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shiner perch on fishing line
A shiner perch dangles on the end of some very small angling gear, landed by a microfisherman, an angler who targets the smallest fish possible. Photo by Stuart Isett

How Microfishing Took the Angling World by (Very Small) Storm

Around the world, fishers are embracing tiny quarry. Is microfishing a celebration of biodiversity or a sign of collapse?

Authored by

by Ben Goldfarb

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

In the world of competitive sportfishing, the name Arostegui is royalty. Martini Arostegui has held more than 200 fishing records, the first, a longnose gar, when he was six years old; his parents, Roberta and Martin, have together logged close to 650 records of their own. The Arosteguis, who half-jokingly describe themselves as the “ugly fish” people, are legendary for pursuing not only standard game fish—grouper, bass, trout—but also a litany of finned curiosities unlikely to appear in Field & Stream. They specialize in catching the largest members of smallish species: a Midas cichlid near Miami, Florida, that tipped the scales at just over a kilogram, a white piranha in Brazil that weighed no more than a pineapple.

Around 2010, sampling the world’s marine and aquatic wonders became a goal unto itself for Martini. He began keeping a life list and seeking out oddities, like a birder traveling to the ends of the Earth to glimpse an ivory gull. In the years that followed, he converted his family’s avocation into a career, earning a PhD in fisheries biology from the University of Washington. Yet even as his academic research gravitated toward charismatic ocean giants, like sharks and billfish, the recreational quarry he pursued between semesters seemed to get smaller and smaller. “If you want to rack up numbers,” he says, “you start to realize the majority of the diversity is at the bottom of the food chain.”

Inevitably, one of the world’s most accomplished anglers had become devoted to one of its oddest hobbies: microfishing.

The objective of microfishing is laughably simple: to catch very small fish. This is, of course, a heterodox goal in a sport obsessed with size. Conventional anglers lump minnows, chubs, darters, sculpins, and other minute creatures under the inglorious label of “baitfish,” their only purpose to be skewered on a hook to entice worthier targets. Although these tiny fish could fit easily in the palm of your hand, they comprise the vast bulk of our underwater biodiversity. North America is home to a mere several dozen species of trout and salmon—and over 200 members of Cyprinidae, the minnow family. There are more native darters in Tennessee’s Little River than there are types of black bass on the continent.

Martini Arostegui with black-bellied rosefish caught off Miami Beach, Florida

Martini Arostegui, right, with blackbelly rosefish caught off Miami Beach, Florida. An angler since he was a little kid, Arostegui eventually began including the little fishes in his fishing life list. Photo by Sue Cocking/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Arostegui took to microfishing with glee. He road-tripped around the United States with a light rod, dangling flecks of worm into bays and ponds, adding new treasures to his life list at every stop. He embraced his avocation’s absurdity. While stalking a sculpin in an Oklahoma creek one evening, a cloud of gnats rolled over him and a friend like a fog bank. “We couldn’t breathe because we were inhaling bugs,” he recalls. “And we’re sitting there with a flashlight, these two giant humans trying to recognize a two-inch [five-centimeter] fish that’s evolved to look like a rock.”

That may sound like torture to you, but for a growing cohort of anglers, it’s divine. In the last decade, microfishing’s ranks have swelled; though it’s not quite a craze, it definitely qualifies as an international subculture, with adherents in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Indonesia. It is angling’s intellectual fringe, a pursuit that rewards close observation over Hemingwayan machismo. Its practitioners tend to be the kind of meticulous fanatics capable of, say, differentiating minnow species by examining the shape of their fins. “Microfishing is about the inherent beauty of diversity,” Arostegui says, “not the fight the fish puts up.”

Now, even some biologists have begun to take note, with both trepidation and excitement. On one hand, microfishing is utterly unregulated, and in some cases, possibly damaging; although micro-anglers almost always release their catches alive, such minuscule and delicate fish may be uniquely vulnerable to harm. On the other, it’s an emergent cache of data, collected by anglers with an unusually scientific cast of mind. “A lot of biologists are stuck at a desk or in the lab,” says Tyler Goodale, a fisheries technician turned fishing guide who specializes in Missouri’s endemic darters. “The microfishing guys are some of the best citizen scientists that exist.”

