Into The Water | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Into The Water 

Fisherman fight ballast-borne aliens.

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By Susan DeGrane

The traffic stops just short of the 95th Street bridge over the Calumet River on the south side. With a loud clanging, the four-lane bridge rises and opens to let an American freight vessel pass.

A dozen sport fishermen carrying placards that read Stop Dumping Contaminated Water yell out to the block-long ship, "Help us!" Other members of Perch America, a watchdog group for Lake Michigan's perch fishery, blanket stopped cars with xeroxed articles from newspapers and sport-fishing newsletters.

The articles describe the devastation to Lake Michigan fisheries caused by zebra mussels, gobies, ruffes, spiny water fleas, and most recently the three-spined, chrome-sided sticklebacks that have migrated to Lake Michigan in the ballast of overseas transport vessels. The razor-sharp shells of zebra mussels have already closed many beaches on Lake Erie and now are closing them along the south rim of Lake Michigan. They take up much of the food that would be eaten by the hatchlings and small fry of indigenous fish species, and they foul the water with their waste, causing tap water to take on a muddy taste in summer.

Ship ballast has also been known to carry strains of cholera and cryptosporidium, a microbial parasite that can be fatal to humans and that's thought to have caused 104 deaths in Milwaukee.

"We're trying to wake people up," says Jack Vadas, the 65-year-old president of Perch America. "It ain't just the fish. It's the water too. There's all kinds of bacteria in there. For Christ's sake, everybody in this city drinks this water!"

Only about 35 fishermen, bait-shop owners, and a few concerned citizens are at today's rally, but Perch America is gaining strength, with 300 members in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Many of the Chicagoans and Hoosiers are ironworkers, pipe fitters, or construction workers.

They're all hardy souls who fish year-round in all weather on the lake and along the shore. They scale the rocks and barriers surrounding the Commonwealth Edison plant in steel-toed construction boots. When the windchill's ten below they drill holes in the ice in Burnham Harbor and fish from small tents warmed by propane heaters. They know virtually every bait shop in Chicago, from Henry's on Canal Street to Ace's on Stony Island.

Some rely on the hot line at Henry's Sports & Bait Shop for fishing updates, but many more seem to be connected by phone, even the Internet. News of what's biting where, and when the biting stops, ripples through this close-knit fishing network within minutes.

Most of the fishermen gathered today on this patch of sunny sidewalk stand and talk. A few have brought patio chairs and coolers filled with pop and watermelon.

They also have a table stocked with fliers and a pile of zebra mussel shells and other exotic specimens. A five-gallon plastic bucket contains live gobies and recently expired sticklebacks, which float sideways and belly-up. The gobies rest quietly at the bottom of the bucket; their spotted brown skin resembles that of a toad, and their fanlike side fins, wide heads, and narrow tails give them a dragonlike appearance. Perch America has sponsored goby-catching contests to help make the public aware of them.

Two dozen baby-food jars on the table contain more sticklebacks in various states of decay. The most prominent feature of these minnow-size fish is their nasty spines, which cause predators to choke. One fisherman says he once removed all the spines on a stickleback with a nail clipper and used the fish for bait. "Nothin' would touch it. The other fish know. I think they give off a certain smell in the water."

"Big Mike" Starcevich lives to fish and fishes to live. He's spent half his life catching perch and studying their eating habits, and his Mik-Lurch lures are known for drawing perch. But now there are few to draw. "You throw a penny in the lake now and whoosh--thing's covered with sticklebacks," he says.

Bait shops are feeling the pinch too. "If I were a younger man with a family to raise I'd have to find a better job," says Vadas, owner of Vet's Live Bait and Tackle, just south of the Indiana Skyway on Indianapolis Boulevard.

"The old-timers don't buy licenses anymore," says Mike Evano, owner of Lakeside Sports, a Hammond, Indiana, bait store that in past years issued more than 70,000 fishing licenses annually. "They don't buy the licenses because they don't fish for anything but perch--and the perch are gone. There was a time when you caught so many perch you got tired of it. You could put a pearl-colored button on and catch a herring. Somebody catches a herring now they say, What's this? People once said, There's so many of them, we'll never catch all of them.

"Now it's the same thing with the perch. Shoreline fishing is gone. Everybody's gotta go looking for them with boats. It's phenomenal--just in the last three years. It's not that long since when you could go and sit on an inland wall and catch 400 perch a day. Now it's all gobies and sticklebacks, and the sticklebacks don't even let the bait get down to the gobies."

The ballast-water rally is the brainchild of 63-year-old Eddy Landmichl. "Ten years ago they say Eddy was a legend, the top fisherman on the lake for chinook," says John Hindahl, vice president of Perch America.

"They say one day he gave that up to start fighting," says David Vogt, a friend of Landmichl's and resident of Paw Paw, Michigan. "He fought the gill nets, the toxic island, now the ballast water."

"He messed up his whole life today," Hindahl jokes. "He's wearing new bib overalls, a new, clean shirt, and a haircut. The lady jammed up her clippers on his hair. She had to use a scissors first. I don't know of anybody who's put as much of their life into a cause as he has."

Landmichl wears his shirts over his bib overalls. Today the front of his shirt features the words "Proud to be" over a picture of the American flag. The back of the shirt has a picture of men in combat uniform and the words "All gave some....Some gave all."

Landmichl is a Korean war veteran and an ironworker who devotes all of his spare time to saving Lake Michigan for sport fishing and the public. He's become a thorn in the side of many politicians, department of natural resources personnel, and commercial fishermen in the states that border the big lake. He dispenses as much paper as a good-size corporation, though his office file cabinet is a cardboard box in the cab of his battered pickup.

Ken Otsuka, an engineer from Algonquin, says he met Landmichl on a construction job. "The first time I met him I thought, 'This guy's a radical.' But then, 'No, he's on to something that should be of concern to all of us.' People are going to have to recognize what's happening to our waterways. Not only are there exotic species of fish, but bacteria that could be a serious problem."

Landmichl leans against a parked automobile, reading from a flier with great conviction. His audience is a three-man camera crew from McGowan Film, a documentary company based in Chicago. Even after the cameras stop, he continues to tell the crew about ballast-water dumping and invader species in the lake.

Perch America members ask the McGowan crew where they're from, and David McGowan responds, "Chicago."

"As if we aren't?" says one of the south-siders.

A police car pulls up, and an officer asks to talk to whoever's responsible for the rally. "Just remember--we're the government," Landmichl says as Vadas hobbles to the car on crutches and takes the front passenger seat. The officer sits behind the wheel. The small crowd outside peers into the car, and the documentary crew gets it all on tape. Vadas starts gesticulating wildly as the officer looks on.

Finally Vadas gets out.

"Is everything OK?" someone asks.

"Oh, yeah," Vadas says. "He fishes. Cops were just asking if we're having any problems. Told us to let him know. I says, No, the longshoremen ain't workin' today, but we're ready to do a little head knockin' if it comes to that."

Before he leaves, the officer puts two orange pylons at the side of 95th Street to keep traffic from coming too close to the fishermen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jack Vadas and Eddy Landmichl.

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