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Hooking up

Detroiters return to the river for the reel thing

MT Photo: Detroitblogger John
Detroiter John Williams waits for a tug near Zug Island.
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Published 6/11/2008

As spring turns to summer in Detroit, the riverfront becomes lined with anglers, their baited hooks sunk into the water, trying to fool fish into taking their last bite.

Fishing's always been a popular warm-weather pastime in the city. The Detroit River snakes for miles along the city's edge, and its banks have hundreds of spots — some well known, some secret — where someone can spend the day basking in the sun and listening to the waves splashing at the shore as they wait for a tug on their line.

Among the best places to fish are the east side parks, such as Owen and Angel; there are also the informal spots close to downtown, such as the pier behind the post office or the foot of the Belle Isle bridge; and there are the odd spots, like the remains of the Jefferson Trailer Court near Alter or banks at the end of little streets that run to the river.

John Williams, 59, found a spot across from Zug Island one recent crisp morning, as nearby smokestacks puffed gray plumes into the air. "I'm retired, and this is my first full summer just relaxing and fishing," he says. "I like to look at the water, I like the relaxation, just to look over and see the waves. It's kind of serene. I like catching fish too now, but if I don't catch a fish I really don't get upset." He and his 60-year-old brother, Robert, had the spot to themselves, with nobody else around for miles.

Right this very minute, Detroiter Westley Germany, 78, probably has two poles in the water at Delray Park, where he goes every single day. The plain concrete pier is like any other fishing spot in Michigan probably, except for uniquely Detroit sights of the Ambassador Bridge spanning across to Canada, the Ren Cen silhouetted in the background and the sight of smoking factories up and down the waterfront.

"It's the best thing to get up and get out of the house in the morning when you retire," he says with an Alabama accent. He was a steelworker in Detroit for years, after coming North looking for work. "You can't lay around the house, 'cause you never been used to it. You been working all your life. You gotta just keep going. You gotta do something."

Fishing requires very little from the hobbyist; you don't need to be terribly physically fit or have cash to pay for the few hours of fun outside. Once you've got the necessities paid for — a rod, reel, fishing line and a sinker — the rest is easy and cheap. Just check your own back yard for nightcrawlers. Plus, artificial lures can be reused for years. The only other thing needed is a fishing license, available at most bait shops and sporting goods stores for $15, and valid for a year.

A variety of fish live in the Detroit River, including perch, crappie, smallmouth and largemouth bass, muskie, walleye, freshwater drum and northern pike. Those who fish to eat have to consider the likelihood of toxins in their catch. The river is lined with industrial sites, and though the state issues annual guidelines about contamination, not everyone takes them into consideration.

"We've been eating it all our lives," says Germany, who's fished the river for more than 60 years. "I never had no complaints. They've been talking about the water, some of them having mercury, different things in there, but I never had no problem."

Detroiter Glenn Lewis, 58, also ignores the advisories. "Well, it ain't killed me yet," he says of the river fish. "I've heard people say "I don't eat no fish from the Detroit River. Well you'll eat it if you get hungry."

Others are more cautious. "If something's wrong with the fish you can smell it," says David McCaleb, 52, who was fishing one morning at Riverside Park, in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. "There's a steel plant down here. And I've caught some fish where you can smell the steel."

According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the river — like most bodies of water in Michigan — contains the contaminants PCBs, dioxin and mercury, but apart from carp, which people are advised to avoid eating altogether, other fish can be consumed in moderation.

"Cooking and trimming the fish properly can help reduce PCBs and dioxin in the fish," says James McCurtis, spokesman for the MDCH. "But generally speaking, the fish in the river are healthy to eat."

Fishing's best in the morning and the evening, anglers say, when the sun is low, before the day warms up and the fish head farther from shore seeking cooler waters. Some fish, like walleye, tend to linger far offshore anyway, where they're better caught by anglers in boats.

But regardless of whether any fish are caught on a given day, most anglers say they simply enjoy what is an old-fashioned, low-cost hobby, an inexpensive way to relax and bask in nature for a time. "It's safe, nobody never bothers nobody," Germany says of city fishing. "Everybody's just out to fish and have fun."

Detroitblogger John uncovers this city's gems. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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