Like many cute and diminutive phenomena—Pokémon, Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty—microfishing has roots in Japan. It was a logical country of origin: a densely populated nation with an intimate societal connection to fish, yet limited opportunities to pursue large species. Some sources suggest that as far back as the 17th century, Japanese anglers began to target tanago, a group of finger-length fish known in English as bitterling; for some of these ur-microfishermen, a single human hair reportedly sufficed for line. In the 21st century, specialized tanago gear began to proliferate: ultralight line, tiny hooks, rods as dainty as chopsticks. Anglers coveted ever-smaller prey, explains the writer Matthew Miller in his book Fishing Through the Apocalypse, “the grail being a tanago that can fit on a two-yen coin (about the size of a penny).”

By 2010, North American anglers had begun to adapt tanago techniques for their home waters. Microfishing developed organically, unbound by rigid standards: some people caught baby bass and trout and called them microfish, while others suggested that the term only applied to species that couldn’t attain a weight of more than one pound (around half a kilogram). Like many novel hobbies, it gained traction on the internet. YouTube videos and Facebook groups helped novices identify obscure species; online stores hawked boutique equipment; forums like RoughFish and SpeciesHunters gave fishermen platforms on which to share their life lists. The r/MicroFishing subreddit has, as of this writing, more than 30,000 members.

Most of all, microfishing benefited from its accessibility. As an overinvested member of the angling industrial complex, I can attest that fishing can be a pricey hobby: the charter boats and guides, the waders and vests, the rods and reels and lines and flies. Microfishing, by contrast, demands minimal capital. A worm beneath a bobber attracts more minnows than fancy lures. It is angling for the masses, an egalitarian form of fishing that Huck Finn would recognize. Aaron Bye, an early microfisherman in Minnesota, has snapped twigs off trees and used them to catch sticklebacks. “You can put a booger on a hook and catch a micro,” Bye says—and, in fact, more than once he landed an emerald shiner on that very bait.

Microfishing’s appeal is the diversity of fish an angler can catch over a lifetime, such as the American flagfish (first photo), checkered puffer (second photo), hairy blenny (third photo), and halfbanded rockfish (fourth photo). Photos by Ben Cantrell

To its adherents, microfishing is a kind of alchemy, a magic that transforms every humble stormwater pond and roadside ditch into a potential trove of wonders; as one micro-mantra has it, “all fish are sport fish.” Ally Toth, an angler in Melbourne, Florida, took up the sport after high winds prevented her from venturing offshore for snapper and kingfish. On a friend’s advice, she started in a brackish canal within walking distance of her house. When she landed her first crested goby, a fish the size of a deck of cards that sports a rooster-like comb on its head, she was stunned to find a creature so flamboyant in an environment so mundane. “It looked like something that should be in an aquarium,” she recalls.

Toth’s education is in library science, a background that aligns nicely with the systematic pursuit and identification of elusive fish. (You might say she’s gone from microfiche to microfish.) “The goal-oriented nature of microfishing, the high level of organization that it requires, is something that I really like about it,” she says. Her audacious plan is to catch every blenny—an enormous group of bottom-dwellers—listed in her Florida fish identification book. Yet the point for Toth is not simply to accumulate numbers; it is to commune with animals that most other people neglect. While millions of words have been spilled on conventional angling, Toth can only learn the secrets of obscure microfish—the preferred habitat of the frillfin goby, the bait that will entice the slender mojarra—via experiential research. Small fish, she has discovered through hours of close study, are as distinct as books, and just as transporting.

“They have such a beauty to them, such different characteristics,” she says. “You’re able to immerse yourself in their world for a few minutes.”

