Along the River’s Edge
Thomas Lippert flicks his cigarette into the ashtray on his wooden kitchen table, its varnish worn away along the edge by years of wrists and elbows. Lippert starts each day here, waking early to supplement his nicotine with a quick breakfast. On the mustard-colored wall, a prominent image of Jesus watches over Lippert, who hasn’t been to church in years. “I believe in God, but the last time I was in church I was a pallbearer. I’ve been a pallbearer five times.”
Next to the refrigerator, a 15-inch television is showing a rerun of “Match Game” on the Game Show Network. Charles Nelson Reilly is filling in the blank about something, but Lippert isn’t watching. “Let’s go downstairs,” he says.
Lippert doesn’t take the stairs, however. Snuffing out his cigarette, he uses his thick arms and broad shoulders to lift himself out of his chair and move toward the back of the kitchen and the back door. The back door is on the second floor of his two-story Deutschtown rental, but the home lies at the base of Troy Hill. The front of the first floor is at ground level, and so is the back of the second floor.
Lippert’s legs shuffle underneath him as he grabs the edge of the table, then a pair of chairs to navigate the few remaining feet to the back door. Outside, he passes through the side gate, a makeshift combination of wood planks and scrap sheet metal, before descending a set of concrete stairs along the side of the house. The graduated walkway is bracketed on either side by cast-iron railings constructed from heavy-duty pipe. It would be heartening to say Lippert handles the railings like an Olympic gymnast on parallel bars, but the truth is he crab walks sideways, holding on to only one.
“I do this every day,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It don’t bother me. I’m used to it.”
At the bottom, the railing ends a few feet short of the house. Lippert maneuvers himself and leans forward in a controlled fall, his hands reaching the home’s clapboard siding. From there, he unlocks the front door.
Lippert isn’t among the able-bodied. For years, ever-increasing leg and back pain left weakness, tingling and two blown-out knees in its wake. Then in 2003, the former Pittsburgh Press newspaper carrier and self-employed plumber was diagnosed with inoperable spinal stenosis. Now 48 and on medical disability, Lippert is a paraplegic.
He opens the front door and flips on the light. There, among an assortment of tools, plumbing equipment and fishing tackle, sits his four-wheeled lifeline. “If I didn’t have my scooter, I’d have a hard time finding my way to the water.”
Most mornings, he’s out the door by 7:30, riding the streets of the North Side on a 25-minute commute to the Allegheny River.
For lippert, the call of the river is always present. In winter, he cleans his spinning reels or experiments with new bait concoctions in his kitchen. If you see him in the local dollar store buying pantyhose, don’t be alarmed. “I went in once and the clerk looked at me funny,” he recalls. “I told her, ‘It’s not for me. It’s for the fish!’” Once the thaw kicks in and spring returns, so does Lippert. He heads down to the North Shore Riverwalk, sets up his folding chair and fishes—rain or shine—just beyond the centerfield wall of PNC Park.
“The best time to fish is when it’s raining. The water gets stirred up and so do the fish. But whether they’re biting or not, I’m out here enjoying myself. I’m not sitting at home, feeling sorry for myself, getting stupid watching TV. I like to get out.”
Lippert casts his line into the current from his usual spot between the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the floating River Rescue station. He watches the tip of his Ugly Stik fishing rod—an inexpensive, heavy-action model perfect for battling big catfish or carp—and waits for that initial hit. It usually doesn’t take long, which is good for him but bad for his competition.
On Wednesdays from May through September, Lippert is a member of Venture Outdoors’s Downtown TriAnglers, a group of urban fishermen who meet during lunchtime in search of their next memorable catch. The men and women run the gamut from white-collar executives and overnight workers to students and retirees. Some are disabled. Others have slightly murkier backgrounds and prefer to keep them that way.
Lippert has dominated Venture Outdoors’s Angler of the Year award, winning it four times since it began in 2002. He won again last year, when hundreds of participants tried their luck along Pittsburgh’s urban waterway, catching and releasing more than 300 fish spanning 20 species. A more select group, 25-30 anglers, vie for annual bragging rights, with points awarded cumulatively to each angler for the number of fish caught, as well as for the size and species. As Lippert says, “I am competitive, and I like to win.”
Last season, Lippert took top honors for the largest channel catfish (24 inches), smallmouth buffalo (26 inches) and common carp (27 inches). Some might call these bottom feeders “trash fish” that don’t have the allure of a largemouth bass. But during his nine seasons with the TriAnglers, Lippert has landed smallmouth bass, sauger, walleye, rock bass, striped bass, perch and bluegill—all within sight of the Pittsburgh skyline.
Venture Outdoors Membership Director Robert Walters admires Lippert’s will and results. “My grandfather lived with me for nine years when I was a kid, and he had multiple sclerosis, so I have a soft spot in my heart for Tommy. I know how hard things are for him, but he has a great attitude. And man, can he catch fish.”
