Stephen Lamont Williams adjusts the white blade bait attached to his fishing rod, casts his line into the water like a whip, and waits.
“They’ve got some monsters out here,” he says, pointing to the gray-blue ripples below. “They patrol up and down the banks. If I see one, I’ll point one out.”
We're standing on the rocky edge of Jackson Park Inner Harbor, just west of 63rd Street Beach, talking carp. The freshwater fish is the target of the day at the Big Nasty carp tournament, an all-day fishing meet that convenes annually. Its name references the bottom-dwelling nature of carp, which thrive in muddy waters. Around us, two dozen rods stuck into the coast feed into the harbor as their owners mill about, drinking beer and polishing off wings. Whoever reels in the biggest prey will go home with a shiny trophy.
This laidback competition is one of many Williams helps to organize as a member of Stroker’s Fishing Club, a group of hardcore anglers who get together to fish, barbeque, and unwind — rain or shine. Established in 2000, the club now has about 75 members, many of whom grew up fishing on the South Side.
Today, a fine rain is falling, souring prospects for big carp. But few spirits are dampened; a speaker plays hip-hop and R&B, and the air hangs with smoke from grills laden with chicken and shrimp. Here, the notion of fishing as a lonely sport seems like a silly myth — but that was the reality in Jackson Park before Stroker's came along.
“Fishing here was always kind of a sacred ground,” says Williams, who has honed his skills over 45 years. “People would fish next to each other, but nobody would say nothing to each other all day. It was like the library. It was antisocial.”
Then, one day, someone brought out a grill, and people began sharing beer. "Before you knew it," says Williams, "it was like Cheers. Now everybody knows everybody’s names. It’s like family.”
Most of the time, everyone addresses one another by their fishing nicknames, or what they call “lake names.” You can’t miss Williams’s — “Prime Time,” which is emblazoned in neon green on the back of his fishouflage shirt. Randall Harmon, who dons a maroon-and-yellow Stroker’s tee, goes by “Eagle Eye.” Wayne Hankins, the club’s unofficial documentarian, is “Busy.”
The close-knit group might be intimidating to an outsider looking to join, but the curious shouldn't turn away. “There’s really an open invitation, whether you can fish, if you can’t fish, if you’re interested in learning,” Hankins says. “It’s about the community.”
The club's name comes from Prime Time’s experience as an electrician. While pulling wires, he and a coworker would shout, “Stroke!” to coordinate their movements. To him, the likeness to pulling fish out of the water was obvious. Now, members of the club now yell “stroke!” when they haul a catch to shore.
On this past Sunday, three hours into the tournament, there are still no carp. The fishermen are waiting for Cyprinus carpio, or the common carp, rather than the invasive Asian carp, which is causing serious ecological harm to the Great Lakes. When it comes to carp, many Strokers value the pursuit more than the catch. The powerful fish are hard to eat because they have a strap of meat, known as the mud vein, that's tough to remove. Many Strokers simply toss their fish back into the lake.
“I just like them for the fight,” Williams says.
One member, Kenyatte Morgan, knows how to clean a carp (better than most guys, notes to Williams). She's one of just a handful of women at this weekend's tournament, although women make up a sizable portion of the club. Morgan joined Stroker’s about three years ago, but she's a lifelong fisher. She grew up fishing all over Chicago with her mother, and continues to go out with her rod on a near-daily basis.
“I love my fishing,” she says. “It’s peaceful. It takes a long time for a fish to get on a pole.”
A little closer to the beach, Harmon is having more success hooking round gobies than he is carp. The small fish are another invasive species that poses serious threats to the lake; he tosses them to the side for birds to find. A few hours later, he snares a silver bass, and everyone runs to the waterfront to catch the show.
“I like the wait game,” he says. “It’s addicting.”
This is Harmon’s seventh year as a Stroker, but he's been fishing since he was growing up on 78th street. It was one of his primary after-school activities, and he credits it with shaping his childhood in a vital way.
“For the black community, with gang violence… it keeps us away,” he says. “It 100 percent kept me off the streets as a kid, I can tell you that.”
Nearby, Marco Warren is fishing with his kids, who each have their own fishing rod. Watching them, Harmon contemplates the club’s future.
“We have a lot of older members but not a lot of younger guys,” he says. “Nobody has the time to fish. Everybody is on their phones. It’s a lost art, a dying sport.”
As the day ages and the rain lets up, more Strokers arrive. Today, their picnic is probably the liveliest spot in Jackson Park, bathed in a cool mist and the warmth of nostalgia. But still, no carp. So, what to do with that trophy?
The Strokers wind up presenting it to a couple of newcomers to Jackson Park harbor: Kyle and Kayland Warren, age three and four, take home the golden fish as the sun makes its way across the horizon.