Fish Heads | Feature | Chicago Reader

Fish Heads 

At Ardmore pier the fish are biting, the BS is flying, and somewhere out there Big Ed is waiting.

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On a sunny Thursday afternoon in late September Robert Hibbs stands on a steel girder at the edge of the Ardmore pier, hooting at a bunch of salmon. Hibbs is 33, a roofer by trade. At Ardmore he prefers to go by Babe Wolf. Friends of his who fish at Ardmore include Burnout, J.J., Jim, Blair, and No Neck.

Hibbs has a goatee, longish blond hair, and a definite gut. In one hand he holds a 40-ounce bottle of Budweiser in a brown paper bag. In the other he has a fishing rod, complete with 12-pound test line and three-quarter-inch lure. "Got the chinook and the steelhead trout right now," he tells me. "Yeah, there's chinook salmon down there now. Man, a whole mess of 'em just followed me up. I'm surprised I didn't clock one of 'em."

He gets a bite. The fish flops around in the water just below the surface. "Oh, I got it, man!"

His wife, Sam, is sitting on the pier next to him. "All right!" she says.

"Get the net, Sam!"

"I can't," she says.

The net is in pieces on the other side of the pier.

"Aw, he's comin' off."

"You lost him?"

"How 'bout that? Yeah." He laughs. "Honey, what's the matter with you? You lost your nerve." He stares at the water. "He's still out there."

"That was a nice one."

"Yeah. He was pan sized."

"You know they're out there though. You ain't got another lure, huh, Babe?"

"No. I'll let you cast this one," he says, reeling the line back in. "I'd like to see you hook into about a 13-pounder. I got one that was thirteen six right there by the wall. I cast one out that way. This was last year. We didn't bring no net. Sam, fix the net up, so in case I do that again you can reach out and grab it."

A little later Babe's still trolling for the elusive fish. "Man, I've been fishin' with night crawlers all the time. I should've been on one already. I've got to drag a little lighter. I probably ripped his mouth wide open. Ripped his jaw, ripped it pretty hard. I've got a 12-pound test, so I can hog 'em right up on the pier. Damn. I didn't know they were that active for the lures. They've been catching chinook off of Montrose horseshoe." He sees a big fat fish swim by. "Oh, damn! There comes a nice motherfucker there, boy. Whoooo! Goddamn, he's gotta be 13. Goddamn."

The fish swims under the pier.

"That was a nice fish there, boy."

"Trout?" Sam asks.

"Chinook. They're out there--you've just gotta hook into one, Jack, when they catch ahold of your lures. I'm gonna have fun. I ain't got much line on this reel. I have to play 'em like all hell. One guy came out here, he wasn't out here 15 minutes and he nailed a big steelhead, about 14 pounds. Oh, oh, oh, oh, boy. C'mon, c'mon, get it, take it. Might want to track 'em a little better. Boy, you can see their big silver sides when they turn sideways. Lot of fun, man. Get out here, man, get out here. C'mon buddy, take it, take it. Sam, look at all them guys, man. Whooo! I love it!"

Babe, who's been fishing at Ardmore for 25 years, knows its currents as well as anyone. "This pier here is really productive," he says. "I've sat here and limited out five times in one day. When your salmon season's here you catch spring coho. I caught 111 in one month."

"One year," Sam says, "we were sittin' out by the rocks, and every time we threw our line in we were catchin' a trout. They were really active that day, that night. We kept throwin' 'em in, pullin' 'em out, throwin' 'em in, pullin' 'em out."

"Yep," says Babe. "Jim and Chuck were the guys that we were fishin' with. We'd stay out here for a whole week. Somebody got evicted over there. There was a love seat and a lounge chair, and we had a portable TV. There was a rug there we drug over to the beach. We blocked off the back of the pier, and we partied here for one week catchin' fish. Same time of the year, we were on a three-week fishin' trip. We went to Kankakee, we went to Wolf River--all kinds of places. And then we came here. This one guy that we were with, he bet us $200 that we wouldn't stay. We sure did. It was fun. We fished. We caught all the fish, and we were eatin' 'em right here. Went to the store and got ten pounds of baking potatoes, sat here and had a feast. That's the way to do it, huh? Just like fishin' on the river, but it's a little bit colder out here, I guess. Yeah. We were eatin' 'em as soon as we were catchin' 'em. Makin' french fries and all kinds of shit. Come out here for the smelt season, we cook 'em right here."

