Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Interpretive Digital Essay : Water in Chicago
Essay: People and the Port
Photo Essays:
Solitary Lives
City of Bridges
Chicago Harbors
Essay: Using the Chicago River
Photo Essays:
Goose Island
Indiana Dunes
Essay: Sanitation in Chicago
Photo Essays:
The Sanitary and Ship Canal
Water-Related Epidemics
Essay: Water and Urban Life
Photo Essays:
Houses and Water
Shoreline Development
Growing Up Along Water
Solitary Lives along Chicago’s Lakes and Waterways


Commercial fishing has been part of the Chicago region since the 1830s. Before 1860, most of the operations were shore-based. Commercial fishermen set out large nets that could catch more than 1000 pounds of fish at a single haul. After the 1860s, fishermen moved to nets placed in deeper water. They used both a crib-like net (pound net) and a fence-like net (gill net) into the twentieth century. Through much of the nineteenth century, they mostly caught whitefish. By the 1890s trout had become the most valuable catch. Invasions of non-native fish, especially rainbow smelts and lampreys, decimated the lake trout population, and reduced commercial fishing. Commercial fishing continued, focused on perch, until a 1996 Illinois statute ended that industry as well.

Commercial Fishermen, Waukegan, 1910


Much of the work of commercial fishing involved maintaining the large nets set out in the deeper waters of Lake Michigan. Here men repair nets at a fishing camp set up at the lakeshore at Waukegan in 1910.

See also: Waukegan; Lake Michigan

Commercial Fishermen along the Chicago River, 1911


Commercial fishermen worked into the winter, maintaining their enormous nets that caught hundreds of pounds of fish when set out in the deeper water of Lake Michigan. In this photograph men work on the nets along the Chicago River just north of the Lake Street Bridge on the Near West Side in January 1911.

See also: Chicago River; Near West Side

Fishing Boat, Lake Michigan, 1933


Commercial fishermen used a variety of ships, including sailing ships and later engines powered by gas or diesel. Seen here is a 1933 image of the fishing boat Thebald sailing on Lake Michigan.

See also: Lake Michigan

Sport Fishermen, Calumet River, 1987


While commercial fishing declined in the second half of the twentieth century, sport fishing on Chicago’s rivers and lakes remained popular. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocks trout, salmon, and other fish (as do its counterparts in neighboring states). Fishermen also come to Lake Michigan for spring smelt-runs. This 1987 photograph shows sport fishermen at the mouth of the Calumet River (Ewing and 92nd).

See also: Calumet River