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Perhaps you’ve seen their fishing rods during a late night bike ride along the Schuylkill River Trail. Dozens of them stand against the embankment just northwest of the East Falls Bridge, and men and women sit in lawn chairs watching them, waiting until they see a tug and the chance to spring up from their seats and reel in a catfish, carp or bass.
They are the nighttime fishermen of the Schuylkill. From just before dusk until dawn almost every weekend night of the summer, several of them are here, each tending to around three rods at what they call “The Wall.” They fish throughout the year, but mainly at night, during the summer. By evening, the weather has cooled and the catfish are biting.
On Friday night, the group consists of about 10 to 15 people. The week before closer to 25 came out. They were having a barbecue. Most of them know each other pretty well from having met at The Wall. They’re constantly chatting back and forth about any subject, from jobs to women to food. But more often than not the conversation moves back to fish.
What kind of fisherman doesn’t love telling fish stories?
Like that time Eric Pell caught a big one but didn’t have a net. He called Dave Stulpin, who had to delay a date with his girlfriend so he could bring a net to Pell. Or that time a fish pulled an unsuspecting Stulpin’s rod into the water. The fish’s victory didn’t last long, though. Marcus Fero helped pull in that rod and the fish, too. But as this is 2015, Fero has taken to recording most of his catches on a YouTube channel called “Fishing With Marcus.”
Shortly after Dave and Fero finish telling this story, Troy Rimes walks over.
“I just lost one,” he says. “He ate up my sunny, man.”
A centuries-old tradition
The tradition of fishing at this part of the Schuylkill goes back decades at least. Some of the men who regularly come have been doing it for 50 years. Long before them, Native Americans lived off Schuylkill River wildlife and in the 18th century fishing and boating clubs sprang up in East Falls.
Last Friday night, Rimes was the elder statesman. He started fishing at this spot in 1973. Rimes and his buddies from the 12th floor of the East Falls Projects would venture down to the river. What they lacked in funds for equipment, they made up for in ingenuity: Rimes’ first rod consisted of a piece of string tied to a beer can.
“And I fell in love with it,” he says.
Rimes, Stulpin, Pell and Fero are joined this night by Michael White, Anthony Schuler, Darryl Booker and Fero’s son, Marcus Fero III. They are young and middle-aged. White and black and Hispanic. Some have friends or girlfriends hanging around watching. Most of them live in Northwest Philadelphia, in neighborhoods like Manayunk or East Falls, which is largely why they’ve congregated at this location for so long.
Convenience, yes, that’s the main reason why the nighttime fishing happens just past the East Falls Bridge. Not only is it a close drive, this stretch offers easy access for parking and a convenience store on the other side of Kelly Drive, perfect for late-night snacks or bathroom breaks.
“We call it the lazy man’s spot,” Fero says.
Don’t take that to mean there aren’t any fish around the East Falls Bridge. Plenty of wildlife roams through this stretch of the river, congregating around the underwater foundations of the bridge, including massive flathead catfish. In the 90s, this species invaded the Schuylkill, and no predator has yet to challenge it.
“They don’t have any predators,” Fero says, “except the fishermen.”
And most fishermen throw their catches back. So the flathead catfish basically owns the show. Without any predator, they’ve grown and grown and grown. Catfish weighing 20 to 30 pounds are the norm. Some of the catfish the nighttime fisherman have caught weigh 40 to 50 pounds.
Rimes is told his pole is moving. He runs about 20 yards away from a conversation and back to it. Is it his shot redemption after losing his bait earlier? Not quite. It’s a false alarm.
The commotion is still exciting, though. A police officer who patrols nearby often stops to ask if they’ve caught anything.
“We show him the pictures, he’s like ‘holy shit,’” Fero says. “…A lot of people don’t realize in the water there’s fish out there. And we’re always on a hunt to catch the biggest one.”
Fero suggests that at some point all of them have probably stopped traffic. Nighttime fishing in the Schuylkill is a real curiosity for most people who pass by on bike or car. It’s something for them to gawk at.
For these men, it’s just the usual Friday night.