Sam starts to shiver. "I need my winter coat here."

Babe takes off his shirt and puts it on her. He has several tattoos, including one of a tiger and one of a crab that reads "Cancer." Dipping his hand into a dirt-filled plastic dish, he pulls out a night crawler, baits his hook, and begins to troll. "One guy that comes out here, he uses a 17-pound test. He hogs 'em, pulls 'em right up on the pier. Oh, there's one--look, look! C'mon, boy, talk to me. Look at 'em--look, look, look! Fine fish. That's a chinook. You turned away from me, boy. Ooh, there he is! See him out there? Nice fish. That's what I'm lookin' for. Shenook salmon!

"My buddy hooked a lady out here one day. She had men's underwear on. We stood here for about 20 minutes. I couldn't take no more of it, man. This friend of mine, he was fishin' like I am right now, and he hooked into her and dragged her. She was out here. The tide took her all the way down here, man. She was down because she was decomposed already. When they decompose they don't float no more. Unbelievable. He quit fishin' for a while. He quit fishin' for about three weeks."

A school of trout swims by. One of them turns Babe's lure. "See what I mean?" he says. "They come like every 45 minutes, half an hour sometimes--mostly. Every half hour you'll start to bang a fish. Man, there are a lot of trout down there. Oh, man, they're down there in the rocks. One time we found money down here, $28 or somethin' like that. I was lookin' on the bottom, down there alongside of the pier, and I'm lookin' down there, and--money, right there on the bottom. I said, screw the fish, I gotta go there in the water. I went into the water and sure enough, two fives and a bunch of singles. That was a lotta fun, man. We laid 'em out here, dried 'em out. Sent what's-his-face for beer."

"Lotta weird things happen on this pier," Sam says.

"A-yep," says Babe.

"That's why it's so interesting to come out here. Something's always happening. Always something happening here. Anywhere from poking a dead body to I don't know what."

"It's true," says Babe. "I was out of a job this one year, and I did nothin' but fish. We were actually sellin' 'em. We'd go down Bryn Mawr, and the Vietnamese and the Chinese store owners and stuff, they'd buy 'em right off us. I got this guy by my house, I'll sell him the big ones for like 20 bucks. Sell him the spring coho, five bucks apiece--and I catch 40 or 50 at a time. It's against the law to do that. I don't eat 'em a lot, because they're outta Lake Michigan. But I take my share. They say it's not good to eat any one thing at all. Like beef--if you ate beef every day it'd be bad for you. I heard about people that are over 80, and all they ate were avocados or something off-the-wall like that. Or people surviving out in the ocean for six months on papayas. Yogurt. Yogurt's got a big name now, too."

Nearly every pier in Chicago has its devotees. Some fishermen love smelt season at 95th Street, sweeping after their targets with enormous nets, others prefer the lagoon in Lincoln Park. The Montrose horseshoe offers the best fishing, but it's often crowded, and it's an awfully long walk from the street. Belmont Harbor is quite fertile, if you can persuade the boat owners to let you stay. But the pier at Pratt is small and cramped and reeks of urine, and Foster pier is short and basically fruitless.

The Ardmore pier, which juts at an angle into the lake just east of where Sheridan Road turns into Lakeshore Drive, is nothing glamorous, but it's serviceable and barely molested by vandals. From its edge you can see the Loop's skyscrapers to the south and Evanston's beaches to the north. To the west are high-rise apartment buildings. The pier straddles rocks that are ideal spawning ground for salmon, trout, and, in the summer, perch. The water is about 7 to 8 feet deep to the northwest, and 12 to the southeast. A few feet off the end of the pier is a 20-foot-deep pool that's often filled with fish.

Many fishermen prefer the summer perch season, others come out in the spring and fall for salmon and trout. One guy stakes out his corner of the pier in January, heats the space below his feet with an acetylene torch, drops a couple of bricks into the ice, and fishes through the hole, mostly for perch, but also for rock bass and northern pike. Some of the regulars at Ardmore are white guys from the neighborhood who've always been from the neighborhood and probably always will be, but plenty of black and Latino fishers turn out as well. And a growing group of Russian immigrants fish with flexible poles rigged out of wood, wire, and black electrical tape.

