Some anglers are constantly searching for their largest fish ever, while others are bent on catching a limit of eaters every trip. However, there are a few who are fishing for neither; micro-fishing is about fish most others have never even seen.
Until recently, I thought what I've been doing since I was a child was just fishing. I spent much of my first fishing trips accompanying my dad for yellow perch on Lake Michigan. Since yellow perch appetites were fickle, the bite would come and go.
When the perch bite was off, which was most of the time, I would spend hours handlining for all the little fish that lived in the crevices among the stony break walls that lined the lakefront.
My personal favorite, slimy sculpins, had bulging eyes and a huge mouth on a blocky head with a skinny little body, and they rarely were more than 3 to 4 inches long. While they lacked the good looks and table quality of yellow perch, they made up for it by fiercely hitting a well-placed bait like it was it was their last meal.
I would catch dozens of the slimy little fish, along with tiny rock bass, sticklebacks and yellow bullheads. I was usually the only person amongst a sea of perch and trout anglers who bothered to fish for the little ones.
I figured I was just weirdly wired, but the way I looked at it, I was catching fish.
Flash forward 40-plus years: I'm patiently dabbling a No. 20 hook baited with two segments of a redworm on 2-pound fluorocarbon line with a 1.0-gram Italian match float counterbalanced with French micro-shot measured in tenths of a gram.
A very rare banded sunfish, just 2 inches long, has just taken the bait. It's fish species No. 372 on my life list.
My 25-year-old dog-eared copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Fishes of North America indicates I have hundreds more to go before I make a dent in the thousands of species that swim on this continent.
Even more, my weird hobby now has a name — micro-fishing.
SMALL AND GROWING
Recently, there has been a growing number of anglers who, like birdwatchers, get a thrill out of catching as many fish species as possible, which means pursuing minuscule minnows, petite perch and picayune catfish, among others.
Basically, everything that has gills is fair game, especially the thousands of species on the smaller end of the spectrum. Remember, even trophy fish such as 100-pound blue catfish start out as tiny fry at one point in their life.
While most anglers want to catch the largest fish of a species, micro-fishing is about catching lots of species of fish.
In Japan, the style is called tanago, where anglers try to catch a fish that fits on a Japanese yen, a coin about the size of an American penny. The tackle, like the quarry, is scaled way down. Poles are flexible telescopic carbon fiber or glass from 10 inches to 3 feet long, tied with 1- to 2-pound-test line and hooks ranging from No. 20 on the large end down to No. 28, with a half grain, or less, of cooked rice as bait. Tanago is fishing mixed with a Zen experience of appreciating the finer, and smaller, things in life.
In Europe, it's called coarse fishing, with high-tech tackle and baiting techniques, such as chumming, to attract large schools of minnows. The name describes the coarser scales found on minnows and carp, compared to the finer scales found on trout and salmon. European anglers use finesse fishing techniques on minnow species, such as the common bleak, a fish that maxes out at around 8 inches in length.
Bleak fishing is a specific form of coarse fishing, where skilled anglers can catch upwards of 1,000 fish in a three-hour session. It's micro-fishing at a full sprint, where accuracy and technique are crossed with the manic speed of a fast flipping 12-foot carbon fiber pole, called a whip.
In America, micro-fishing is gaining a following, as life-listers and diversity fishing fanatics have found each other through the Internet. Ben Cantrell of Peoria, Ill., founded microfishing.com and maintains a Facebook community, where micro-fishing enthusiasts share tips, techniques, places to fish and, of course, photos of tiny trophies.
Miciah McNelius is a 34-year-old angler from Niles, Mich., and a frequent contributor on the micro-fishing Facebook page.
"I ran out of larger fish to catch, so the natural progression was to find out how to catch smaller new species that are overlooked," McNelius said. "I began repurposing fly fishing and ice-fishing tackle, then it led to smaller Japanese specialty tackle to catch even smaller fish."
McNelius enjoys the challenge of micro-fishing because, unlike larger fish, there are way more species to target and much more habitat specialization. This demands greater research and creativity in pursuing them.
Two of the most challenging micro-fishing species for McNelius are darters and silverside minnows. Darters are tough due to the size of their mouths, designed to grab tiny insect larva. There are more than 200 darter species in the United States, with most maxing out at 3 inches.
"I find silversides particularly hard to catch. They are common silvery minnows that feed on the surface and have really good eyesight," McNelius stated. "They need very fast-moving baits to get them to strike."
Those interested in micro-fishing should invest in some hooks smaller than No. 12 and start trying to identify small fish. They don't fight hard, but it's a great challenge to figure out where they live and what will get them to bite. McNelius finds most of his fishing supplies in fly shops and sporting goods stores, or online at Amazon and specialty tackle shops.
Another frequent contributor to the micro-fishing community is Nick Viole, a 25-year-old medical student from Columbia, S.C.
"I'm an avid fisherman in general and have always been drawn to catching new species in new locations," Viole said. "I started fishing in a small creek and catching micro-fish before micro-fishing was a popular thing."
Viole recommends new micro-fishers to start by trying local spots that traditional anglers often overlook, especially small creeks and brooks. These small areas could very well have more species that most realize.