This past fall, I finally decided to give microfishing a try myself. I expected to succeed. Throughout my years of clumsy angling, I have shown an impressive knack for catching the smallest and most reckless fish in any given body of water. Not for me, the wise, discerning lunker. Give me your puny, your hungry, your desperate masses that would attack a piece of pocket lint if you put it on a hook.

I began to talk about microfishing, to peruse microfishing blogs, to watch microfishing YouTube videos. My wife, Elise, who has ambivalent feelings about angling’s ethics, was skeptical. “So you got sick of harassing regular beautiful creatures,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “and now you want to harass tiny beautiful creatures.”

“Well, when you put it that way … ” I muttered, and returned to YouTube.

When my first batch of microfishing tackle arrived on my doorstep, though, my excitement curdled. The line was delicate as spider silk; the hooks could have passed for fingernail clippings. This was gear meant for a nimble child, or perhaps a highly intelligent pygmy marmoset. I, alas, possess all the manual dexterity of a muskox. Mine are hands designed primarily for blunt-tool use, like poking sticks into termite nests. I put my head on my desk. This was going to be hopeless.

microfishing hooks

Angling for small fish means using very small hooks. Photo by Stuart Isett

A few weeks later, I drive to Seattle to meet Mark Taylor, an avid microfisherman I met in a Facebook group. We rendezvous at a pier that juts into Puget Sound, the glacier-carved arm of the Pacific that creases western Washington. It’s the sort of damp northwestern morning that the author Tom Robbins described as smelling of “geology and silence and minnow breath.” Taylor already has his lines in the water by the time I arrive. He reels in to show me his gear. His infinitesimal hooks, I see with consternation, make mine look like crowbars. “They laughed when I asked for these at Orvis,” he says.

I bait my hook with an iota of shrimp and plop it near a rocky wave break. Then I ask Taylor to tell me the origins of his obsession. He’s always been a hopeless “fish head,” he says. As a kid in the 1970s, he’d caught flounder, rockfish, and crab all over the Seattle area, hauling buckets of fresh seafood home on the bus. (Occasionally he didn’t return until midnight, to his mother’s dismay.) He worked in a pet store, became a tropical fish dealer, joined the board of the conservation group Trout Unlimited. He fished constantly, driven mostly by relentless curiosity. “Every time I drive past water, I wonder, what lives in there?” he says.

The pleasures of microfishing, Taylor says, are subtle. “Big fish are way more fun to catch,” he admits. He took up microfishing one day in the mid-1990s, when, while casting for tilapia in a Hawaiian ditch, he noticed a school of guppies swirling in the brown water. He downsized his hook and landed one; eventually it occurred to him that chasing the small stuff was the fastest way to augment his life list. By the time we meet, his tally has surpassed 400 species, from nurse sharks to mosquitofish. He’s come to relish the thrill of a rare micro. On his phone, he swipes through photos of pint-sized trophies—a threespine stickleback, a tidepool sculpin, an Olympic mudminnow. He lingers over the northern studfish, a handsome prize from Oklahoma. “Soon as I threw the fly in the pool, all the fish jumped it,” he says.

Mark Taylor baits a microfishing hook

Mark Taylor has fished Puget Sound in Washington State for decades, since he was a child. He became a microfisherman out of curiosity—he sees a body of water, and wonders which fish call it home. Photo by Stuart Isett

Today, though, the fish are proving less eager. After an hour, we’ve been decisively outfished by the pier’s resident cormorant. “Curse you!” Taylor cries genially as the bird surfaces with another sculpin in its bill. Down the pier, weatherworn men toss out crab traps and jig for squid. Watching their pragmatic subsistence efforts, I feel faintly ridiculous—the practitioner of a sport with no obvious utility. I find myself wondering, not for the first time, is microfishing as frivolous as it seems?