Fishermen pay $13 for a state fishing license, plus $6.50 for a salmon and trout stamp, which entitles them to a daily catch of five trout or salmon, though no more than three of either. The daily limit for lake trout is two, for perch 25. Going over the limit is a petty offense, and fishermen can be fined $75 to $500, have their equipment confiscated, and be charged $4 a pound for the fish that are over the limit.

Most often the fishermen at Ardmore attach a worm to a bobber, throw out the line, and wait. Others prefer to cast and troll, cast and troll. Some bring out two lines and troll and bob at the same time, or they "power-line," attaching several bobbers to an especially long, thick test line. It's pretty much agreed that the best times to catch fish are from about 7 to 10 AM and 4 to 8 PM, when the fish are hungriest. Another good time is on rainy days when the waves are calm, when the fish may be fooled into thinking it's dusk. If the waves are high you might as well forget it--only the greediest carp's going to bite.

On a chilly, drizzly Friday evening in October I watch a lone red-hooded figure gradually move down the pier toward me, holding a fishing pole and pushing a mountain bike to which he's strapped a backpack and a cooler. The rain stops. He removes his hood, revealing a rough face, and begins casting. His hands are dirty and covered with fish blood, and he's smoking a cigarette. He tells me his first name is Manfred. His last name is "the alphabet spelled backward." He came to Chicago 35 years ago from Lithuania to be a photographer and for years has owned a commercial studio. He lives down the street in a condo and has been fishing at Ardmore for 20 years.

"I have friends with a boat," he says. "I don't like to fish from the boat. Just from the piers. I like to get my hands dirty. That's important. When you catch fish they bleed. You kill them and they bleed. I don't like to wash my hands. In my job I've gotta be very clean. I'm a fashion photographer. You talk with people, you've always gotta be clean, you've gotta do all that. So when I have my free time, I like to get dirty. That's the difference, see? It's a change. Relaxation. I deal with people--you have to talk, you have to talk bullshit. Whatever to make a picture. So here I have my serenity. If it rains, that's even better. Less people. Not that I don't enjoy people--I like people. But the less the better. I come out in February, and I fish there when everything is ice."

"And you see these rails?" he says, pointing to the steel rails that run along the center of the pier. "The waves come, then I take a rope and fasten it to the rails so in case the wave takes me in I wouldn't fall into the ice. That I love. Everybody says I'm an idiot, but I love it. Fishing on boats doesn't interest me. I like simple things. Do-it-yourself. Gadgets and stuff."

Manfred knows most of the regulars at Ardmore and has made many friends fishing. "I thought you were a preacher when you came here. I met here all kinds of preachers. This is a good spot. They come out, they practice their oratory. I'm sometimes fishing and I see the Bible, and I say, 'Go ahead!' I know what they are here for. It don't bother me none. There was an old Jewish guy used to come out, like 20 years ago, and you fish and you rap and bullshit. He was retired, really old, very likable fellow. So he always used to say, "Manny'--he always used to call me Manny--'Inwest in Walgreens.' I never paid attention to him--he barely could walk. But that's like 20 years ago. I wish I had listened to him, because Walgreens always did very good, the stock. Each year I'm looking, 15, 18 percent. God, I should have listened to that old man! 'Good company, Manny. Good company.'"

Manfred says he likes all the people he meets at Ardmore, but his favorites are the Russians. "When it's warmer you see a lot of them. Some of them worked on reactors in Mongolia, you name it. Now they are here." He flicks his cigarette into the water.

"See, there are currents under here. When it's very quiet the lake is really dangerous then, because there are usually very strong undercurrents. The Russians usually walk here because they know me. I know just a few Russian words. I make a point of talking with them. They don't speak good English. I say, 'Oh, don't worry. You speak fine--just practice.' The Russians. In the old country they like the carp. And I tell them not to eat it, but they like carp. They are the ones really polluted, they have a lot of PCBs. They're the bottom feeders. So I tell them not to eat it, but you see, back home they're probably in different waters. Like in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, they have carp for holidays, stuff like that. From the lake I wouldn't eat it. The lake got cleaned up a little bit. But you eat your tomatoes and all that, they're full of pollutants as well. Your water, you name it. I smoke, see. I'm 54 now. I did everything. I've been all over the world. China, Burma, Thailand, Russia, Moscow. Everywhere in Europe--Germany, Italy, France. You name it, I've been there. I've done everything I've wanted to do. I don't even want to travel anywhere. Probably Jerusalem I would like. That's it. Then I can croak."

