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Detroit River Provides Perfect Spot for Fishing

Detroiters of all ages, pros and novice, enjoy fishing at dozens of locations along the Detroit River including Chene Park and Belle Isle

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Detroiters fish for a multitude of reasons. Some have to fish to survive. For others, it's a festive pastime. It's not unusual to see the occasional van or SUV backed up to the river's edge, doors open and music playing low, while a picnic lunch is being set out. It can be the congeniality. Longtime buddies gather to swap fish stories, play cards and maybe even share an adult beverage or two.

One veteran fishing group, the Detroit River Rats, has members who go to the river virtually every day. Although he doesn't get to go at all because he's open for business by 4 a.m. and doesn't close until dusk, Freeman suggests another explanation for fishing's appeal.

  "It's the relaxation, the peace, the solitude that you get, "he says." The peace of mind. You know, the water has a calming effect. Most people, with their problems, they go to the water to figure them out. That's what's going on. Plus, the fish teach you patience. "

There was a time when many people thought fish taken from the Detroit River were unsafe to eat, and that perception still lingers in some circles. Dr. John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says health advisories still exist for certain species and sizes of fish—large walleye, for example—but  "overall, things have gotten much better.

"This was one of the most polluted rivers in North America in the 1960s," Hartig says. "The Rouge River caught on fire—remember that? And now, 40 years after the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, there has been a substantial cleanup of the Detroit River. We've had a 70 percent decline in mercury contamination. For the first time since 1916, we have whitefish reproducing in the Detroit River. Now, it's one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America."

Hartig, who has spent most of his life working on the Detroit River, is also enthused about the increased access to the waterway. 

"Oh, my gosh, this is like a dream for people like me," he says. "To think this used to be nothing but cement silos, big piles of dolomite, stones, fences. We had this wonderful river, and people had no access to it. But to see what's taken place, to see what's going on at Uniroyal with a $40 million cleanup there—what we have is so cool."

Slaughter remembers how he first became entranced by the river's siren song. 

"I'm an inner-city kid, grew up in the Brewster projects, and the way I originally started was with some older guys out of the neighborhood who let me hang out with them and just sit along the banks. Throw your line in the water, tryin' to catch something and bring it home. It turns into a great hobby."

Increased access to the river, combined with the desire to lure young people to the sport the way Slaughter was, led to the creation of the Rivertown Detroit Kids Fishing Fest, held for the third year in a row in June at Milliken State Park—the first urban state park in Michigan. The four-hour event, which cast off at an early 8 a.m. on a Saturday, still attracted more than 300 parents, grandparents, guardians, Big Brothers and their children, some as young as 3, to experience the tranquil thrill that occurs when hook touches water.

Chip Rohde, president of the Rivertown Detroit Association, the all-volunteer neighborhood improvement coalition, conceived the event; like Slaughter, Rohde began fishing when he was a child.

  "I approached the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy with the idea of doing a fishing event on the riverfront for the kids of Detroit," Rohde says. "We needed their help in staffing to get this thing launched. They thought it was a fabulous idea.

"Honestly, we need to help the children of Detroit find things to do other than hit the streets. Many of them I've talked to have said, 'I don't know how to fish.' Well, no problem. Come on down; we'll teach you! If we can, one-by-one, help kids find other activities, maybe when opportunities come up that tempt them to do something different, they'll remember fishing with dad or mom or the grandparents. That was my focus."

For the kids fishing festival, licenses and individual registration forms were not required.  "We don't require the kids to register," Rohde notes.  "Why do we register the fishermen? You want to fish? Go fish!"

As Michigan Department of Natural Resources volunteers taught aspiring little anglers how to cast their lines toward brightly colored plastic fish, more experienced fishermen, like Detroiter Rodney Gholston, took on the instruction themselves. Gholston's 3-year-old grandson, Benny, was among the multitude of kids lining the river's edge, gleefully holding a child's Spider-Man rod and reel with a line he felt compelled to pull from the water every few seconds to inspect.

"You got to wait for the fish to bite it," Gholston counseled patiently.  "Let it sit down there until the fish get on it. I'll let you know."

He turned away from his grandson.

"He's been asking to go fishing for the longest time, ever since I got him that pole, so we finally made it," he explains.

Benny looked up from his costumed superhero.  "I'm gonna catch a big one!" he exclaimed.

Patrick Endres, a Michigan DNR State Park Explorer Program guide stationed at Milliken, began a weekly fishing program Sunday afternoons near Rivard Plaza, buoyed by the response to the festival.

"I had a parent come up to me and say, 'I remember when they used to have fishing derbies on Belle Isle, and I'm so happy for something like this,'" Endres says.  "I thought, 'That's great.'

"I've got my fishing license, so I'm excited to start (the weekly program). Ever since I learned to tie knots and fix some basic fishing lines, I've been like, 'All right, now I have to fish.'"

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