In His Own Words…Spence Petros: Country Boy Raised in the City

Don’t try to tell Spence Petros that growing up in the city will prevent you from becoming an angler and hunter. He was raised in and around Chicago, one of the largest cities in America, and went on to become an influential figure, as managing editor of Fishing Facts magazine, in what we all think of as the modern fishing revolution.

To a generation of anglers, he was (and remains) an authoritative and clear voice explaining a long list of exciting developments, as they were fresh out of the best minds in the sport. In 1989, he was inducted into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame for his body of work.

Since then, he has added to it considerably. All that, while growing up in and among the urban sprawl in all directions.

How he accomplished this is an inspiring story right for today’s American crossroads, where too many suffer from nature-deficit disorder. It’s doubly impressive given the context of the times, fishing-wise, when the only route between what we didn’t know and the next discovery was time on the water and an indomitable spirit of observation and creativity.

His byline carries well-deserved weight, and, at age 75, he can still cast and retrieve the biggest muskie baits all day, every day, for two weeks at a crack. He’s been called “the shortest distance between you and a brutal assessment of your fishing skills,” essentially the Donald Trump of fishing, and here we go, with Spence Petros, in his own words…

MidWest Outdoors: Let’s go back to the roots of your love of the outdoors, where it all started for you. What are your earliest memories that led to your passion for fishing?

Spence Petros: I had no choice; I was the first grandson born into a family of outdoorsmen. My grandpa was a big fisherman and hunter; I had four uncles that hunted and fished a lot, and my dad.

MWO: Did they all live in and around Chicago?

Petros: Yeah, we all lived on the west side of Chicago, pretty much.

MWO: Word is that you were brought along on adventures starting at about 3 years old, right?

Petros: I don’t remember the exact age, but I remember going down to Lake Michigan with my dad, my uncles, and my grandpa, fishing for perch. We would always have a bet; my grandpa would always be smoking a cigar, and whoever caught the big fish, between him and me, it would be a Hershey’s bar versus a cigar. I’d always win, and I found out later that when I was out there throwing rocks at the seagulls, they’d put the bigger one on my line, so I would always win. I actually got pissed off about it, because I thought I really was always winning. Anyway, it made it a real competitive thing, within me. That was the start of it, and I’ve always been real competitive, even when it’s just between me and the fish.

Petros at age 14, with trout caught from the tank at the Chicago Ampitheater Show.
Petros at age 14, with trout caught from the tank at the Chicago Ampitheater Show.

MWO: So you won a lot of Hershey’s bars, but the record now has an asterisk.

Petros: Yeah, right [laughs].

MWO: You also entered, and won, some fishing contests as a kid in the Chicago parks, right?

Petros: Right. They were in Chicago, and they were for kids under 16 years old. I won one in Garfield Park, and then I moved west and won one in Columbus Park. Then I helped a couple of my buddies win it after I hit the 16-year-old age limit. I told them where to go and what to do, and they won a couple like that.

MWO: With so many kids growing up in and around major cities, and all the discussion about how they don’t spend enough time in the outdoors, you are the poster child for finding ways to get out there fishing and hunting in the shadows of skyscrapers. For all those kids growing up in cities, offer us a little encouragement that there is adventure to be found.

Petros: Well, there is, although some of the hunting I wouldn’t recommend nowadays because we used to do things with our bows and arrows that you probably can’t do anymore. But the fishing, you can do it anywhere there’s water! You’ve got so many housing developments with ponds in front of them, and there’s fish in them. There are ponds on the side of the tollways that they dug out. There are all these forest preserves, city parks, there are waters all over that are stocked. There’s Lake Michigan for the kids living downtown, with smallmouth fishing, salmon and trout. You can do it all from the shoreline. If you like to fish, there are all kinds of places to go.

When we got older, we had bicycles, so that gave us more range. We used to go fish some of the ponds in the cemeteries. Nothing was sacred; we just fished wherever we found water. There was one cemetery, Queen of Heaven, and we knew that the priest would get up maybe 7 or 8 in the morning, so we’d go there real early, jump the fence, and go in there and catch bluegills, crappies, bass, and we’d be riding home with the fish on our handlebars, and you’d hear people yelling, “Look at these kids with all the fish, hey, where did you get ‘em?” Or, we’d go onto some of the backwaters on the Fox River and fish dough balls on forked sticks for carp. We were always fishing somewhere, doing something. We used to catch a lot of big bass out of the parks. There was a lagoon on a golf course on the west side of Chicago, a water hazard. Between golfing foursomes, we’d go in there and make a few casts, then the next golfers would come along and we’d hide behind a tree until they went by. We would catch a bunch of 3- and 4- and 5-pound bass. The golfers would yell at us and say we weren’t gonna catch nuthin’ out of there, and then all of a sudden they’d see us land a 4-pound bass. And sometimes we’d see them [the golfers] come back and they’d be fishing in that lagoon.

MWO: As you and your friends got older and became licensed drivers, the Mississippi River became a big playground for you.

Petros: Yes, once we got old enough, our late teens and early 20s, our mecca was going to the Mississippi River. We’d go to Dresbach, Minn., and LaCrosse, Wis. I started fishing there before that, with my dad. We’d go on the fishing barge. We’d pay five or six bucks and they’d take us across the river on a boat and leave you off on a barge. I’d fish the barge and then run the shoreline all around it. When we got a little older, my buddies and I would drive over there in somebody’s car. We’d bring this little two-man red tent and pop it up on the sandy beach, right below the dam. I had this little 9.9-horse motor and we’d rent a boat from Hill’s Boat Livery, and I think it was six bucks for two days.

Petros and Buck Perry, 1971.
Petros and Buck Perry, 1971.