Fishing gives Manfred a lot of time to ponder the world, which, in his opinion, is in terrible shape. "A lot of the Russians would like to go back, because they have friends. It's hard. It's depressing, you know, to go there. The Holocaust, to Stalin, to Cambodia and all this. What did man learn--ever? Absolutely nothing. Bosnia. What did man learn? Still kill each other. And shit, when Simpson football star the Juice for Hertz, when he takes over entire nation, all the networks and all of this--and you know here Rabin and Arafat and who else comes to sign a peace treaty. It's sad. I'm not kidding you. So all in all, with all these troubles you're still kicking and it's a great country, right? They say there are more wars now than ever. People are getting more killed. Who gives a shit? Nobody gives a shit. We are lucky, I guess. We are lucky, lucky people. Probably we created our own luck. Who the hell knows?"

He feels a slight tug on his line. "Maybe it's one of those fish. They have real big heads and real small bodies. They came here, I think, from Russia. These fish, they look like monsters. I caught a couple here. It could be one of those. Nah, it's probably a tiny one."

It turns out to be nothing at all. "I'm catching all these small ones, and the real big one--poof!--could jump right out. You never know."

For the last three years Manfred has been trying to catch a 40-pound chinook salmon he's named Big Ed. Sometimes he sees Big Ed, sometimes he doesn't. But Big Ed is always on his mind. No matter what Manfred tries the fish always wins. "I'm not hunting for him today. Probably another two weeks, then I will come out serious for Big Ed. Bring my huge net. I probably couldn't get him with this rod. I had a power line out--he took the barrel, the bucket, everything. Dragged it all in the water. Very strong, very strong fish. See, if Big Ed was to go on my rod, that thing would fly right in, he's so powerful. But I wouldn't mind. The curse of Big Ed. Big Ed. People who come out here, once in a while they see Big Ed. I come because each time he screws me or destroys or rips my line apart. I always lose, and I don't even have a chance. One time we saw a huge one right here. Everybody's trying to sort of poke him with something. He's just slowly, like a submarine, going through. And I always have my net, but he doesn't come around when I have a net. He knows. My wife, if she wants me out of the house, she says, 'Go fishing, go, go. Get Big Ed. Today you will get Big Ed.'"

This afternoon, he says, has been moderately satisfying. He's caught some fish over by the rocks, though none at the pier. The weather has been bad, the way he likes it. He packs up his bike and brushes fish scales off his shoes.

"I never liked fishing, but then one of my friends--he always went fishing--he gave me the rod to cast. The third time I cast in my life I hooked a 12-pound steelhead. I looked at it--wow, what a beautiful fish. Then I sort of got hooked on it. I liked it then. I guess the trick is to catch a big nice fish, and then you like fishing. But then I like the misery too. Like early in spring it's cold, frost. I used to take my partner and my assistants out to fish there. I enjoy myself. They're all dying, they all want to go. Nature brings you down to your knees. The elements, you can never win against them. When it's freezing, then I come serious here. I will come out with a big net. And I use fish eggs. Serious. It could be something."

On a gorgeous Thursday afternoon in mid-October Ardmore has attracted a crowd of two fishermen. The pier is littered with scrunched-up cans of Busch beer. An old, shirtless Russian with a hairy back is fishing with a makeshift pole extended with coat hangers and electrical tape. He swings it over his head like a lasso.

The other man, also shirtless, is drinking a can of beer. He tells me his name is Wayne and he's 27. He was born and raised in Edgewater, and now lives by the lake in a condo. He says he's in construction, though he's "private" and there's not much work right now. People call him Burnout "for obvious reasons."

Burnout keeps his worms in a margarine tub, and suddenly a gust of wind blows across the pier and whisks the lid into the water. "Aw, that's all I needed today," he says. He and the Russian try to manipulate the lid with their fishing lines. "Yeah, knock it back. Thank you. Knock it," Burnout says. "Aw shit. Try to knock her back this way. Yeah, keep going. Yeah! Once I git my hook under her. Aw shit! All right. Try to knock her back. Oh, man, I need that motherfucker. All right. Yeah, try to catch it up in between your thing! Yeah. Squeeze! Bring her over. Aw. Here."

