By Hook & By Crook

A rogue sportsman catches corporate fish, respectfully.

Eric Johnson

(Photo by: Tyler Davis)

The biggest blue gill I ever caught was by accident, while I was being chastised by a security guard at Hamburger University, McDonald’s leafy managerial training center that’s part of the corporation’s 80-acre headquarters in suburban Chicago.

I’ve been caught and booted out of McDonald’s campus a dozen times; you just can’t beat its fillet o’ fish.

When a friend and I drove through their corporate labyrinth – a deliberately idyllic hamlet replete with a helipad, a group of banal buildings, and a series of interconnected pathways and lakes – I spied a very fishable small pond below a decorative stone bridge. The ripples from my first cast were still visible on the water when the guard’s car pulled up.

You can’t fish here,” called the uniformed guard. As she spoke, a massive blue gill ascended the depths and punished my crankbait lure. A symphony of ZZZZs roared out of the rod as the fish swam away. Fish on!” I yelled, which startled my buddy, who was enjoying a cigarette in the car, pulled over some 50 yards away.

I could feel the guard’s eyes burning a hole in my back as I finally reeled up the fish. What a fish!” I said, smiling at the guard, who I assumed would revel in my joy. I was wrong. The guard, who seemed dutifully angry but equally stupefied by my audacity, reached for her phone. I knew what that look meant.

The cigarette all but dropped out of my buddy’s mouth as he watched me running toward the car holding my rod in one hand and a flapping blue gill in the other, yelling, Go, go, go!”

We lit out of there quickly enough to shirk arrest. McDonald’s doesn’t allow fishing on its $40-million campus. (At one point it was allowed, an amiable guard told me before he kicked me out, but the trash got to be too much and they enacted a ban. According to the university’s security office, the rule change occurred after a drowning.) I’ve been caught and booted out of the campus a dozen or so times; you just can’t beat its fillet o’ fish.

In the annals of Midwestern fishing, some of the best water is on private lands, lorded over by people who incur great expense to surround themselves with natural” beauty – and to keep out those who’ll actually enjoy it. I don’t seek out private water for the giddy recalcitrance it affords (though that is certainly part of it); I fish private water because there are fish there. And, in my opinion, the more money a corporation spends landscaping a huge swath of land, the more they should let people respectfully enjoy it.

I also love the rugged, beautiful – albeit sometimes imitative – serenity and proximity private land affords. I can’t afford a boat and often can’t spend five hours driving to a Michigan blue ribbon trout steam. But I can run up to the private lake two local teenagers showed me near New Buffalo, Mich., hump it through the brush, and catch bass. 

Speaking of which, the biggest largemouth bass I’ve ever landed was taken from a quarter-acre pond inside a distinguished resort community that has been perfected and preserved for gracious living,” according to its website.

I’m not a member.

I spotted the glimmering translucent waters while driving on a dusty road outside of Petoskey, Mich., a few summers ago. I pulled over, grabbed my rod and net, and in less than 10 minutes was 100 yards into the resort and into a fight with a 6-pound bass that couldn’t resist my quivering top-water lure. The key is being all rigged up before trespassing. That way, I was back behind the wheel and the fish was on ice before the scowling condominium owner yelled to her husband: Call the police!”

To me, it is absurd to keep sporting people out – as long as they are respectful.

My fishing trips are quiet and minimalist. I restrain my excessive, top-of-the-food chain impulses. Instead of doing anything I can to catch fish – like, I don’t know, using gill nets – I mimic the way their ecosystem functions and trick fish into eating something unnatural, like a hook wrapped in feathers and wire, or a rattling plastic lure. I don’t use live bait, which can disrupt an ecosystem. Fishing is not just how many fish you catch, but how those fish were caught. I’ll only kill a fish for food, and only if its habitat is environmentally healthy. Most important, I try to leave the waters I fish unchanged by my presence – which, despite my best efforts, can sometimes include the fish population.

The worst I have ever been skunked was at dusk at the perfectly manicured fairway ponds of Butler National Golf Club, also in Oak Brook. The club costs $150,000 to join; you also have to be male. We don’t let women past the driveway when they drop us off,” one well-heeled member (who I told I was interested in joining) chuckled to me.

Well, Tyler Davis (whose photograph accompanies this piece) and I are a few zeros short of the entrance fee, so we had to scale a chain-link fence and crouch-run from tree line to tree line to fish the fairway’s ponds. We didn’t get a bite, but it was nice to see how the other half lives.

Not all people have a what’s-mine-is-mine mentality, though.

On a recent fly fishing trip to the Big Green River in southwest Wisconsin, a veteran fishing guide and I wanted to fish a stretch of spring creek that weaved through the pristine rolling hills of a large dairy farm. But the water, which weaved low and cold through the brush, was private and surrounded by barbed wire used to keep the roaming cows inside.

The guide I was with, Jim Bartelt, knew the farmer, so we asked to enter his land. He obliged and we humped it to the closest riffle and nymphed for trout. Of the dozen or so I caught (and released) that day was a 19-inch, trophy brown trout, teased out from an undercut bank by a caddisfly pupa imitation. 

Afterward, when we were stripping off our waders and packing up, the farmer’s 20-something son stopped by our truck while heading back to the farmhouse on his ATV. He didn’t know Jim or me, but he knew the grins on our faces and asked how we did.

After regaling him with stories of our success, we told him about a blue plastic container of dead wax worms and the squashed beer cans we cleaned up along the stream’s bank. His lips pursed and he let out an epithet not suitable for this family magazine. Then he thanked us, and called out as he drove away on his ATV, You guys are welcome here anytime.”

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