“You know, Grandpa Rod isn’t real good at catching fish,” blurts my oldest child, six-year-old Josephine, as I walk out the door on a warm May morning to meet my father at a fishing hole near his Downers Grove home.
Like many blue-collar guys of his generation, my electrician pop never had much time for hobbies. Instead, he spent 40-plus years crawling inside ceilings, trudging up and down ladders, and generally busting his ass in ways that I, a professional writer with hands as soft as a newborn’s bum, can scarcely comprehend. But retirement can change a man, and ever since my dad escaped the work force three years ago, at the still-frisky age of 65, he’s become obsessed with fishing.
The signs came gradually: poles stacked against the wall in the living room; homemade lures scattered around the garage; a container of slithery earthworms in the fridge; the out-of-nowhere subscription to Field & Stream. He became smitten in southwest Florida, where he and Mom reside during snowbird season. There, he loves to tell me, the fish practically jump onto the boat by themselves. He texts me hero shots of him hoisting snapper, grouper, trout, and other menu-worthy specimens so big they look downright prehistoric.
But in Chicago, he’s taunted not only by the small pond fish that offer nary a nibble but also by his granddaughter, who witnessed his futility firsthand. Two straight summers of getting skunked (fisherman’s parlance for not hooking anything) are more than any angler should endure. So I called in a ringer.
Googling around, I discovered the Chicago Fishing School, operated by Johnny Wilkins, a La Grange resident and member of the USA Fishing Team. Wilkins once caught 2,011 fish in 24 hours as he attempted to set a world record—in Oakbrook Terrace, no less. (He fell short by about 600.) His bio says that his specialty is “teaching people how to catch a lot of fish and larger fish very close to home.” Perfect.
“There’s a billion fish in this pond,” Wilkins says confidently when we meet him along the shoreline of Barth Pond, a 5.8-acre body of water in Downers Grove’s woodsy Patriots Park, on a picture-perfect 80-degree day. “I know there’s a 20-pound grass carp in here. It might not sound like much, but that’s a whole lot of fish.”
A patient teacher and gregarious guy, Wilkins sports wraparound shades, a khaki-green shirt, and a right arm dotted with the scars that, I assume, go with the territory when you’re surrounded by sharp hooks every day. It’s just after noon, and the sun is baking the back of our necks as Wilkins begins by instructing us in the finer points of tying knots.
I fumble trying to thread the lightweight line through the eye of a tiny J-shaped hook. But my dad has little trouble tying a perfect clinch knot (one of the most reliable). He even knows to moisten it with a little saliva to keep the line from weakening while he cinches it down. I’m impressed.
Dad pulls out a homemade jig (a hook and lure combo) that he’s fashioned from a metal alligator clip. Leave it to my old man, always a tinkerer, to use a random thingamabob from his electrician days to catch fish. But as he introduces us to the other colorful fake critters in his tackle box, he exposes one of the main reasons for all the fishless afternoons he’s experienced at this very pond. “People buy these lures that look like minnows,” Wilkins says, “but you need bait that matches the food that the fish in a particular environment actually eat.”
Today, Wilkins has brought a big bucket of fly larvae: mealy, maggot-looking creatures the length of my thumbnail. He hands us some slender hooks barely half an inch long. “If you use bait and tackle that are light and thin, it’s easier for the fish to vacuum up the food,” Wilkins explains as my dad slides a piece of still-wiggling grub onto the end of a hook.
Wilkins pauses for effect. “So, technically, fish don’t bite. They suck.”
“Yeah, they’ve been sucking for me for a while,” my dad says with a laugh.
But that’s not the case today. After only an hour, he’s already snagged his first fish: a narrow silver shiner about eight inches long. It’s no Goliath, but it’s something.
Wilkins suggests we try pole fishing, a style in which, as its name indicates, a fixed pole but no reel is used. Like a modern-day Tom and Huck, my dad and I plop our lines in the water and grasp the elegant 12-foot-long carbon poles. This seemingly primitive setup gives us accuracy and control, despite the 15-mile-an-hour breeze. We feel even the smallest of bites, and as soon as we see the wooden bobbers wobble, we pull our poles up, fish hooked.
So many fish, in fact, that over the next few hours it feels like we’re playing a carnival game tilted in our favor. We catch two or three in a row on the same piece of bait. Freeing them from the hook, using a tool Wilkins designed, we return them to the water in a holding net.
As the three of us stand along the bank in silence, I get comfortable with the repetitiveness: Move the pole around in the water, feel the strike, pick the line out, and swing it back before unhooking and rebaiting. I look over, and my dad is also in the zone.
In the late afternoon, we call it quits. When Wilkins pulls the net out of the water, it’s overflowing: 118 fish, mostly four- to six-inch bluegills, along with some bullheads and one baby carp, all of which we toss back after counting. I’m almost embarrassed when another angler, a guy a little older than my father, walks by and looks longingly at our bounty before continuing to search for his own hot spot along the edge of the pond.
“I would’ve liked to catch that 20-pounder,” my dad confesses as we crack open a couple of cold beers near the parking lot. With his newfound skills, I wouldn’t bet against him. But if he fails to land the big one this year, there’s always next summer, and the summer after that. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, really. The lucky bastard’s got nothing but time.