He almost gets the lid on his line, but then a boat comes by leaving quite a wake. "Yeah, great! That's all I need, more waves," Burnout says. "Thank you, you dickhead. You know somethin'? I'm gonna get this sucker over here by this." He starts trying to snag the lid with his line again.

The Russian gets a bite, then yanks a trout out of the water. "Hey," he says.

"Looka this," Burnout says. "He caught a nice fish."

"Heyahh!"

"It's a rainbow. Nice one! Heh, heh, heh, heh. Heeyah, that's a keeper."

"Hehehehe," says the Russian. He pulls the fish in, lays it on the pier, reaches into a canvas Neiman-Marcus bag, pulls out some scissors and a pair of pliers, and clips the fish off his line. He bundles the flopping trout in butcher paper, places it in a plastic bag, and hangs it from the end of the pier. Then he rebaits his line and starts to fish again.

Burnout is sick of trying to hook his lid. He strips off his jeans and shoes and stands on the pier, clad only in a pair of red briefs. "Last swim of the summer," he says. "Don't try this at home."

He lowers himself onto the rocks, dives in, swims out, and snags the lid. He emerges from the water and resumes fishing.

"Nothin' like fishin' in your underwear, huh?" I say.

"I'm gonna do it till I dry out. I shoulda did that from the get-go. It ain't the first time I've jumped in. I've jumped in for fuckin' hats and all that other shit. The water ain't that bad. The problem is I don't got my brush with me right now. I was thinkin' about grabbin' that bike. There's a bike down there. Aw well. It's covered with seaweed. I hear there's a mountain bike way down on that side, but I ain't got none of my schnorkeling equipment. Actually the water's a lot better than I thought it would be. I was just gonna grab it when I had it by the pier. Shit, that's what I shoulda did. Besides they're red. People think they're swimmin' trunks."

He turns to the Russian. "Caught ya a nice one there! I was too busy tryin' to catch a lid--he mighta got me. Heh, heh, heh. A little rainbow. It's actually a nice one, really. There's quite a few people that jump in for their shit. Without my lid I'd have lost my whole bait and everything. I'm not the only one that would do that. Anybody would."

He puts down his pole, walks over to a corner of the pier, pulls down his briefs, and relieves himself in the lake.

I see a huge fish swim by and start chasing after it, thinking it might be Big Ed. It swims under the pier.

"Did he have white acne on him?" Burnout says. "Because that might be that damn carp. There's a big carp floatin' around here. It's half dead and half alive. The carp--you don't even really wanna catch them suckers. But they do like to get on your line. The carp is the alley cat of the lake. They eat anything they can fit in their mouth."

He starts fishing again. "I come out here, and somebody had a basket and a green line hung on the side over here. I pulled that sucker up--I guess they couldn't get it. They had it tied up--the basket got tied under a rock, that's what happened. They couldn't get it up, so they left the shit. I pulled it up the next day when I come out here. I had me eight perch. A basketful of fuckin' perch."

A man wearing black swimming trunks, shades, and thongs walks up the beach toward the pier. His name is John Johnson, though he goes by J.J., and he's from the neighborhood. He's 64 and recently retired from AT&T. He hasn't brought his fishing pole.

"Sonofabitch, you're just hangin' out," J.J. says to Burnout.

"Naw. What're you talkin' about? I've been fishin', swimmin', and everything."

"Been in the water?"

"Yeah, I been in the water. I lost my damn top to my damn worms. I had to go swim for it."

"Didya?"

"Yeah! Why do you think I'm sittin' in my underwear? I'm about to go, so I'm not gonna worry about putting a new worm on there. He's good enough for now. So what the hell you up to, J.J.? Where's your fishin' rod?"

"If I thought you were catchin' fish--"

"Oh, he caught a nice one," Burnout says, pointing to the Russian.

J.J. goes up to the Russian. "Where's the fish? Where? Where's the fuckin' fish? Where?"

"He don't speak English that well. He didn't throw it back or nothin'. It's on the side over there. It's a nice rainbow, about 11 inches."

J.J. examines the fish. "Yeah, you got him. He's got a few."

Burnout takes a swig of his beer. "He's been out here just as long as I have. He was out here about a half hour before me. I ain't caught nothin' but a little buzz."

"Very good," J.J. says. "I don't see nothin' today."

"Naw, they out here. I'm thinkin' about tonight goin' over by Montrose. You wanna go?"

