Besides the typical attractions of a big city (neon signs, sin, and anonymity), Toronto also offers great people-watching. Whether they’re manically waving their arms while slacklining in Trinity Bellwoods, walking through bustling night markets, or riding their bikes backwards up and down Queen West, it’s easy to conclude that Torontonians engage in a limitless variety of creative pursuits.
That’s especially true when you see them strolling along, say, Dundas Street with a fishing rod. In this case, you’d probably think you’re observing an urban escapist heading out of the city with aspirations of piscatorial glory. But they might just be heading around the corner, as fish are closer to home than many of us think.
Despite our proximity to Lake Ontario, Torontonians tend to forget we live on an epic water mass. This is partly an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, stemming from a fear of pollution, but more often than not we can just get swept up in the city’s urbanity—concerts, theatres, boutique poutineries—and the city’s natural offerings get lost in the shuffle. But with fairly minimal effort you can easily find yourself waiting for a nibble lakeside while contemplating the finer points of life. Or while drinking a beer.
Urban fishing is hardly a new activity. Ask around and you’ll hear tales of eel fishing in the 1950s, when every Toronto home had a recipe for the creatures that once were abundant in Lake Ontario. Dr. Howard Goodman, a dentist by trade and urban fisherman the rest of the time, has been casting off from the Toronto shores for the better part of 30 years.
“Golf didn’t do it for me, and I’m a dentist,” he jokes. But this distaste for the greens led him to take up a friend’s offer to go fishing. From then on, fishing got a hold of him hook, line, and sinker. Whether it’s wrangling 40-pound carp on the Toronto Islands or exploring ponds up at Highway 7 and Woodbine, he swears by the urban pastime that only requires a worm and a hook.
Urban fishing isn’t a guerrilla activity by any stretch, though to some it might seem inaccessible. For those without friends in ichthyology, the Ministry of Natural Resources’ web page is happy to inform the eager, albeit green, angler. Worried about the shame of reeling in an empty hook? It’s no guarantee, but the MNR stocks more than 1.5 million fish every year for urban fishers. Toronto residents are especially blessed, considering our 50-plus public waterways, all teeming with various kinds of fish.
And the MNR would know—they literally wrote the book (or the PDF, more accurately) on the topic of urban angling. Complete with fun fish graphics, it also lists city-slicker necessities such as parking, washrooms, and public transit access, as well as what you’re likely to catch at each spot. The Toronto Islands, for instance, offer flushing toilets as well as largemouth bass and rainbow trout. Ashbridge’s Bay is apparently bountiful with brown bullhead, but limited in lake trout, and no ferry ride is required.
But here’s the pressing question that arises after you reel in your hefty prize: Do you eat it? Dr. Goodman doesn’t miss a beat. “Sure you do!” Pausing, he clarifies: “A 20-pound salmon, probably not; 10 pounds, I’d have no qualms at all.” The issue is twofold. First, fishing isn’t an unlimited resource; deplete the stock one year and it only gets smaller the next, so there are limits on what you can take home based on size and season (thus sparing spawning fish). In short, you might catch a keeper but it’s against the law to fry it up (on that note, to cover your bases, get your fishing license).
The second factor to consider is toxins. In any environment there are various levels of pollutants, and the larger the fish, the higher the levels, as the toxins accumulate moving up the food chain (just imagine a Pacman game). These levels, however, are regulated by the MNR, and if you know the proper way to skin a fish, a Lake Ontario salmon once a month is probably no worse than noshing down on three cans of mercury-infused tuna a week. Put that way, it might even be better.
If the idea still sounds too risky (or even barbaric, for the faint of heart), catch and release is a completely legitimate form of fishing. Orun Kabir, a Toronto-based internet marketer and web developer, practises such near the Don Valley Brickworks. Though he catches on average three to five fish an hour, he found the real excitement in learning to fly fish, which involves a more animated fishing technique: swinging a hook back and forth, as he says, “not unlike a medieval mace-bearer.” Then there’s also that rush from the risk of impaling your eye.
So the next time someone brags about a cottage getaway or an Algonquin camping trip, just nod, wish them the best on the Don Valley Parking Lot, and take Goodman’s advice: “Get out anywhere by the water and drop a line. It makes for a great day.” And it’s easier than you think.
A mention of “slimy invertebrates” slipped through our editing process. It has been corrected to “fish,” which, of course, are thoroughly backboned creatures.