Every fall, coho and chinook salmon arrive in Chicago's harbors to spawn. And just as regularly, a group of fishermen sets out to catch some of the meaty fish by sticking them in the body, head or tail with enormous, three-pronged hooks—a controversial style of fishing called snagging.
"Once they drop their eggs, [the fish] are going to die," South Shore electrician Tim Jackson says. "A lot of people are against snagging. But the salmon are going to die, so why not catch them?"
Jackson's sentiment is popular on the banks of the inner harbor on Jackson Park, but his view isn't always shared in the larger fishing community.
"There's nothing sporting about snagging," says Andy Kurkulis, owner of Chicago Fly Fishing Outfitters in Lincoln Park. "If a snagger blindly drags a hook through the water, anything in its way gets snagged. It's more harvesting than fishing."
The difference of opinion lies in the method. In bait, fly and lure fishing, the idea is to trick the fish into biting an angler's hook—the sport is in mastering the nuances involved. Snaggers simply haul a hook through the water, hoping it hits a fish.
The practice began in Chicago in the early 1970s, shortly after the state introduced salmon to the area to help keep the non-native alewife population under control.
In the late 1940s, Atlantic alewife began to slip into the Great Lakes through rivers and manmade canals. Throughout the 1950s, Lake Michigan's trout population declined enormously, and without any natural predators, the number of alewife exploded. In 1967, Michigan began stocking the lake with salmon, which fed on the alewife, and Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois followed suit soon after.
The program was a success—so much so that fishermen were encouraged to harvest the excess salmon. At the time, snagging was thought to be the best way to catch the fish—a theory that has since been debunked.
"Scientists didn't know that salmon would strike or bite a lure when they came in to spawn [because they don't feed when spawning]," says Bob Long, whose official title at the Chicago Park District is "The Fishing Guy!" "They thought [snagging] would be a somewhat sporting way to get these fish. We found out later that even though the salmon aren't eating, they still have a residual memory of feeding and a strong aggressive sense. Anything that comes near them, they hit it or bite at it."
Snagging fell out of favor once this discovery was made, and is now illegal in every state surrounding Lake Michigan except Illinois, where the tradition hangs on—in a limited form. In Chicago, snaggers are limited to a paltry area, and are only allowed to snag fish during the short season from October 1 through December 31.
Snaggers also are expressly prohibited from catching anything other than chinook or coho salmon. Of course, that's not always easy to control. Frequently snaggers hook other varieties of fish, including bass and carp. They're not allowed to keep these kinds of catches, but once a fish is snagged with such a big hook, there's little chance it will survive if thrown back.
But old habits die hard, and snaggers don't see what they're doing as a problem. In fact, a common opinion among the method's practitioners is that they're helping the lake.
"The salmon is coming in to spawn, and then going off to die," says Tony Williams, an airline worker from Bellwood who has been snagging in Jackson Park for almost 20 years. "It's our way of keeping the lake clean."
According to Long, there are no plans to end the practice in Illinois soon. Because Illinois has the smallest area bordering the lake, banning snagging is a battle few politicians want to bother taking on.
But he does think snagging will disappear eventually. "We'd phase it out over a two- or three-year period," he says. "You'd see people adapt."
In the meantime, the snaggers will keep on casting. "The fish aren't as big as they used to be," Jackson says. "But I still like snagging."
Snagging season continues through December, at the inner and outer harbors of Jackson Park and the rowing pond on the south end of Diversey Harbor in Lincoln Park.