"I can't go tonight."

"Well, yeah. Tonight's gonna be the last of the good weather. Then it's supposed to chill up again. I figured the last day you might as well go out that way, 'cause they're probably catchin' more up on Montrose."

"No, they ain't bitin' nowhere."

"Oh, they bitin'. You just gotta have patience."

"Well, I got very little. They run an ad in the paper--what's goin' on with the fish--and they said they're only bitin' in the harbor. Sometimes it's good, but right now it's slow all over."

"They're out here, but you just gotta have patience. The best time is early in the mornin' or right when the sun goes down."

"How much beer you got?"

"This my last one."

"Every time I see you it's your last fuckin' beer."

"No, yesterday was my last one, when you and Blair come out. Blair had beer."

"I don't blame anybody. I just left the house. I was gonna bring one with me, but I wasn't intending to drink it now. I only drink one beer a day. Maybe two in the summertime. Maybe three."

"You know if I had one I'd give it to you."

"Aw, yeah."

"I mean, my bag's empty. They got that good deal goin', a buck ninety-nine a sixer, man, over there at Stupid Foods."

"Oh, no kidding? Which one is it?"

"Busch! Buck ninety-nine. I used to didn't like it, but for the price, shit, you've gotta get used to it. Heh, heh, heh. I mean, if I give 'em out and shit when they come out here, it ain't worth me payin' five bucks for Miller. Buck ninety-nine.

Later Burnout tells me, "Fishin' takes patience. You ain't got patience, you might as well not even get into fishin'. That's why most of your fishin' people drink. Fishermen drink. It's somethin' to mellow out with sometime, relax, don't mess with nobody. Human nature. Some people don't know how to drink. That goes on all the time. A person can have a six-pack and relax. There's some people that can't even drink though. I can drink up to a 12-pack, and about the only thing I'm gonna do is not watch my bobber that much."

J.J. suddenly asks me, "Do you fuck a lot of broads while you're interviewing 'em?"

"Um," I say. "Urgh--"

"This is Studley Dudley over here," Burnout says. "Keep it to yourself."

"Not when you're workin' with 'em," J.J. says. "But when you get off the job, where do you hustle at? Where's a good place?"

"To meet women?"

"Yeah."

"See, he gives up his fishin' rod," Burnout says. "Now he's wantin' to use his other rod."

"You're asking me?" I say.

"You don't want to get that mixed up in your writing," J.J. says. "I understand that's really mixed up. No, I'm just jokin' with you down at the pier. Broads. This place is hoppin' with 'em in the summertime. They'd come down here, and when the guys came down in the sailboats, they'd pull their tops off and wave their arms around. But that was in the 70s."

"Well, I hope a little fish bites my hook," Burnout says. "Heh, heh, heh."

The Russian flings his line over our heads. "I saw a guy get his eye hooked, man," Burnout says. "Right out here, man."

"When I'm fishin' with 'em from now on," says J.J., glancing over at the Russian, "I'm either gonna wear glasses, or--"

"Jim runs 'em outta the pier. Jim gets drunk on that vodka and says, "Get the fuck out."'

"They fucked him over. They fuckin' took his pole."

"You know, I think Jim got fucked up and lost his pole. I really do. Because you know, he gets out here and gets so fucked up--I think he just got up, took the shit that he had, and left his pole out here. Because, I mean, I know these Russians. I ain't never seen none of them fuck with anybody's shit or anything."

"No, they don't. That's a fact. He gets all pissed off when the Russians are catchin' 'em."

"What's wrong with that? Hell, if I see someone else catch 'em at least I know they're out there."

Around four o'clock Burnout and J.J. start packing up to leave. Burnout gets dressed, then dumps his last couple sips of beer into the lake.

At that moment he leans over and looks at my notebook. "'Wayne empties his beer into the lake.' Fuck you!" he says. "You wanna go in the lake? You writin' that shit? You better cool it with that. Shit. I don't give a shit about that! 'Wayne empties his beer in the lake!' I don't throw cans in, I don't bring bottles out here so people bust 'em. Put that shit down. No, don't put that shit down. That's just the backwash, you know."

"Cool down, man," says J.J. "He's just trying to write a good story."

