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'Hip-Hop Fisherman' Hooking Bass by the Dozens in Chicago's Urban Waterways

By Justin Breen | March 31, 2014 6:23am
Hip Hop Fisherman
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STREETERVILLE — The water filling the Ogden Slip is covered by foam cups, plastic bottles, used needles and other garbage.

But under the refuse swim largemouth and smallmouth bass, and John-Paul Hey hopes to catch all of them.

The 29-year-old Gold Coast resident is the ultimate urban angler, say his closest fishing pals, finding bass at the foot of skyscrapers in the Chicago River, Lake Michigan and other city waterways. He looks for lunkers — often seeking out water blanketed by trash — more than 200 days each year.

"I'm obsessed with bass," Hey said.

He has one other longtime obsession: hip-hop music. And although the two crafts seem diametrically opposed, Hey has woven them together into fishing harmony. Hey casts his line while wearing giant headphones, and orchestrates the position of his bait to the beat of songs from Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr. He said the music relaxes him and helps him focus on each movement.

 John-Paul Hey of the Gold Coast is the "hip-hop fisherman." He hopes to become a professional in the sport and fishes Chicago waters almost every day.
The Hip Hop Fisherman
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It's also given him an identity. Hey is known as "JayPee" and "the hip-hop fisherman" by friends and family — even co-workers at the law firm at which he serves as a clerk.

"He's been able to seamlessly integrate his love for hip-hop culture into his ultimate passion for fishing," said Hey's former roommate, Chatham rapper Sulaiman Shabazz of the Treated Crew. "He's one of the coolest people I've ever met, a modern marvel that shows what passion can build for you if you stay consistent and love what you do."

'HE IS THE URBAN BASS FISHERMAN'

Hey has been hooked on bass for more than 20 years.

When he was 7 years old, he went fishing with his older brother, Mike, and pulled in a 6-pound carp. Mike lied and told him it was a largemouth.

"I've loved bass since," Hey said.

While a student at Fremd High School in suburban Palatine, Hey kept his adoration of bass a secret.

"You didn't want to tell the cheerleaders that 'I'm not going to the party, I'm going fishing in the morning,'" he said.

He attended Southern Illinois University for two years as a forestry major but flunked out in 2004 because he spent so much time with rod and reel. Hey then moved to Chicago because "I couldn't move back into the house with my parents," he said.

Hey had been intrigued with fishing city waters since Chicago hosted the Bassmaster Classic — bass fishing's premier event — in 2000. If the pros could catch bass here, Hey thought he could, too.

He has done just that. Hey said the most bass he's landed in one day is 70 while fishing Downtown in the Chicago River. He's reeled in a 5-pound, 7-ounce smallmouth bass — considered a whopper — on Lake Michigan with high-rises as a backdrop. Other favorite spots are the Humboldt Park Lagoon — "a phenomenal fishery," Hey said — and in the Chicago River near North Park University.

"He is the urban bass fisherman," said Ryan Whitacre, who started an artificial lure company called TightRope Fishing with Hey. "A lot of people have claimed to be that — and I've even claimed to be that — but he is the guy."

Whitacre cited the fact that Hey does not own a boat, or even a car for that matter. Hey walks to most of his fishing destinations — he moved to the Gold Coast primarily to be close to Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. For tournaments that require long-distance travel, he'll take a bus at 2 or 3 a.m. with fishing equipment to reach homes of friends with vehicles.

Hey said he has won more than 10 fishing tournaments, most either in Illinois or Wisconsin. Many have been organized by CAST Crew — a Chicago-based freshwater fishing group that promotes the sport in an urban environment and of which Hey is a member.

"He's one of the forerunners of urban fishing for sure," said CAST Crew creative director Vince Wasseluk, of Vernon Hills and formerly of the South Loop. "He is very dedicated. Of the people in our group, he gets out the most."

Hey doesn't know why he adores bass. He even dubbed it a "stupid fish."

"But somewhere in my head, this fish means a lot to me," Hey said.

Hey always has practiced catch and release with bass. He has never eaten one because "a cowboy doesn't eat his horse. It's the same thing. I won't do it."

Hey said he's had one significant girlfriend, and she broke up with him because he kept going fishing instead of taking her on dates.

Besides, for now, he has a second love.

HIP-HOP CONNECTION

As an eighth-grader, Hey was the first kid on his block with turntables.

When he wasn't fishing, he spent a good deal of time that year rollerblading in his driveway with friend Nick Castle while blasting West Side Connection.

 John-Paul Hey of the Gold Coast is the "hip-hop fisherman." He hopes to become a professional in the sport and fishes Chicago waters almost every day. Here he looks east toward the Ogden Slip of the Chicago River in Streeterville.
John-Paul Hey of the Gold Coast is the "hip-hop fisherman." He hopes to become a professional in the sport and fishes Chicago waters almost every day. Here he looks east toward the Ogden Slip of the Chicago River in Streeterville.
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"He was just one of those people that was really into hip-hop," said Castle, of Logan Square, who's a local disc jockey. "He's always found that scene and ended up clicking with everyone in it."

After Hey left SIU, he moved in with Castle at Castle's grandparents' home in Lincoln Square, which had a recording studio in the basement. Castle said several artists would come and go during their time there, and that continued as he and Hey relocated to places in Uptown — when Chance the Rapper would stop by — and Wrigleyville. Hey now lives alone in the Gold Coast, with a collection of well over 1,000 rap CDs.

Hey is not a rapper, but Shabazz said Hey has a vast understanding of the genre.

"His knowledge of classic and underground hip-hop is matched only by professionals within the medium," said Shabazz, a Beverly native.

His devotion to music is evident even at the Downtown law firm of Niro, Haller and Niro, where Hey has been a clerk for seven years. There's an area inside the office where Hey and others can play tunes, and he frequently contributes Wu-Tang Clan to the mix.

"He talks about hip-hop a lot," said his supervisor, operations manager Ray Rzeszutko.

Rzeszutko said he always refers to Hey as "the hip-hop fisherman," noting "even some of the attorneys do that." Hey's official hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays, but Rzeszutko gives him plenty of leeway to accommodate his fishing quests.

"Fishing is what he's doing, and he doesn't hide that from me," Rzeszutko said. "And his fishing poles have been here many times."

Rzeszutko stressed that he hopes Hey is not an employee at the law firm in a few years because Hey dreams of becoming a professional bass fisherman. His ultimate goal is to win the Bassmaster Classic. Hey also believes he can claim other tournament titles where the grand prize is his very own bass boat.

For now, he fishes from docks, shorelines and friends' crafts. He said people would be surprised how many boaters invite him to step aboard their vessels for a few casts.

This winter has made it harder to fish, especially because he's not a fan of ice fishing.

"Ice fishing to me is a lot of guys who I think need to get away from their wives, and then they go out on ice and drink all day, and that’s dangerous and it’s cold," Hey said.

But he still goes out when it warms up a little. On a recent cold day, Hey did not catch a single bass weaving his lure through floating rubbish at the Ogden Slip.

But striking out did nothing to deter him. In fact, it served only as motivation.

"There are fish in this water all around," Hey said. "Being an urban angler, it's about being not afraid to fish it."