I broke my stride and pumped the brakes on the baby stroller I was pushing. There’s someone fishing in Lake Merritt — I said it aloud, but the only person within earshot was my daughter, and she’s only a year old, so she didn’t understand. Someone. Is fishing. In Lake Merritt. I didn’t understand it either.
I momentarily postponed the conclusion of my clockwise lap, just long enough to take a photo of the sherbet-colored fall evening sky, the ideal backdrop for the image of someone not just fishing in Lake Merritt, but standing in it too.
What was he doing? Fly-fishing? Does he know that’s Lake Merritt?
The questions cascaded as I continued to the car. More than anything, I wondered: What was he going to catch?
Answers ranged from “Cassette single of MC Hammer's ‘Addams Groove’” to “A Sharkeisha." A couple people suggested he might be attempting to reel in a Ford Bike, as a handful of the bicycles were thrown into the water earlier that same day. Another guy added a photo of himself and a friend cruising the lake on an inflatable couch, suggesting that the fisherman might be hoping to catch a sofa.
In the midst of the jokes, some serious replies emerged. The actual medical terminology for diseases related to consuming contaminated water was added to the discussion: Shigellosis Giardia Amoebiasis.
I was even sent a photo of a Sea Hare. And when I saw it, I almost lost my lunch. Evidently, the obscure looking thingamabob isn’t an alien species sent to attack us — the large member of the sea slug family can often be found in the lake’s water.
Other fish can be found there too: stripers, bat rays and gobies frequent the Lake Merritt's southern channel. The channel has recently undergone construction and experienced improvements of the waterway, thanks to funding from Oakland’s Measure DD. Aside from the controlled tidal gates, there’s a direct connection to the San Francisco Bay, making Lake Merritt technically a tidal lagoon instead of a lake. And because of the enhancement efforts, it’s open to a lot more life.
Jude Cormier, who often fishes at the lake, told me, “I’d been waiting my whole lifetime to throw my line out there.” The 43 year-old Oakland native acknowledged the history of the lake’s rancidness, saying the lake had never been this clean in his life. “Now that they’ve cleaned up the ecological structure of the lake, they’ve got all kinds of fish running through there.”
James Robinson, Executive Director of the Lake Merritt Institute, agreed that the lake is cleaner that it's ever been. He added that the new channel structures have allowed more creatures to come through: “We even had a sighting of a harbor seal recently.” But he subsequently noted that the lake also receives water through over 60 unfiltered urban storm drains, which can pose health threats. Plus, he said the fish swimming in from the bay have another issue: “You have to deal with mercury, which can appear in the larger fish that people tend to eat.”
So fishing in Lake Merritt isn’t too different than fishing off the coast of Alameda, off the Berkeley pier, or at Point Richmond.
That’s hard to accept. Maybe it’s the fact that years ago, the lake was dredged because of fecal matter buildup. Or, maybe it’s the fact that there was a car in the lake just yesterday!
Lake Merritt is beautiful. It’s a great place to hang out with friends. I take pride in the fact that it was the first wildlife refuge established in the nation. I even applaud the fact there are more and more thriving organisms due to healthier waterways. And if you can land the big catch, more power to you.
But if I’m jogging the lake, and I see you holding a fishing pole and inviting me to your fish fry, I’m still going to run right by.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.