Leo Sheng hadn’t caught anything that weekend.
The ice on the lakes in the area wasn’t thick enough to stand on, the snow blocked most spots on river banks and days before, firefighters almost kicked him out of his spot on the Schuylkill River because of an oil spill.
He stood on the north end of Meadow Lake in FDR Park, hands in his pockets, a GoPro strapped to his chest. He scanned his three poles stuck in the mud and looked around the park.
“There’s really no one here,” he said, laughing.
And for good reason. It was freezing, and days after the large snowstorm which hit Philadelphia in mid-January. But he didn’t seem to mind—Sheng tries to fish and be in nature for “peaceful time” three or four times a week, he said.
A large net—but not the largest in his equipment closet, he noted—night crawlers, hooks, sinkers and extra line spilled out of his backpack onto the snow. It was a brisk morning, and Sheng, the face and author of Extreme Philly Fishing—a blog started in 2011 to share information, tips and guide fishermen in the local sport—wasn’t planning on staying for much longer. The best time to fish, he said, is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“Sometimes you get them,” he said. “And sometimes you don’t.”
Sheng graduated from Temple in December 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. His goal following graduation was to earn a master’s in nuclear particle physics. His plans, however, fell through. He married, started a small business as a math and physics tutor, got a part-time job at a restaurant and continued his life in Northeast Philly.
He grew up in Brazil, waking up early on the weekends to go fishing with his father. That was the only time Sheng really got to spend with him—even now, as his father works and lives in Brazil.
“We would get there before sunrise in this beautiful place, we would set up our stuff and just fish until noon and then we would go and grab something to eat,” he said. “We never really went out during the week because my father worked and I had school. So it was a typical father and son environment. As a matter of fact, nowadays I still regret not waking up as early as I was supposed to.”
Sheng, now 26, came to the United States in 2007. He had no plans, no job and couldn’t speak English. He decided to enroll in the Community College of Philadelphia to take some science classes, but he had no other way to occupy his time.
“I thought, the only hobby I have from my childhood that I can actually do in this country, is fishing. So the Schuylkill River was close to the community college, a couple blocks away. I bought some really cheap equipment—I was 17 or 18 years old—and that was really when I turned fishing into my passion. It made me think about the times in Brazil when I was kid. And that’s when I started fishing a lot.”
Now, Extreme Philly Fishing has nearly seven thousand subscribers and generates thousands of views on YouTube videos, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. His goal with these accounts, he said, is to show the general public what it’s like to be a fisherman in Philadelphia.
“It was just a blog I would write for people, anyone out there, about fishing in Philadelphia. Just so they would know the Schuylkill River is not as polluted as you think. It has fish in there! And I would document the different species of fish. I would let people know, ‘Hey, today I caught a catfish!’”
His experience with the fishing community in Philadelphia has been “tough,” he said. Many times other sportsmen may not want to divulge information about techniques and plentiful fishing locations.
Some people, he said, are so extreme that when they post photos of fish online, they blur out the background of photos so it’s impossible to identify the location.
“For them, it was natural,” Sheng said. “It was going on for a long time, and that got me curious. I thought, ‘Why are these people doing this?’ And it’s entirely different from my fishing culture back in Brazil.”
His blog is a means of sharing information with anyone who wants to learn, Sheng said, and growing the fishing community in Philadelphia will be a result of this inclusiveness.
“I follow something that is called the educational approach,” he said. “This is not something that is just for fishing. This is my life. … I truly believe that having an education is the key to solving all the problems that we have on this planet. In other words, the more you educate people—it doesn’t matter which field it is—the more they are gonna know, so they will have the ability to make better decisions in life.”
Emily Rolen can be reached at email@example.com by phone at 610.462.2897 or on Twitter @Emily_Rolen.
Video by Aaron Windhorst.