Hall of Fame fisherman sees Chicago River as ‘jewel in the rough’

An angler for more than 60 years, 72-year-old Don Dubin has fished all over the world, but he claims that the best and most diverse fishing is right here in northeastern Illinois. In addition to the cold water fishery of Lake Michigan, “the Chicago River is a fantastic fishery. It’s a jewel in the rough waiting to be discovered,” he says. Read the rest of the story, including Dubin’s three-step formula for improving this valuable water resource.

By Dan McDonnel * Photos by Emily Cikanek

To say 72-year-old Don Dubin is passionate about fishing is a vast understatement. A Fishing Hall of Fame “Legendary Angler” and an inductee into the Illinois Outdoor Conservation Hall of Fame, he is also a founding member of local fishing organizations Salmon Unlimited and Muskies, Inc., and sits on the Fishing Advisory Boards for the Shedd Aquarium and City of Chicago.

An angler for more than 60 years, Dubin has fished all over the world, but he claims that the best and most diverse fishing is right here in northeastern Illinois. In addition to the cold water fishery of Lake Michigan, “the Chicago River is a fantastic fishery. It’s a jewel in the rough waiting to be discovered,” he says.

True to his claim, he tosses a line into the river at Chicago’s River Park near Foster and Kedzie, and in less than a minute he has reeled in a bluegill. With a gleam in his eye from hooking the first fish of the day, Dubin muses that the Chicago area has an incredibly valuable, but largely untapped, resource on its hands. Dubin is genuinely excited: “Where else can you find the potential for a world-class warm water fishery – right here in the middle of the city?”

He admits that there are challenges.  On a sunny day like this, most of the water in Chicago’s waterways is effluent from one of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s (MWRD) treatment plants.  However, since inception of the federal requirements of the 1972 Clean Water Act, water quality has been on the rise. Dubin recalls “very poor fishing in Illinois” in the 1960s, with only five species of fish in the Chicago River. Today, more than 70 species are thriving.

Though on this particular day the river is at flood stage from recent rains – not optimal for fishing – Dubin spends the next couple of hours in this urban oasis catching and releasing countless more bluegill, pumpkinseed, sunfish and largemouth bass. And he was just fishing for the small ones: A nearby angler hooks a behemoth common carp that looks about as big as his 7-year-old boy!

Dubin is far from the only person enthralled with Chicago’s waterways.  Every year more and more people are drawn to the waterways not only to fish, but to canoe and kayak, scull in school competitions, and otherwise connect with nature in the center of a global metropolis.  Dubin points out that the water also offers beautiful scenery, an opportunity to educate our kids, and improves property values along our river’s edge.  After more than a century of using the waterways primarily as shipping and sanitary canals, people are now clearly using them as rivers.  The problem is the current quality standards of the water do not reflect that.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has strongly urged the State of Illinois and MWRD to add an additional treatment step that will improve water quality and protect the growing number of people that recreate in and on the water.  That step – called disinfection – will kill potentially harmful bacteria in the water, making it safer for people who come into contact with the water, like Dubin. However, it will also come at a cost: Estimates range from as low as about $0.90 a month per Cook County household to roughly four times that.

So, in Dubin’s words, what is our water worth?

He doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “Our water is so valuable and so precious, more valuable than gold or oil or anything else. We have to have it to survive,” he says.  Dubin has given the potential of our waterways some serious thought, and even developed his own three-step formula for improving and maintaining our valuable water resource:

  1. Clean it up. Despite the added cost, Dubin believes MWRD should disinfect our wastewater to levels that protect people on and along the water. This especially includes people who tend to get soaked, such as crew teams and paddlers.
  2. Increase public access. Public access to the waterways allows more people to use our waterways and helps them appreciate and value this critical resource. Dubin urges continued installation and renovation of boat launches, and improvements to the river’s edge in our public parks and forest preserves. Routine maintenance is also critical to ensuring safe access.
  3. Manage the resource. Our waterways must be consistently managed to meet their full potential. For instance, stocking programs can increase fish populations, but also help monitor for the presence of invasive species such as Asian carp.

Even though he still cannot eat the fish he catches from the Chicago River, the improvements Dubin has seen over his angling career gives him great hope and high expectations for this jewel in the rough. “It’s a great resource that we are just touching right now,” Dubin says. “So I welcome changes. It would be great for the people of Chicago.”

What about you? Do you believe cleaning the Chicago River is worth the cost?

WOWW factors

$.90 per month per household
USEPA’s estimate for the average increase homeowners would pay per month for MWRD to build disinfection systems at their Calumet and Northside plants (less than most cups of coffee).  This estimate does not factor in Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) pledge of federal assistance.

$3.76 billion
Estimated cost to build the TARP Deep Tunnel Project to reduce combined sewer overflows into Chicago waterways. Approximately $2.9 billion has been spent on the project to date, according to the Dec. 1, 2008, TARP Status Report.

> 70 fish species
inhabit the Chicago waterways, up from only 10 different fish species that were in the CAWS 30 years ago.

$38.2 million dollars
Combined cost to construct the five MWRD Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration (SEPA) stations, which helped bring back a wider variety of fish to the Chicago waterways by infusing the water with more oxygen. According to the MWRD web site, these “waterfalls create a healthier waterway and are an attractive addition to the riverbank.”

Conservation tips

The waterways are for water. Lots of things that don’t belong there end up in the river, such as litter, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and detergents. Buy products with less packaging and fewer pollutants, then dispose of them properly.

Conserve water during storms. When it rains, stormwater flows into the sewer and can overwhelm the system, leading to flooding.  Just before, during, and immediately after rain, limit your water use – don’t  water your lawn, wash your car, run the dishwasher, etc. – because those small actions contribute to overwhelming the sewer system.

Tell the State to protect people and wildlife.  For the first time in almost 40 years, the State is considering how to better protect both people that recreate and wildlife that live in and along Chicago’s Rivers.  Tell the State that you use and value these waterways, and that they need to act now to protect them for future generations.


Water 2050 (chapters 2, 3 and 4), Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply/Demand Plan

Why Disinfect?, Friends of the Chicago River

Details on wastewater treatment, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Ifishillinois.org, Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources

A Fork in the River

America’s Most Endangered Rivers 

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3 Responses to Hall of Fame fisherman sees Chicago River as ‘jewel in the rough’

  1. It is truly ironic to frame this conversation of preserving our waterways with angling when 1. The overfishing of our waterways has resulted in an unsustainable practice that must be remedied if we are to prevent extinction of many marine wildlife species and 2. The current science that is coming out about fish intelligence and how this compels us to find more humane practices for hunting fish. Please see a recent article I published on this subject referencing peer-reviewed studies at http://freefromharm.org/farm-animal-intelligence/new-scientific-discoveries-of-fish-raise-looming-ethical-questions/.

  2. Cerys says:

    I personally would like to bookmark this post, “Hall of Fame fisherman
    sees Chicago River as

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