While Viole found some of his tackle, such as small hooks, at the fly fishing section of outdoor stores, most of his tackle was ordered online from Japan.
"Sometimes the more commonly found fly fishing hooks aren't small enough." Viole explained. "Some of the specialty hooks I use are as small, or maybe smaller than, a staple and are sharpened with jeweler files."
Viole has also found darters to be a great challenge to catch with micro-fishing gear. However, some fish like shiners will bite actively with a small enough hook and the right bait.
Viole's favorite place to micro-fish is a small stream in the mountains of North Carolina, which has many different species of tiny fish.
"For me it's all about exploring the diversity in our local waters," said Viole. "What people catch when they target sport fish is only the tip of the iceberg as far as biodiversity. There are so many cool small species of fish that most people don't get to appreciate. That's what it's all about to me, catching new species in new places. My goal is to catch as many species as possible, and to do that I need to value the smaller species."
One angler, Attila Agh, a 40-year-old living in Madison, Conn., takes micro-fishing to a new level. Agh grew up in Hungary, where finesse fishing with light lines, micro-shot, tiny hooks and bait was the norm.
He took his fishing experience from Hungary and is trying to teach American anglers at the highest level as a coach and member of the U.S. Angling national team. Team USA competes against other anglers at international competitions annually.
"I promote finesse fishing in the United States by organizing teams to participate at various coarse/match fishing world events for seniors, ladies and youths," Agh explained. "Many of the techniques we use on the world stage are what micro-anglers would use here in American waters."
Agh recommends anglers trying to catch smaller fish species rig up a short telescopic rod/whip about 8 to 10 feet long with a sensitive tip. The rig usually starts with a small 0.3- to 1.0-gram float, 2- to 3-pound-test monofilament line, No. 18 to No. 22 hooks, and tiny No. 10 size split shots to balance the fishing float.
"This rig is superior to any other methods to catch panfish or rough fish near the shoreline at your neighborhood pond or lake," Agh said. "Where legal (check your local regulations) attract the fish by lightly chumming with some particles, such as oat powder, breadcrumbs or fish meal. Be thoughtful and creative and vary color, scent, density, weight, taste, stickiness, nutritional content and pH levels. For hook-bait, spikes/maggots, redworms, fresh bread and sweetcorn all work fine to catch small and even a few big fish."
A NEW ANGLE FOR MICRO-FISHING
One of the many reasons micro-fishing techniques are so successful in places like Japan and Europe is that the fish in these waters have been subjected to angling pressure literally for thousands of years. Whether it was with nets or hook and line, fish have survived into the new millennia by being incredibly wary of people, poles, line, hooks and bait. In order to be a successful angler, tackle and techniques had to evolve to become smaller and less detectable to fish and more sensitive to the lightest bite.
As American fisheries are becoming more pressured, fishing might get tougher for the average angler, as fish become wary of big hooks, overly buoyant bobbers and thick line. Micro-fishing has a good chance to take off for many reasons:
- It's inexpensive. Most outfits are less than $50 to get started.
- It's effective. Anglers can catch hundreds of fish in a day.
- It's easy to get the whole family involved. Kids will love the non-stop action.
- It's incredibly addicting, with thousands of species to catch and add to a life list.
- It's very sustainable, as it is primarily a catch-and-release sport.
- It's practical for those who live near small streams and ponds, which are everywhere and are filled with fish.
- It's different. For millennials and anglers looking for an eco-conscious, low-impact, inexpensive and challenging sport that communes with nature, this pretty much fits the bill.
While I still appreciate catching a trophy fish of any species, size is not the only measure that makes it a trophy. Catching a species that 99 percent of the angling population has never caught on a hook and line is pretty distinctive. Even better if it is fish species No. 373 on a growing life list.
A PAIR OF WORLD RECORDS
By Paul Rackley
In 2000, at the Gateway Classic Match tournament on Spanish Lake in St. Louis, Mo., P.J. Perea caught and released a 38-inch, 18-pound, 3-ounce grass carp on a 22-foot pole without a reel. The fish was registered and confirmed as a world record, a worthy accomplishment for any angler. Over the next 15 years, Perea kind of forgot about the record, until he learned that it was still current, and his photo was hanging in the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward, Wis.
Then, in 2017, Perea was the lead fishing instructor at the Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree in West Virginia, teaching finesse fishing techniques. He ended up helping Mark, a scout from the National Capital Area Council, who was having some problems catching fish.
However, after some instruction, the young man caught several bluegill, and was interested in catching a catfish. Perea reset the rig, baited it and told him to be patient until the float swam away, before helping some other scouts. In just a few minutes, Mark was joyfully struggling with a much larger fish. When one of the other instructors called for additional help, Perea realized that a large grass carp was attached to the line.
It took an additional 30 minutes of close calls, where the fish could have broken the pole or snapped the line against the dock or rocks, or through sheer strength, for Mark to bring the huge fish to hand. It was measured and weighed at 39 inches and 22 pounds, and Perea revealed to the young Scout that he had just set a new world record by breaking his, which was 17 years old.