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Chicago River offers both beauty and ugliness

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Updated: June 6, 2013 6:41AM

Ken Schneider punched a jig through the rubbish piled in the corner of Ogden Slip to catch an idiot fish, then a bluegill.

So began the fishing side of a post-flood survey Wednesday of the Chicago River main stem and South Branch. We had a side goal of catching smallmouth bass, which sometimes hold to odd structure in Ogden Slip.

Capturing the essence of fishing the Chicago River is tricky.

There’s man-made beauty. The Willis Tower from the South Branch is a boat-stopper, and there’s wonder in the bridge types. But there are staggering examples of man’s unnatural impact, too. There’s nothing natural about this waterway, from its backward flow to the trash piled in the backs of slips and corners of river walls.

Once or twice a year, I ramble with Tom Palmisano, a diver and part of Henry’s Sports & Bait, around Chicago waterways. Sometimes Schneider, a lakefront advocate, comes along.

We launched from the Richard J. Daley Park on the southwest corner of Western Avenue and the Sanitary and Ship Canal, then motored downtown. We fished discharges, points and wall corners back. Anticipating tough fishing, we had live bait, too.

Busy-ness defines the Chicago River downtown: water taxis, tour boats, canopied tourist rental boats, multiple Chicago Police Department Marine Unit boats, a Coast Guard boat with a big gun, pleasure boats headed toward Lake Michigan on May 1 and a couple of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District boats.

We began fishing at Ogden Slip, then hit the discharges and corners downtown, where, stunningly, we caught nothing. But it was nice watching the passing scenery on a beautiful spring day in Chicago.

The best fishing spot downtown is at the discharge east of the Sun-Times. But a barge was pulled tight, so Palmisano and I split American and Italian subs from Freddies, the Bridgeport institution. Another work barge came in for water while Schneider kept casting, landing a non-native white perch and losing a good largemouth bass.

As we turned down the South Branch, we met an electro-shocking boat from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the monitoring for invasive bighead or silver carp. We played hopscotch with them for the afternoon. Farther down the South Branch, we were just ahead of what appeared to be a body pickup by the marine unit.

We spent a good hour in the Loomis Street slip. Those South Branch slips are pieces of Chicago history where lumber was unloaded after the fire. The slip was trashed. Huge scraps of plastic flapped on trees and bushes like bad feathers. Rubbish was piled thickly on the water in the back.

Yet here is the anomaly of Chicago River fishing: That slip is a top spot — a wild oasis with night herons, Canada geese, American coots and a great blue heron Wednesday — where we caught our only two largemouth bass.

We gave the Streets and Sanitation slip east of Ashland Avenue a try. In the back, taking on water, was Burden of Dreams, the boat used by Paul Buschauer for years of squatting on the river. Mitch Dudek chronicled his tale in the Sun-Times in March.

As we left, a man and woman fished for bluegills under vivid graffiti on the Ashland Avenue bridge. A crew club, which took off from the canoe launch on the east side of Bubbly Crew, passed under the railroad bridge by the launch.

It was time.

The USFWS guys were right behind us, pulling their shocking boat out.

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