With the city’s skyline as the background, Chicago-area fishing includes hundreds of species of fish all calling Lake Michigan home.
When thinking of the city of Chicago, many images come to mind. The city is home to all forms of professional sports, not the least of which being the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs baseball team. If you get to Chicago in mid-October you can also take your pick of White Sox baseball, Bears football, Bulls basketball, or Blackhawks hockey.
Not a sports fan? Not to worry. There are world-class museums, fantastic dining, the performing arts, music festivals, awe inspiring architecture, beautiful parks, a zoo, the famous Buckingham Fountain, and shopping, shopping, shopping. The city remains one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and millions of people visit each year.
While I have barely touched on the myriad attractions of Chicago, the fact that this bustling city perches on the shores of Lake Michigan also makes it one of the foremost fishing venues in the world. “In the world?” you may ask. I know that sounds hard to believe, but read on.
The five Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan, constitute the world’s largest fresh water system, holding 95 percent of all the fresh water in North America, and 20 percent of all that vital substance on the planet.
Hundreds of species of fish and other aquatic creatures call the lakes home, and the introduction of Pacific salmon in 1966 has been wildly successful. Today, more coho and Chinook salmon are caught by sportfishermen in Lake Michigan than are taken along the entire West Coast.
In addition to the bountiful salmon fishing, lake trout, rainbow and brown trout are abundant. Many are of trophy size. Yellow perch and smallmouth bass populate the inshore waters, providing sport for shore fishermen.
The amazing part of this productive and varied fishery is that it is readily available to the general public, and it is in the shadows of some of the world’s tallest sky scrapers along the dazzling Chicago lake front.
While salmon and trout are available to shore fishermen in early spring, by mid-May most have moved out to deeper, cooler offshore waters. However, yellow perch remain a target species throughout the summer. The perch schools are not as populous as they once were, but when the fish are in close, fishing can be fast and furious for the delicious “jumbos.” The season opens June 15th, and there is a 15-fish daily limit in place. There is no size limit on perch.
Most perch fishing is done around the harbor mouths and jetties connected to the Chicago Park District harbors located along the entire lakefront. Full information, maps, parking, fishing areas and contact information are available at chicagoharbors.info. If you don’t find what you want, call the harbor master at your preferred area. There are restricted areas, so be sure you don’t wind up with an expensive parking ticket under your windshield wiper. That can ruin your whole day.
Perch prefer live bait, such as minnows, soft shell crabs, night crawlers, red worms and wax worms. These critters are available at Park Bait Shop, adjacent to Montrose Harbor, on the city’s north side. Check out their website for current fishing reports. Henry’s Sports, Bait, & Marine, on the south side, has everything you will need, including up-to-date information on what is biting, and where. The perch aren’t always inshore, so get as much information possible to avoid wasting time.
Smallmouth bass inhabit the rocky riprap that protects most of the city’s shoreline. Probing these rocky areas around the harbor mouths with a jig and twister tail, or small crank baits should bring results. These fish are feeding on the abundant round gobies, so lures that mimic the small, darkly mottled bait fish will do the trick.
Right now, the offshore salmon and trout fishery is as good as it ever was.
Personally, I have been fishing Lake Michigan out of Chicago since 1970, and for 25 of those years I operated a charter fishing boat. During all those years fishing was always very good, with some seasons better than others. But the 2016 catches off the Illinois shoreline outshone all the other seasons by a country mile.
The reason for this unprecedented upswing in spot fishing success is really good news — bad news proposition. Let’s take the bad news first.
Back in 1990, incoming freighters were dumping the ballast water they took on in ports around the globe into fresh water American ports. When this ballast was pumped into the ship’s holds, exotic species of aquatic life came in with it. After crossing the seas, these plants and animals were discharged into American waters, where they found a hospitable new home.
Naturally, this infusion of exotic creatures through the Great Lakes ecosystem completely out of balance, as the newcomers competed with native species for available food. The most damaging among the over 180 exotic species introduced in the ballast water were the zebra and quagga mussels.
These filter feeders quickly multiplied by the billions, and soon devastated the forge base of micro organisms which the once abundant alewives depended on.
Today, the alewife population has been reduced by 90 percent, and the end is not yet in sight. Fishery managers are trying desperately to strike a balance between stocked and naturally reproduced predators that will provide a vigorous and varied fishery, yet not overwhelm the remaining forage base. That is a work in progress.
