Standing on the bridge with his fishing line in the water, Troy Hartman had a fight on his hands.

Something that had some weight to it was on the other end.

Suddenly, the line slackened. The catch was gone.

“Now I know something is there,” Hartman said. “I’m going to cast out past it and drag.”

Within seconds, Hartman had a bite again. This time, he pulled the heavy catch onto the bridge to the delight of those watching.

“Cleaning the river one pipe at a time,” he announced.

Hartman’s catch wouldn’t be something most anglers would be proud of, but this type of fishing is different.

This is about curiosity.

Magnet fishing is catching on in Wisconsin—so much so that on this particular Tuesday, there were as many anglers fishing for metal objects as there were fishing for fish.

A few hours before work, Hartman had decided to fish for a while on the Rock River in downtown Fort Atkinson. He soon was joined by others in his magnet fishing Facebook group who couldn’t let a nice day go by without being on the water.

Over the last few months, Hartman has stepped up his game with a more expensive bait—actually, magnet—that weighs 3 pounds and is double-sided.

On his best day, he has pulled several bikes, railroad spikes and even long pipes out of the water.

How any of those objects got there is anyone’s guess. But one advantage to magnet fishing is that it helps clean up the water for fish.

“You’re not going to get a lot of valuable stuff,” Hartman said.

Much of what magnet fishers catch would be considered junk to most folks, but for these metal scavengers, the fishing is not much different than trying to catch the big one that got away. There’s still the story of what they snagged and how hard it was to reel in. They all believe they will find something valuable someday.

Cody Nitardy, who was fishing near the Glacial River Trail bridge, shouted what he was hoping to catch.

“How about a safe?” he said.

Luring in a big oneIt didn’t take Hartman long to pull in his first catch on that recent Tuesday morning.

“Yeah, I got his lure,” he said, referring to the fishing pole line from a neighboring angler. “First find of the day.”

Hartman was unsure whether the lure was attached to the pole next to him or not. That’s what’s fun about this kind of fishing: There are always things to catch, and you never throw anything back.

Hartman often discards his catches in a nearby dumpster. Some items, such as bicycles, might be set aside for people to see and reclaim. However, for the most part, the catches are fun, and photos are always taken and posted to the Facebook group.

Hartman said he got into the hobby after watching a video a few months ago.

“He had a high-powered magnet and pulled out a couple of scooters,” Hartman said of the guy in the video. “And that would be really fun to do in the Rock River. I went on Amazon and looked to see what they had. They had a whole section for magnet fishing stuff. I bought one.”

The magnets come in different sizes and prices, and it can get a little expensive if you have to replace your prized lure.

Hartman said he taught himself how to magnet fish. Actually catching something takes skill, he said.

Nitardy had started fishing only a few days ago, so he had plenty of questions.

“I started by dropping off a bridge. I didn’t get much. I think I got a butter knife to start,” he said. “I realized there was a technique to it. This is a lot like fishing. You gotta jig a little bit.”

Rare-earth magnets are powerful and can lift 1,700 pounds, Hartman said. But prized catches are often stuck in the muck, and there are plenty of rocks that can snag lines.

When things work well, it’s a fight to pull in a large find.

“When you hit something metal, you feel it lift up,” Hartman said. “You definitely feel you have something.”

When he started the Jefferson County Magnet Fishing group on Facebook, it didn’t take long to get 15 people to join. On this particular day, two group members stopped by to see Hartman.

Stacy Miller brought her single-sided magnet and cast off the bridge alongside him.

“Sometimes that happens. You catch your friends,” she said, trying not to tangle the lines.

The two tried to work together to retrieve an item, knowing that if either magnet got too close to the metal on the pedestrian bridge, they would lose the lure.

Hartman said the local group would like to plan a boat outing.

“Probably one of the only draws to magnet fishing is you’re not going to find anything really valuable,” he said. “I do it for the mystery of the item—see what kind of history I can pull out.”

Bikes at the bottomHartman occasionally has fished for real fish, but he is not really into that sport.

“I don’t have the patience for that,” he said. “Kind of ironic.”

When the magnet fishing group gathers, there are lots of fish stories, but they never involve a giant northern or a feisty tuna.

“A friend of mine’s girlfriend pulled something heavy to shore,” Hartman told the group. “Got to the edge of the water, and it was a giant grill.

“We couldn’t get it out of the water. It slipped the line. We needed a grappling hook.”

“People do find guns. Cannonballs,” Hartman told a reporter. “I saw a person pull up a fistful of coins. And a friend in Watertown pulled up some steel pennies from World War II.”

When he started the Facebook group, Hartman received an avalanche of comments after posting a picture of what he found.

“I was able to convince friends to come out with me. They had a blast and bought their own,” he said of the magnets.

The reason Hartman fishes near bridges is that’s where people tend to throw things into the water.

Along with the excitement of catching something, magnet fishers also like trying to figure out what it is. They surf the internet to see if they have something valuable.

“We are finding a lot of cool stuff. We are cleaning up the water. A lot of fishers have stopped us and thanked us,” Hartman said.

“My best outing, we found five bikes in one day. And a shopping cart from Festival.”

Hartman believes more than 100 bicycles have been dumped in this area of the river after being stolen. He’s still waiting to find the one taken from him when he was a child.

“Would love to go by Jefferson,” he said. “I lost a bike down there in 1990, and I’m looking for a red Huffy.”In the meantime, he is happy to continue his treasure hunt.

“I was so happy when I got my first Razor scooter,” he said. “This is the dream.”