Burnout, still fuming, starts picking up cans and putting them in a plastic bag. "People piss all over here, all over the fuckin' wall. In the summertime it's nothin' but flies. It smells like piss. I fill up these holes with concrete. I clean up everything. Any other cans I see up here, I'll smash 'em so they don't end up goin' in the lake. I love the lake. You respect the water--you treat it good and it'll treat you good."

A couple of weeks later I ride out to the pier on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon. Burnout's sitting there alone, not fishing. He's drinking Busch and offers me one.

"Fish ain't bitin' so well now, because of these little trout that just been born," he says. "The other fish probably eat off 'em, so they're not that hungry now. They lay their eggs, and then the females will bite, and the males will come around and spread their semen, and then the males will start bitin'. Then after that, after all the little babies are born, then they come back and start feedin' off it. I don't know if it's actually the ones that laid them and squirted on 'em, I don't know if it's actually them that eat 'em, but fish come by and eat 'em. I think they come by and see this over here and think it's a nice spot to do what they're doin'. You'll see 'em flippin' up in the water--that's when they're bashin' their stomach to get them eggs out."

Eventually I finish my beer. A wind comes along and blows my empty can into the water.

"You gonna put that in your story?" says Burnout. "You better! You better put that in! That can blew in. It can happen to anybody. 'Wayne empties his beer into the lake.' Fuck that! Who gives a shit about me anyway?"

A cloud is painted on the concrete at the end of the Ardmore pier. Inside it black letters read "Until we reach the sky," and below that, inside a red heart, are the names "Eva and Gus." A little bit down the pier are the same cloud and the same phrase in Greek over a large Greek flag and the date "7-31-94."

Babe has Sam casting off the end of the pier, and he's coaxing her as she trolls. Her bobber begins to move, then sinks a little.

"See him, see him!" says Babe. "He's gotta take the whole night crawler down in his throat. There he goes. Let him take it all the way in, honey. He's still there. Wait, wait, let him keep taking it until he gets it all. Once he gets the hook, then you set it. He's still got it."

"He's chewin' right now."

"Yep. Can I set the hook for ya, Sam?"

"Yeah, sure. My bait, probably took my bait."

"Naw."

The bobber sinks. Sam hands the line to Babe.

"There he goes! Get him!" she yells.

"Awww," Babe says, reeling in the line. No fish.

"Lost him?" Sam says. "Well, at least you know they're here. Took the bait?"

"Yep," Babe says. He rebaits the bob and drops it back in the water.

"Well, they're here," Sam says.

"They'll be comin' in. They wanna eat, I know that."

Almost immediately, the bob starts to move again.

"Get 'im, Babe!" Sam says.

The bob goes under. Sam looks at me. "Let him reel it in, Babe."

"Me?" I say.

"Yeah," Babe says.

"Reel it in!" Sam says.

Babe hands the line to me. "Put your hand right there, don't let go, keep your rod straight up in the air."

I start reeling.

"Lines are crossin'! Lines are crossin'!" I scream, though I don't remember why.

"Keep it!" Sam says. "Go, go, go!"

"Let it keep goin'!" Babe says.

The fish comes out of the water. Babe scoops the net under it, and the fish is caught.

"Awright! You got it," Sam says. "Yeah! Wha-ha!"

"All right!" I say.

"It's a trout! Cool!" says Sam.

"That one's for the basket, buddy," Babe says. "First fish, huh?"

"It's more yours --"

"Hey, you brought him up."

"Take him in, cook him up, clean him up, and eat him!" Sam says.

"How 'bout that, huh?" Babe says. "I put a night crawler on that, passed it back out, and he took it again."

The fish flops around on the pier.

"He's a beauty," I say. "What is he, like eight pounds?"

Babe laughs. "Naw, this is--no, it's only a small one."

"Six? Five?"

"Probably about a pound and a half, two pounds."

"All right! Nice job! Cool!" Sam says. "That's dinner."

"Good eatin', buddy," Babe says.

"These are so good," says Sam.

"Aw, they're delicious," Babe says.

He takes the trout and smacks its head against the steel railing. The trout stops moving. Its gills bleed. "This is what you gotta do--you gotta knock 'em out. Stops 'em from goin' all over the place. That's something for the book, huh?"

He wraps the trout up in newspaper, puts it in a plastic bag, and goes over to Sam, who's looking out at the water.

"Good job, honey!" she says. They share a brief but tender kiss. "The trout! They're here!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa.

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