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CHICAGO — Gerry Hansell’s well equipped for a lucky weekday afternoon spent fishing — microfishing, to be specific. It’s the art of chasing not trophy bass nor trout, but tiny species most fishermen regard as bait, if they regard them at all.

Hansell’s rod is so small it collapses to fit in a pocket. His hook? So minuscule as to be nearly invisible. And he’s brought an almost embarrassing surplus, a whole cup of wigglers he retrieved from the back of his fridge. He cracks the lid of the cardboard cup and shrugs. Today he will need only a tiny chunk of flesh to bait his hook. His entire expedition won’t require even one whole worm.

Microfishing involves line fishing for species that rarely grow above a few inches in length, some warier and rarer than others. The activity has been slowly attracting a devoted following in the U.S. The Midwest contains a healthy concentration of microfishing enthusiasts.

“People are interested in something novel, something new,” says Ben Cantrell, who started the website micro-fishing.com.

Hansell, an avid angler who has been microfishing for about a year, chooses a trickle of water off the main stream, peering into puddle-depth pools.

“This spot is blessed with low, clear water,” he says, gently dropping a line, “so you can see what you’re fishing.”

Within minutes, he feels a tug and hoists his thrashing quarry from the stream, slick, wet, shining in the sun. He holds up a fish barely longer than one joint of his finger. Hansell identifies him as a blackstripe top minnow and slides him back into the stream.

Microfishermen understand why their sport is a bit of a head-scratcher for the rest of the sport fishing community.

“When I first came across it,” says Chris Stewart, who imports and sells Japanese fishing rods and tackle, “I thought well, this is weird, but I like weird stuff, so this is for me. No one else will like it.”

Stewart, whose website specializes in tenkara, a Japanese form of fly fishing, first discovered microfishing through Japanese tanago fishing, in which anglers pursue different species of tanago (bitterling) in order to catch the smallest fish possible.

“It just felt so different than the feel over here in the U.S.,” he says. “The trend in fly fishing seems to be the longest cast and the biggest fish, the most extreme destinations, not even Alaska anymore, it’s Patagonia or something like that. And here are these guys in Japan, sitting on the side of a ditch and catching 2-inch fish. It seemed so opposite and so … serene.”

In 2012, as tenkara fishing began to catch on in the U.S., Stewart added a line of tanago fishing gear to his inventory, unsure whether anyone else would share his fascination with catching tiny fish. He quickly discovered that a community of microfishermen already existed. Among them was Cantrell, a mechanical engineer, who started microfishing in 2008.

“I didn’t start fishing until I was in grad school,” Cantrell says, “so I think I approached it from a different angle than a lot of the sport fishing community, because no one told me I should go after bass or walleye. For me it was a way of getting out of the office and into fresh air, and I started poking around and seeing what I could catch.”

Downsizing, Cantrell and others point out, opens up opportunity for anglers. “A lot of the fish in the world are relatively small,” says Dan Gibson-Reinemer, a fish biologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, “so they’re not targeted by most anglers. That’s where species diversity comes in.”

To pursue new species, anglers must research available species in each waterway and then cross-reference their catch with field guides and other fishermen for positive identification.

“It’s really changed my perspective on the outdoors and on fishing,” Hansell says. “Once you get into microfishing you get a more intimate connection to the place because you understand what’s there.”

Microfishing

Microfishing involves line fishing for species that rarely grow above a few inches in length, some warier and rarer than others.

Print Headline: Microfishing targets smallest fish

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