As microfishing took off in the early 2010s, one of the people who monitored its rise was a biologist at Carleton University in Ontario, named Steven Cooke. Cooke, an avid angler, keeps close tabs on the fishing community. Whereas I use fishing Facebook groups and YouTube channels for procrastination, Cooke studies them for scientific inspiration. When, for instance, he saw fishermen pouring carbonated beverages on their catches—a folk remedy for injured gills—he tested Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew on northern pike himself, and thoroughly debunked the theory. “Some of these things may seem absolutely silly to pursue, but I try to look for the emerging issues that may not be on managers’ desks yet,” he says.

Silly and emerging: what two adjectives describe microfishing better? Cooke began to wonder how microfishing affects its minuscule quarry. Although we enthusiasts are often reluctant to acknowledge it, catch-and-release angling can be a cruel sport; one 2005 meta-analysis suggested that 18 percent of fish don’t survive the ordeal. Careful handling can dramatically improve the outcomes—but what were best practices for handling microfishing’s fragile, little-known targets?

In 2020, Cooke, quarantined with his family at a lakefront Ontario cottage, decided to investigate the matter. He enlisted his three kids to catch palm-sized bluegills using an assortment of small hooks, then held the fish in tanks overnight to see how they fared. Although he hasn’t yet analyzed his data, the experiment left him worried. “My gosh, those tiny hooks are hard to handle—and, therefore, quite difficult to remove,” he says. That could mean more air exposure and sloughed-off scales as anglers fumble with their fish. “I certainly have some catch-and-release concerns that I want to explore.”

Mark Taylor removes a hook from a shiner perch

Removing hooks so fish can be released back into their habitat takes a delicate touch. Photo by Stuart Isett

Despite these misgivings, microfishing also struck Cooke as rife with scientific potential. Whereas other methods of studying small fish tend to be indiscriminate—Cooke has seen minnows die en masse after scraping off their scales in a biologist’s trap—microfishing has the advantage of precision. Microfishing techniques could be used to capture rare fish for captive-breeding purposes, Cooke suggests, or to survey areas that scientists might otherwise overlook. “If we can exploit the knowledge of these anglers to provide information, it’s a whole bunch more eyes out there,” he says. This is no idle speculation: in 2015, microfishing reports in Illinois expanded the known range of the banded killifish, a threatened species.

Ben Cantrell, a California-based engineer, may be the microfisherman who has contributed the most to science. Cantrell, the author of a popular fishing blog, has a bit of an obsessive streak—before he started angling, he maintained a life list of more than 1,500 craft beers—and an uncanny knack for species identification. Like many microfishermen, he often uploads photos to iNaturalist, a citizen-science database. “You may not know the significance of your picture, but you might be extending the range of a species, or documenting a species that was believed to have disappeared from the region, or capturing it in breeding colors during a surprising month,” he says. “Most of my friends have a couple of researchers on speed dial in case we catch something interesting.”

In June 2016, Cantrell was microfishing a lagoon north of San Diego when he caught something interesting indeed: a stout, reddish fish adorned with eyelash-like tufts. Although it wasn’t in his California guidebook, he eventually pegged it as a largemouth blenny—a common Mexican species likely pushed north by El Niño and climate change. His photos found their way to researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, who dispatched Cantrell to procure some specimens. When, later that year, scientists published a paper describing the largemouth blenny’s arrival in California, Cantrell was among the coauthors.

largemouth blenny

A common Mexican species of small fish—a largemouth blenny—was pushed into California waters, probably by El Niño. Photo by Ben Cantrell

The relationship has since borne more fruit. In 2019, Cantrell accompanied a few Scripps scientists who hoped to collect longjaw mudsuckers for a behavioral experiment. “We all showed up with different methods of catching them, including traps, regular hooks baited with squid, and very tiny hooks baited with local ghost shrimp,” Cantrell says. The very tiny hooks, of course, were his. “I think 13 of the 15 were caught on the tiny hooks,” he recalls with a hint of pride. The fish returned to the lab in an aerated cooler, alive.

