Fisheries Management

Thanks to improved water quality, the Chicago River has produced a considerable increase of smallmouth bass, in addition to other gamefish. (Photo courtesy of City of Chicago/Javet M. Kimble) 

Lore has it that the Mayor Richard J. Daley was fixated with the promise of bass fishing on the Chicago River.

For decades, those who were familiar with the river's odors and odd array of tints thought Daley's vision was an impossible dream. But the sight of the world's best bass anglers landing smallmouth bass in the shadows of downtown Chicago during the 2000 Bassmaster Classic only proved what a quiet band of local anglers already knew — that the Chicago River had been on the mend for years.

"The river is doing nothing but getting better and better," said Ken Schneider, a member of Mayor Richard M. Daley's Fishing Advisory Committee. That committee, of course, helped bring the 2000 world championship to the Windy City.

Schneider fishes the Chicago River and surrounding waters almost 200 days a year on average, so he's familiar with the gamefish populations that have rebounded in the metropolitan area. In addition to an abundant smallmouth bass fishery that has returned to the "Main Stem" — the last mile or so of the river before it empties into Lake Michigan — Schneider has also noticed improvements in the number of crappie, bluegill and perch.

"Since the 2000 Classic, the bass fishing has improved there at least 300 percent," he emphasized.

Recent surveys confirm that smallmouth bass have indeed extended their range considerably over the past five years, due primarily to the improvement in river water quality.

Sam Dennison, biologist for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, found his first smallmouth in the river in a 1988 survey. By 1995, smallmouth had shown up on the southern end of the river system at a seepage station on the Cal-Sag Canal and in the Calumet and Little Calumet rivers.

"We're finding numbers of fish species in places now where we didn't get much of anything 30 years ago," explained Dennison, who added that both the quality and the quantity of the bass have increased.

"The water quality is getting better along the whole Chicago River system," said Ralph Friese, owner of the Chicagoland Canoe Base. A water quality activist, Friese added that roughly 90 different species of fish are now found in the river.

"The upper reaches of the river system are still relatively pristine."

Friese's favorite portion of the river runs from the Skokie Lagoons through Harms Woods. But he praises the entire section of the North Branch that winds through forest preserves from roughly Lake Cook Road south to Foster Avenue.

"This is our 'wilderness stretch,'" said Friese. "The rest has been urbanized."

While the smallmouth bass has been the better bellwether of improved river quality, the largemouth bass is the dominant predator along most of the river.

Beyond that mile stretch from the big pond, largemouth bass dominate.

"They are not huge, but you can catch good fish to 18 inches, and catch bass that average 13 to 15 inches all day long," said Schneider.

The Chicago River is a complex of waters running through prairie, suburban and city residential areas, forest preserves, ghastly industrial graveyards and a magnificent downtown district. The watershed consists of the North Branch and its three tributaries (West Fork, Middle Fork and Skokie Rivers); the South Branch; the Calumet River; the Cal-Sag Canal; the Sanitary and Ship Canal; and the Main Stem, the stretch where the rivers merge and link to Lake Michigan.

Arguably the most knowledgeable angler on the Chicago River, Schneider calls the river a "spot" fishery. "There's a lot of dead water. But if you know the spots, it's amazing. One Christmas Eve, we took 40 bass by a warmwater discharge using Yamamoto plastics."

The river's history includes the mighty engineering feat of reversing the flow of parts of the river, building canals and redirecting its water into the Illinois River system. The flow was reversed to protect Chicago's Lake Michigan water supply from industrial waste and municipal sewage.

But while reducing the major sources of pollution has had the most dramatic impact on the overall quality of the river system, ending the practice of chlorinating final effluent from treatment plants in 1984 may have been the real springboard for the bass population.

"Chlorine was initially added to kill bacteria," explained Dennison. "But it's poison for the fish. It also killed macro invertebrates. For example, the river had an annoying midge fly problem because less hearty insects couldn't compete due to the chlorine. When the chlorination ended along the Calumet and Little Cal rivers, the fish came back and ate the midge flies. Everything improved."

The activation of the city's Deep Tunnel project in 1985, designed to handle sewer overflows, marked another stage in the river's revival. That long-term project continues today with the Phase II construction of large reservoirs to hold storm water.

Five aeration stations on the Calumet System have also been godsends to the piscatorial population. The river cleanup continues, but challenges remain.

"I paddled Bubbly Creek on the south side of the city not too long ago," recalled Friese, referring to one of the waterway's most infamous pollution sites. "I saw herons there … but it still bubbles."

Indeed, more than a century of industrial and municipal abuse likely will stretch the rehab effort for decades. Still, anglers, canoeists and other river enthusiasts have garnered political support.

In 2003, Lieutenant Gov. Pat Quinn issued a "call to arms" at a summit hosted by The Friends of the Chicago River to rally support from government agencies, community groups, business groups and local residents for further cleanup efforts. And last October, the Second Annual Chicago River Summit met at Kendall College to advance the goal of making the river "Fishable and Swimmable by 2020," which was also the conference theme. ("Fishable" equates to "edible fish" in this context. Health warnings regarding fish consumption have spurred the catch and release ethic along much of the river.) The meeting convened three panels on habitat, water quality and public access.

"Access is our biggest issue on the river — the parking and getting to the water," explained Schneider. "But it's a great bass fishery — and it's almost like my private pond."