Lippert’s bait concoctions, made from a pungent cocktail of wheat germ, flour, chicken liver, pink salmon, garlic and Lord knows what else, are stuffed inside swatches of hosiery like tiny pierogi or ravioli, stitched together and skewered on a large, single-shank hook.
“Sometimes the fish like tuna instead of salmon,” Lippert says. “Sometimes they just like chicken livers or worms. I have artificial lures that I throw once in a while, but not very often. They really like chicken livers.
“If it’s hot out, I’ll know where the fish are gonna be and where they’re not gonna be. If it’s 75 degrees or more, they’ll be under the [Clemente] bridge or under the dock by the kayak boat launch. And if it’s sunny out, the only thing you’ll have a good chance of catching is a carp. Like I said, it’s best when it’s raining.”
Lippert says the rivers are a lot cleaner now than they were when he was a young man hooking catfish near the 16th Street Bridge. With his years fishing the Downtown portion of the rivers, though, one fish has eluded him.
“I’d love to catch a muskie.” The toothy member of the pike family can grow in excess of 40 inches. “That’s the one fish I really want to get.” Never mind that the muskellunge is also known as the “fish of 10,000 casts.” It is Lippert’s white whale, and damned if anyone will tell him he can’t do it.
In 2011, the TriAnglers are expecting to return to Point State Park, where they previously converged weekly to fish both the Allegheny and the Monongahela. The park was closed more than three years ago for multimillion-dollar renovations. With both bodies of water soon to be accessible to fishing again, Lippert’s odds for getting a muskie are likely improve.
On an october morning four years ago, Lippert and his friend and co-fisherman John settled in to fish on the North Shore near the Clemente Bridge. Suddenly, Lippert’s $2,300 scooter lurched forward, sending Lippert and his belongings headlong into the 50-degree river. Lippert managed to swim against the current and grab a boat cleat. John couldn’t lift his friend out of the water alone and encouraged Lippert to hang on until help arrived. A passerby called 9-1-1, and 20 minutes later, four men fished Lippert out.
“Cold water don’t bother me,” he says with a laugh. “The first thing I did when they pulled me out was reach for my cigarettes, but they were all wet.” His scooter was recovered, but Lippert still doesn’t know what happened. “I lost my fishing license and some of my gear. My sister helped me replace my stuff.”
On a warm, muggy late summer afternoon, Lippert sits in the shade of a patio outside PNC Park eating a slice of pizza. “You know my friend John?” he asks. “He was supposed to fish today, but I haven’t seen him in a long time.” According to Lippert, John works at a pizza shop and lives at the North Side YMCA.
“We share the same birthday, one year apart. He’s younger than me, but he looks a lot older,” jokes Lippert, his smile and sandy blond hair bearing a passing resemblance to a younger Gary Busey. “I don’t know where he is. I can’t reach him. The last I heard he was dealing with child support issues… maybe he’ll be here next week.”
Lippert has lived on his own since he was a teenager. He married in his early 20s, but his wife suffered a fatal accident, leaving him a widower at 30. In the years before and since, Lippert has battled his share of personal demons that he prefers not to mention. “I don’t want to get into that stuff.”
The rivers have always been there to pull him through. They are his sanctuary, invigorating him and providing him with a purpose each morning. And while catching fish will always be Lippert’s top priority—he is a champion, after all—it hasn’t prevented him from helping other TriAnglers who are less skilled or fortunate.
“I helped one kid a few weeks ago who was about 7,” Lippert recalls. “He was holding a spinning reel upside down and cranking the handle clockwise. Basically, he was doing it backwards and had all his line tangled up. I took his rod and fixed his line and showed him how to do it the right way. That felt pretty good, because I remember what it was like to fish when I was a kid.”
There is no big payoff for winning the TriAnglers’ championship. Certificates are presented for the largest fish caught among each species; a “Rejuvenating Rivers” award goes to the angler who lands the most species in a season (Lippert won that one with nine in 2006). A few gift cards to sporting goods stores are also awarded.
But beyond that and the glory that comes from seeing your name in five-point type in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s weekly fishing report, the satisfaction for Lippert and others is strictly personal. Last year, he won the Angler of the Year with points tallied from more than 40 fish.
Sometimes after fishing and lunch, he rides along the Riverwalk, listening to country music from the radio in his scooter’s front basket. He rides with his foldout chair and fishing net secured behind his seat and his rods and reels tucked away. A souvenir stuffed fox head and tail he bought at the Fort Pitt Museum dangle from the scooter’s handle bars. Sometimes, he travels down to the Rivers Casino, where he’ll drop a few bucks on the slots, killing time before heading home.
As he makes his way past a gaggle of not-so-Canadian geese, Lippert talks about Reba McEntire, soldering wire, the tendencies of people and his plans for the next day. Mostly, though, he talks about fishing. “When I fish, I don’t like going for the little ones. I like fish that will put up a fight. That’s why I do it.”
Considering the man who catches them, it makes perfect sense.