Cantrell’s exploits caught Steven Cooke’s attention, and in 2020 the pair, along with colleagues Robert Lennox and Andy Danylchuk, published the first peer-reviewed paper detailing microfishing’s rise. The study suggested a number of pressing research questions, which Cooke plans to explore in coming years: how can microfishermen minimize the harm they inflict on their catch? Should managers close certain microfisheries during sensitive times, like spawning season? Just how widespread is microfishing, and who the heck is doing it? The paper, which appeared in the influential journal Fisheries, dramatically raised the sport’s profile within the managerial class. “I’ve had so many fisheries professionals reach out to me saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea people do this,’” Cooke says.

Back in Puget Sound, the tiny fish still aren’t biting, so Taylor and I relocate to a different pier. We rebait our hooks—in two hours of fishing, we’ve used three-quarters of a cocktail shrimp between us—and drop them into the leaden sound. Soon a rod tip twitches, and I grab it. There’s no tug at the other end, but after a few cranks of the reel, a fish emerges. It gleams silver and bronze in my palm, like a strange foreign coin. Notes of gold and indigo shimmer in its scales as the clouds shift. It would fit in my wallet with ease. Taylor identifies it as a shiner perch, one of the teeming masses that buttress the Puget Sound food web.

We slide the perch into a small, translucent tank I’ve bought for the occasion, and hold it up for a photo, a parody of the classic angler glory shot. A strolling family stops to watch. They look perplexed. “I think they’re trying to take a picture of the teeniest fish in the world,” a woman stage whispers.

Another rod tip bounces a moment later, and another. We’ve stumbled upon a school. Soon a half-dozen shiner perch, none larger than a lemon, swirl in the tank. “We’re on fire,” Taylor says wryly.

Small shiner perch are at the base of Puget Sound’s food web. They’re also beautiful creatures. Video by Stuart Isett

I’m delighted at our success, yet the perch put Taylor in a ruminative mood. Over the last century, Puget Sound, like so many waterbodies, has been subject to every imaginable abuse: overfishing, marshland destruction, stormwater pollution, climate change. In the 1980s, Taylor tells me, he’d prized king salmon above all other fish. When the mighty kings declined, he caught coho; when the coho declined, he caught pinks. He chased rockfish and flatfish until those, too, dwindled. Every year the food chain lost another link.

“Staghorn sculpin used to be a nuisance,” he laments. “I’ve caught one in the last 20 years.”

Once, Taylor had reliably caught cod and flounder at this very spot. Now here we are, celebrating a fish that once would’ve been bait. The poor shiner perch suddenly strike me as the ultimate embodiment of shifting baselines syndrome, the depressing theory that every generation accepts its diminished status quo as a natural state of affairs. The ecologist Loren McClenachan once illustrated the concept with a series of fishing photos from the Florida Keys. In the 1950s, dockside anglers posed with enormous groupers and sharks. In the ’80s, the pictures showed mostly jacks, permits, and other midsize sport fish. By the early 2000s, relatively puny snappers passed for trophies. As I gingerly pour our tank of shiner perch back into the sound, I have a vision of our pitiful catch as the final photo in the sequence, shifting baselines carried to its inevitable, ad absurdum conclusion.

Soon it begins to rain, and we hustle for our cars. As I hunch against the drizzle, I think about the odd duality of microfishing. Like a shiner perch, it seems to catch the light differently depending on the angle from which you regard it. From one perspective, it’s a joyful homage to unsung biodiversity; from another, a bleak portent of fishing’s future. It’s the epitome of angling in the Anthropocene, a way to experience what nature persists in the novel ecosystems we’ve engineered.

“The sound is dying,” Taylor agrees grimly when I share that half-baked reflection. He pauses and tilts his rain-spattered head. “Still. There are some amazingly beautiful fish out there.”

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Cite this Article: Ben Goldfarb “How Microfishing Took the Angling World by (Very Small) Storm,” Hakai Magazine, Apr 13, 2021, accessed June 14th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/features/how-microfishing-took-the-angling-world-by-very-small-storm/.

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