vadas died of sepsis July 26 at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Crown Point, Indiana, his son said. He was 86.

Jack Vadas, angler-activist. | Lloyd DeGrane

“He was a major figure in Lake Michigan fisheries,” said Vic Santucci, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologist and manager.

Santucci said of angler-activists like Mr. Vadas, “They’re kind of the eyes and ears” on lake health, “like sentinels. . . . always working, willing to stand up for what they believed in.”

People paid attention to Mr. Vadas, with his 220-pound frame and a voice that could be gruff.

In 1996, he led a rally at the 95th Street bridge to protest ships dumping ballast water into the lake, which can introduce invasive species.

Mr. Vadas said he did it because of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “They are the ones I worry about — if they will see any wildlife other than in a zoo.”

“He was way ahead of things when it comes to conservation,” said Bruce Caruso, treasurer of Perch America.

“Jack was one of the real great guys who fights for fishermen,” said another member of Perch America, Ken Schneider.

Jack Vadas (left) loved fishing, especially Lake Michigan perch. | Sun-Times files

A grandson of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Mr. Vadas once said in a Chicago Sun-Times interview that he witnessed the ravages of industry as a boy while visiting relatives downstate.

“The first time I saw a strip mine was by my Uncle Charlie’s place when I was 8 or 9,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What the hell are they doing?’ They would mine it and move on.”

His father John Vadas was a foreman for Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana. His mother Anna ran Vet’s, the family bait business, named after military veterans. It started in a garage at Indiana Harbor in East Chicago. Next, they moved to Indianapolis and Ewing, “but they couldn’t stay there very long because the Skyway was going in,” James Vadas said.

They settled at 10150 S. Indianapolis and remained in operation until 2015, when Mr. Vadas’ wife Shirley became ill. She died in 2016. They were married for 63 years.

Jack Vadas and Shirley, his wife of 63 years. | Facebook

After graduating from high school at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Indiana, Mr. Vadas served in the Army in postwar Germany.

When he returned, he worked for U.S. Gypsum and at other jobs but quit to focus on the fishing shop, expanding to add tackle and more bait.

“They would go down — two or three of them, a cousin, one of his uncles — to the river in a big truck and seine for minnows, bring a couple hundred pounds of minnows back,” his son said. “People would stand in line at 4 o’clock in the morning” to buy them.

The Vadas family didn’t feed customers any fish stories, either. “If the fish weren’t biting, they told you,” his son said.

Jack Vadas (center) received a Perch America award for his work to safeguard fishing and Lake Michigan. | Facebook

Mr. Vadas and members of Perch America “were always concerned about the ‘exotics,’ ” according to Santucci, who said the 1990s’ decline in perch coincided with invasive zebra mussels that filtered phytoplankton, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the lake bottom, disrupting the ecosystem and resulting in fewer organisms that young fish feed on.

Mr. Vadas’ survivors also include his son John, sister Mary Ann Cederholm, five grandchildren, four step-grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Visitation is 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at Smits Funeral Home in Dyer, Indiana, and from 11 a.m. Saturday until his funeral at noon Saturday at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Schererville, Indiana.

Jack Vadas at his family bait shop Vet’s in 2011. | Dale Bowman / Sun-Times

Contributing: Dale Bowman