Jeff Hamby has fished the Fox River near its worst.
Now, Hamby, owner of SS Minnows bait shop in South Elgin, believes he and other anglers on the river may be fishing the waterway near the best it’s been in as long as anyone can remember.
“It used to be just mainly carp and channel catfish,” Hamby said. “But now people are catching smallmouth bass, walleye, muskies, northern pike, you name it.
“There sure seems to be a lot more game fish in here, and that’s a really great thing to see.”
Earlier this spring, Hamby, 49, opened his bait shop on Route 31 in South Elgin. He believes he has timed well his newest business venture, offering bait and tackle, including handmade jigs and the lures, to those willing to try their hand at angling in the river.
“There was no bait shop here in town, down by the river,” Hamby said. “So, I decided to sell minnows one day, and it’s picked up from there.”
Hamby remembers a time when the river was not a recreational draw, particularly for sport fishermen.
During the middle years of the 20th century, industrial pollution devastated the river as a fishery.
After the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, that pollution was curtailed and in the years since the quality of the river’s water has steadily improved.
A renewed public interest in maintaining the Fox has enhanced the quality of the river’s ecology, said Brook McDonald, president and CEO of the Naperville-based Conservation Foundation, a group that has taken a prominent role in the preservation of the river.
“We let the animals living in the river tell us how healthy it is,” McDonald said. “And what we’re seeing is the habitat in the river, it’s getting better.”
Steve Pescitelli, streams biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office near Yorkville, said the populations of “sport fish” have increased and continue to strengthen.
He noted that in 2011, a survey discovered larger numbers of smallmouth bass from Algonquin to Yorkville, as well as improving numbers of flathead catfish and walleye.
“We’re seeing all sizes of fish, which is what we like to see,” Pescitelli said. “It’s the sign of healthy populations.”
The improving fish populations also have increased a different population – that of the humans who want to catch them.
Mark Miller, director of the IDNR, said fishing has served as a cornerstone of the recreational renaissance on the Fox.
“Everything is dependent on that habitat, and it’s really coming back,” Miller said. “Ask just about any angler, they’re going to tell you it’s much better than it used to be.”
Sam Bennett of St. Charles Township has written for and operated a blog, FoxRiverFishing.com, since last year. The blog offers the chance to tell fish stories and track catches along the river.
An avid fisherman, Bennett has lived in the area for seven years and said the river offers true fun for those who love to fish.
“The fishing in this river is amazing,” Bennett said.
Bennett noted that he and other self-avowed “river rats” have noticed a steady increase in the populations of those sought-after species and in the number of anglers out to catch them.
“We all want to catch a trophy fish, take a picture with it, and then throw it back,” Bennett said.