It was funny; I was always in there asking a lot of questions of everybody: “Are you catching anything?” and on and on. We brought a cooler with us, and we knew this guy in the area, and when we got our fish the first day we’d go to his house and he’d keep the fish over there, so they wouldn’t spoil. So every time I would come into Hill’s Livery, they would never see me with any fish. He thought I was the worst fisherman in the world. Meanwhile, we had this cooler completely full of walleyes, saugers, white bass, northern pike, crappies, everything that was edible. After we dropped the boat off, we’d go over to the guy’s house, pick up the cooler, and go home.

So every time we went there we’d pitch the tent, my mom would make us some sandwiches, I’d fish all day and then at night we’d go for the catfish. And then in the morning, there were always people on the dock, and I’d say, “Do you want to buy some catfish?” I’d have my little sale of catfish. That was a big source of money for us to be able to afford to come back the next trip.

MWO: As you were growing up fishing in one of America’s largest cities, did you ever dream of making a living in fishing? And if you did, what did that look like in your dreams, compared to what it actually turned out to be?

Petros: Not too long ago, I ran across some stuff that I saved from back in grammar school, and I had written something about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a writer, or own a resort, or a jet pilot. I couldn’t be a jet pilot because of my equilibrium; if I get up and spin around in a circle two times, I’ll fall down. It’s an inner ear thing. Even if I’m in the front of the boat running the electric and I look up at a plane and do a 180, I’ll get a little dizzy.

So I actually achieved what I wanted to be, from a child.

MWO: We didn’t realize you were that interested in writing as a youngster. Tell us more about that.

Petros: Luckily, when I was in school, I was always pretty good in English. Not that I’m any kind of Hemingway, but when I got the job at Fishing Facts, it was because I was the best of the worst [laughs]. Not that any of us was worth a damn, but we turned out a lot of work in those days.

MWO: Fishing Facts magazine was the home of much of your professional development, and following your work in those pages is how a lot of us got to know you. Tell us the story of how you got started with Fishing Facts, and how your role grew over time.

Petros: Well, I was fishing the Mississippi River a lot and the Wisconsin River, and when it first came out, as a newspaper, as a promotional paper for the Boston store; it was run by Bill Binkelman, and then George Pazik later became his partner.

Petros with his grandson, Spencer, and a catch of Illinois panfish.
Petros with his grandson, Spencer, and a catch of Illinois panfish.

I started writing some short articles, and it was just an ego thing, I got my picture in this fishing thing, and it was good. Then it started growing and it really took off, and it was the first thing that really taught fishing. It was the first intelligent approach to learning how to fish. It had articles from the Lindners on how they caught 12 muskies in two days, and lots of other guys, and I was writing about rivers, and I met Al Lindner and Carl Malz, and it was just a big exchange of information. At the start, we were getting maybe $25 an article, and then it was $50 and eventually I was getting $200 for an article and it became big enough that I had write-offs for some of my fishing expenses and it was starting to become a business. One day, George Pazik offered me a job. He said, “How would you like to be managing editor of the magazine?” I told him it sounded pretty good, and Carl Malz was supposed to come six months later. But Carl was starting a new business venture and said he would not be available in six months, but he could come right then, so Carl and I ended up starting at the same time, as co-managing editors of Fishing Facts.

MWO: So this was the start of what we all talk about as the modern fishing revolution, right?

Petros: Exactly, the golden age of fishing, and it was Fishing Facts magazine, it was Carl Lowrance coming out with the depth finder, and it was the teachings of Buck Perry, which were becoming more widespread through being published in Fishing Facts.

MWO: Now, did you recognize it for what it was, at the time?

Petros: Um, yeah, you could see things breaking. We knew most of the good fishermen all over the country. If there was some hotshot over in Pennsylvania, or a guy over here or there, it was a very small network of people who really, really knew what they were doing. And it was all basically coming from the early information that you got from Fishing Facts magazine. And some of the earliest bass professionals were privy to Buck’s teachings on structure fishing and rose to the head of the crowd.

 

Listen to more with Spence Petros…
There’s much more to our conversation with fishing legend Spence Petros, and you’ll find it in the Podcast section at midwestoutdoors.com. On the home page, look for the button that says “Podcast,” click on it, and you’ll find the interview.

We hope you have time to listen to some of our other episodes as well. We’ll see you there… it’s time well spent.

Spence Petros Timeline

December 16, 1940: Born, at Garfield Park Hospital, on the west side of Chicago, premature. He was given the name John, because they feared he would die. After all the scary aspects of the birth had been overcome and young Spence was thriving, news came to light that “it cost my dad 60 bucks and a pheasant,” according to Spence, to settle the bill with the doctors.

1944: Wins the first of many candy bars off his cigar-smoking grandfather for catching the biggest perch of the day on a Lake Michigan shore-fishing outing. Petros credits these friendly competitions with fueling his desire to catch fish. Later, at age 8, he learns the fix was in on all or most of his candy bar wins, something that upset the young and talented fisherman.

1968: Sells his first article to Fishing Facts, which was called Fishing News at the time.

1972: Begins teaching classroom fishing schools with Tony Portincaso at York High School in Chicago. Petros’s fishing classes ran continuously for 41 years, through 2012.

1973: Becomes co-managing editor of Fishing Facts, along with Carl Malz.

1978: Begins leading on-the-water fishing “field trips” with a busload of eager anglers riding from Chicago to Eagle Lake, Ontario. This type of organized trip continues to this day, including recent inshore saltwater excursions to Venice, La.

1979: Catches his first 30-pound muskie, from Conneaut Lake in Pennsylvania.

1989: Inducted into National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.

1990: Begins a three-year run on the ESPN show, The Outdoor Writers.

2008: Begins guiding anglers on a regular basis; something he still does. For details: http://www.spencepetros.com/pages/guide-services.php