In Southwest Philadelphia, the banks of the Schuylkill River connect the decaying with the surviving. Between the river and SEPTA’s Regional Rail line lay menacing chain link fences that surround decrepit coliseums of industry, some left to degrade in peace, others having their last throes of utility squeezed out by their holding companies. Boarded businesses interrupt the sea of cracked concrete plagued unceasingly by litter. Yet, beyond a Philadelphia Housing Authority project and adjacent to Bartram’s Gardens, the preserved estate of Quaker botanist John Bartram, a vacant industrial plot’s cement dock provides an unexpected reprieve from it all – a city angler’s dream come true.
Here, easily accessed through the Gardens thanks to a couple of down trees, one might encounter ‘Shaft’ teaching his sons the intricacies of tying a weighted line or baiting a hook. The group’s demeanor could hardly differ if it were instead on the lakeshores of a vast nature reserve, as Shaft watches on as his eldest, a student at local John Bartram High School, uses a Swiss Army knife to mend a twisted line with the hesitant hand of a son wanting to prove his self-sufficiency. Shaft scolds the youngest two of the pack for losing another sinker. Their enthusiasm unfettered by this failure, they emphatically offer unsolicited advice to one another, which is subsequently ignored. Shaft shakes his head.
“This place used to be an incinerator,” Shaft explains. The plot, recently reacquired by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corps, was most lately used as a staging area for construction on the South Street Bridge, and a cleanup effort for remaining latent heavy metals is in the works. Yet, Shaft and family remain undeterred. “This is a good spot to fish. Lots of the kids from the neighborhood come here,” says Shaft. He reports that he’s caught eel, catfish, bass, pike, carp, and sunfish. “But I wouldn’t dare eat ‘em,” he explains. “That’s why I catch and release.”
The river’s floating trash and murky water couple with the gritty bulk of the oil refineries on the far bank to provide a harsh contrast to the serenity commonly expected of recreational fishing environments. But the empty lot and river provide an openness rare to urban living, and when the breeze picks up and the river laps against the dock, it is hard not to feel some semblance of peacefulness. As Shaft and his sons cast off of these manufactured banks, his eldest promises, “We will be out here a lot when the weather stays nice.”
Shaft’s family is not alone. The Philadelphia Urban Fishing scene is alive and well, despite the bad reputation of local water quality. Leo Sheng, a student of physics at Temple University and owner of the blog “Extreme Philly Fishing,” has fished in Philadelphia almost daily for the past two years.
Leo explains the angling culture in Philadelphia as one founded more on necessity than recreation. “Since a lot of Philadelphia’s anglers have very limited income, the stereotypical fisherman is one that ‘overharvests’ – he takes everything he catches for consumption.” Theirs is an angling bred from frugality and survival – the attraction of a free meal. But Leo, like Shaft, hesitates to eat the fish he catches. “Most people don’t give a thought to it, but it may be very dangerous to eat certain types of fish around Philly!” he warns. Leo points to the PA Fish and Boat Commission as a point of reference, which suggests limiting intake of some fish caught in nearby bodies of water to once a month and avoiding others altogether.
Leo says that the Fairmount Dam is one of the most popular fishing locations in the city, and for good reason. “It holds trophy fish!” While Leo explains that many locations are heavily fished, hidden gems within the city definitely exist. “Part of fishing relies heavily on field work, meaning that the person with the passion for the sport should look for new spots to explore,” Leo says. “Imagination is an important key to the sport.”
For residents of Southwest Philadelphia like Shaft, living alongside the skeletons and ghosts of industry long gone, there appears to be no shortage of imagination when it comes to finding a good spot to cast a reel. It may be necessity or recreation that draws anglers to the banks of the Schuylkill. Or, perhaps, these Philadelphians identify with their resilient river, steadfast and surviving amidst the city’s ephemeral fortunes, and there they find solace.