Philadelphia anglers take fishing to the extreme

By Madeline R. Conway
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted Aug. 28, 2015 at 10:46 PM

PHILADELPHIA — By the time he started at Drexel University, Maryland native Michael Hsiao had taken a break from fishing. The biology major enjoyed the sport but assumed that Philadelphia's creeks and rivers were polluted and hostile to most species of fish.

That changed in 2011, when he stumbled across "Extreme Philly Fishing," a blog for city fishing enthusiasts who take their love for the sport to another level.

The author of the blog is Leo Sheng, a 2014 Temple University grad who makes his living tutoring physics and math students. That may be his job, but his passions are rods, reels, and water. He fishes up to 180 days out of the year and spends a lot of time on Extreme Philly Fishing, filling it with fishing tips and photos of catfish, bass, and other fish he catches locally and at the Jersey Shore.

Impressed by the blog, Hsiao, now 24, started fishing again. And now, back in Maryland, he's doing it for a living. A self-described professional YouTube fisherman, he uploads videos to his channel, which has more than 32,000 subscribers.

At first, it was a hobby. But over time, and after watching it grow to the point where he could sell ads on his site, he took on fishing full time. That meant giving up grad school.

Sheng, 26, acknowledges that most people in Philadelphia would not think of fishing on the Schuylkill or, for that matter, on the Wissahickon. They are wrong, he says.

The Schuylkill is an urban fishing destination. It's a place where hundreds bring their rods and bait and wait for the fish to bite, sometimes within earshot of the city's streets.

And while the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department does not keep statistics on fishing, First Deputy Commissioner Mark Focht said in an e-mail: "Anecdotally we know that fishing is increasing in Philly (in large part due to much cleaner waterways)."

No matter the reason, fishermen have built a community here.

Meet on bank, online

Local anglers say they know their peers, sometimes from a previous conversation about the day's catch and other times just by sight. To Sheng, the shared love for the sport is enough to foster a sense of interconnectedness among the anglers.

"We have different professions and different goals in life, but when you see somebody out fishing, that doesn't matter," Sheng said.

But the banks are no longer local fishing enthusiasts' only meeting spot.

In a world increasingly documented on social media, they are also connecting online, trading fishing tips on Facebook, and chronicling their catch on YouTube.

Sheng, a Brazilian who moved to Philadelphia in 2007 for college, now shares his exploits on four social platforms — his Extreme Philly Fishing blog, and an associated Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Instagram profile.

Ninety percent of the fish he catches, Sheng said, he throws back in the water. But first, he documents the catch with a quick photo, a practice anglers call CPR: catch, photo, release.

"What I do is multispecies fishing. It's much more of a science what I do," he explained.

Sheng started the blog in 2011, prompted by curious people who passed by his fishing spots along the Schuylkill and questioned whether fish actually lived there.

Determined to prove to the wider world that the Schuylkill and other urban waters do indeed breed wildlife, Sheng started sharing his favorite fishing spots on Blogspot. The Facebook page followed the next year.

A few years later, Extreme Philly Fishing boasts a growing following: It has accumulated more than 290,000 page views to date, and the Facebook page has more than 1,600 fans.

It's its own fishing community, in a way.

School of fishermen

Sheng regularly updates the Facebook with photos from recent fishing trips, prompting a back-and-forth with fans. Early last week, for example, Sheng posted about fishing in Atlantic City, where he caught his first northern sea robin. Another local fisherman responded, suggesting a location rife with the spiny bottom dwellers.

When Sheng posted about a fishing competition he planned to host on the Schuylkill in late September, meanwhile, a Facebook fan suggested that he consider rescheduling; it overlapped with Pope Francis' visit to the city.

And when a fisherman — Bobby Russell, 67, of South Philadelphia — who frequented a spot anglers call Wissahickon Falls drowned there last month, Sheng devoted posts on Facebook and YouTube to his memory. Followers responded by sharing their own condolences.

Sheng said he gets as many as 35 e-mails a day about fishing, from seasoned anglers eager to show off their own successes to amateurs looking for him to identify a fish.

And he makes about $7 a day from the ads on his YouTube channel.

"A lot of the community is online," Sheng said. "I know a lot of them from the Facebook page, but I don't know them in real life."

These virtual fishing connections, though, often lead to in-person ones.

On a recent Thursday, Sheng went fishing for common carp along the Schuylkill, just off the Girard Avenue Bridge, with John Long, 29, an avid angler who is teaching his 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, the sport. He recently bought her a pink fishing rod.

It was the two men's first time fishing together, after they met briefly around the same spot a few months ago and later reconnected on Facebook.

As they waited for fish to bite, their conversation strayed from their concerns about litter to manners on social media. They left without catching any common carp, but they did nab a channel catfish just before noon.

Sheng captured the catch on camera — good material for his YouTube channel.