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And, that is the bad news.
Here, then, is the good news.
For reasons known only to themselves, it appears most of the lake’s remaining alewives have migrated down to the southwest corner, and are packed along the Illinois shoreline. Since big fish eat little fish, apparently a great proportion of the lake’s game fish have come right along with them. This, in a nut shell, explains why the fishing off the Chicago lakefront was so spectacular last summer.
Charter boat captains all long he Michigan coast decried the 2016 season as “their worst ever.” Anglers in Wisconsin were demanding increased stocking levels to boost their catch rates, when in reality that would only send even more fish down to Illinois, where the alewives were. Indiana fishermen did fairly well, but research revealed that 70 percent of the Chinook caught in those waters were wild fish, as were 24 percent of all the lake trout taken in the southern half of the lake.
And, in spite of all these alarming reports, Illinois trollers just kept filling their coolers from what seemed to be an endless supply of lakers, Chinook, coho and especially rainbow trout.
When is the best time to get in on this incredible action? When can you be here? As long as the bait fish remain concentrated in Lake Michigan’s southern basin the party will go on. And, there is no reason to believe those big boys are going anywhere. All summer long there will be hot fishing right in front of the Windy City.
But, there is an awful lot of water out there, and since these game fish are relating to water temperature and the presence of bait fish there is really no way to predict where they will be on any given day. Wind, currents and general weather conditions constantly influence the movements of the alewife schools, the water temperatures at depth, and determine the best areas to fish.
The best help I can give you will be found on the website chitownangler.com. It contains a group to charts with detailed directions to the most fishing areas in the Chicago area. Print these charts out, and keep them on your boat at all times.
Information is the name of the game on any big water, and Lake Michigan is no exception. Mindlessly trolling around hoping to get lucky just is not going to get ‘er done. But, when you find out where the fish are biting it won’t do you much good unless you can get to that spot. These charts will pinpoint places like “the wreck,” the “R-4,” the “R-2,” the “Candy Striper,” “Navy Pier” and more. Simply look these spots up on the chart, plug in the coordinates into you GPS, and you are there.
If you have your own Lake Michigan fishing boat and it is already moored in one of the Chicago Park District harbors, all you need do is select a likely destination and go get ‘em.
If you trail your boat, check with the Chicago Park District website to find a convenient launching ramp, and get after them. It may be helpful to talk to the harbor master if it is your initial visit to a new launch, just to get the details straight.
Perhaps the most carefree way to enjoy Lake Michigan’s spectacular summer fishing, for visitors or residents alike, is on one of the professional charter fishing boats that operate out of several on the harbors. About all you need to do is pick a date, splash on some sun screen, fill a picnic cooler and go fishing. It really is that simple.
You will be guided by a U.S. Coast Guard licensed charter captain, who keeps up with action, and will put you on the fish
Perhaps the best service your captain can provide is deciding when the lake is too rough for an enjoyable trip. Fishing in unsafe conditions is simply not an option, of course, but a steady northeast wind can provoke a nasty chop that can unsettle many a stomach. Some captains will not go out, knowing his clients won’t enjoy it. Others will tell you it is “a little sloppy out there,” and let you decide if you want to try it. My advice, and speaking with 46 years of experience is, don’t do it.
The charter boat will be big enough to provide a soft, comfortable ride. It will have a clean bathroom. All the latest fishing gear and electronics will be at your disposal. There will be an ice filled cooler to keep your catch fresh, and fish cleaning and packaging is available. There will be a sun drenched rear deck area if you want to work on your tan, and a roomy cabin to retreat to when a shower passes.
Recommended charters operators can be found online. Popular options include Confusion Charters and Full Circle Charters. Or contact the Chicago Sportfishing Association. You can book a six-hour or full eight-hour trip. Most charter operators charge a single rate that includes up to six passengers, but larger groups can be accommodated.
Perhaps the most unique fishing experience in the Chicagoland area is a guided trip with Capt. Pat Harrison on the Chicago River. Imagine angling for bass, panfish, perch, pike, walleyes and channel cats in an urban canyon created by downtown Chicago’s skyscrapers. Be sure to check out patharrisonoutdoors.com.
However you choose to do it, don’t pass up a chance to experience the world class fishery that lies right at Chicago’s doorstep.