In microfishing, it’s all about variety, not size.
A fly-fishing co-worker and I perched on the bank of Austin’s Onion Creek below Lower McKinney Falls for some quick lunchtime casting practice. He wasn’t having much luck getting a topwater strike, but I was in heaven, pulling up one small fish after another.
“Look at the colors of this bluegill.”
“Oooh, that’s a nice blacktail shiner.”
“Have you ever seen a Texas logperch?”
He took a long look at my tiny gear and my tiny fish and my big smiling face. It was time for explanations.
What is microfishing? By simplest definition, it’s the pursuit of catching small fish with a pole and line. Micro can mean extremely small, even microscopic, which is a bit of a misnomer for these small treasures, although you may need magnification to better handle the tiny tackle and bait.
You’ve heard these fish called by generic names like minnows, bait fish or just bait. Mosquito fish, Mexican tetras, Texas shiners and central stonerollers may not be household names of highly prized catches, but biologists and aficionados see the extensive range of habitats, colors and adaptations as integral to healthy aquatic ecosystems.
My interest into microfishing began a few years ago after reading a newsletter article on the topic. I was drawn in by the article’s novel subject matter and the author’s passion for catching tiny fish.
Species fishing is another moniker used for microfishing — some subscribed anglers seek to catch as many fish species as possible, like bird watchers who keep a tally of their bird species count, sometimes spanning decades and international boundaries. It doesn’t count to net the fish — you’ve got to catch them with line and hook.
Texas has 191 species of native freshwater fish. Of these, 16 are considered game species (largemouth bass, channel catfish, etc.), and 84 species are considered imperiled, such as paddlefish and Devils River minnow.
The remaining inland fish species are mostly “a group that includes fishes that we deem too small to bother with,” Mark Klym and Gary Garrett write in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department publication Texas Non-game Freshwater Fishes “While often small and insignificant, these fishes play vital roles in our environment.”
Gear gone micro
Care to try your luck? Seek out an area along a creek or river with shallow, “fishy” pockets.
My rig starts with an aged four-piece fly rod brought out of retirement for microfishing. It’s compact, light, easily assembled, has great reach over the water and is very affordable (it came from the corner of my storage closet).
I’ve tied a foot of brightly colored floating fly line from the tip top guide to an 18-inch leader of very light mono fishing line with a snelled hook from an online company that specializes in Japanese fishing equipment and tackle.
If you want to catch tiny fish, you need a tiny hook as well. The size and style of hook is important. When fishing for sunfish or panfish, you may use a size 6 or 8 hook. (The higher the number, the smaller the hook.) To land a tiny fish, like a Texas logperch from Onion Creek, you’ll need a size 26 hook or smaller.
Microfishing hooks run as small as size 30, about the size of a grain of rice. The shape of microfishing (tanago) hooks can be specialized with an elongated bend for diminutive fish mouths.
The origins of microfishing trace to the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan and a style called tanago fishing, named for a fish species the size of a quarter. Tanago are members of the Cyprinidae family, a group of freshwater fish that includes carps, minnows and shiners.
It’s unclear when tanago fishing (now called microfishing) began influencing modern anglers here, but online postings begin appearing around 2010. Today’s online search will yield numerous articles and resources and various microfishing groups and online communities. One Reddit community boasts more than 75,000 members interested in the pastime.
Micro-anglers, scientists and fishery managers are concerned about environmental impacts to small-bodied fish species, especially those more sensitive to human disturbance, such as darters and headwater species. Data from microfishing anglers can add to the scientific perspective.
Fisheries experts laud microfishing’s ability to highlight fish diversity; they urge anglers to share their catches on citizen science apps such as iNaturalist.
“As interest and participation in microfishing grows, we're excited to engage an expanded network of citizen scientists,” says Tim Birdsong, TPWD deputy director of Inland Fisheries. “Similar to the contributions of birders in wildlife conservation, microfishers can help collect critically important data on the status and distribution of Texas freshwater fish and help raise public awareness of the diverse freshwater fisheries resources found in the state.”
Everybody loves bacon
Bait is the last, though certainly not least, item for my microfishing rig. I tear off a small piece of bacon rind saved from my morning taco and carefully impale it on the hook point. Keep in mind that while these tiny hooks may not seem intimidating, their sharp points can jam under your fingernail with painful ease. (Safety is key with microfishing tackle, as with all fishing equipment.)
If you don’t have bacon, you can’t go wrong with a small piece of a worm. Other types of microfishing bait: small live macroinvertebrates and a dough bait from gluten powder that holds firm on the hook.
With my bait secure, I move quietly to the edge of the bank and look for foraging shiners and sunfish. To give yourself better odds of catching small fish, get a visual confirmation of their location so you can land your bait close enough to entice them without spooking them.
I set my line in the water and watch the bait hit the bottom. The bacon’s color helps me see its position. Sunfish are very curious; several young bluegills race toward the bait to examine it, scaring away the smaller shiners.
One of the plucky bluegills makes its claim to the bait very quickly; I back out the hook point and inspect my catch. The bluegill is colorful, with vertical dark bars behind hues of green and blue, almost iridescent. I snap a photo and gently return the bluegill to the water, giving the fish a chance to recoup.
Let it go
Anglers should keep proper fish handling at the forefront of their endeavors. These simple practices can significantly increase a fish’s chance to recover completely. Use a barbless or debarbed hook, handle a fish with wet hands to avoid stripping the fish of its protective “slime” and minimize its time out of water.
With the bluegill returned safely, I impale another piece of bacon rind and try my luck again.
I place my bait a little distance from the first spot, hoping to attract shiners before the sunfish chase them off. Several intrepid fish approach the bait but show little interest. I stay resolute and still. Soon, my patience pays off when a shiner re-emerges with newfound interest in beating the schooling latecomers to a meal. With the fish firmly on, I pull it out of the water. My initial assumption is confirmed — a blacktail shiner dangles on the end of the line.
I remove the shiner gently from the hook and place it in a small portable viewer filled with water. Blacktail shiners are a slender, ubiquitous species with a prominent black mark at the base of their tail.
As we pack up, I don’t revel in the size of the fish I’ve caught. Instead, I’m thinking about the differences between them, taking time to appreciate their place in water bodies filled with more charismatic species.
As a decades-long angler who teaches conservation practices, I believe that a personal and positive experience with a living thing can move you along the path to understanding its role. You might then become an advocate for the species and promote its habitat conservation. Such is the beauty of microfishing and its message of conservation.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught,” as the Sengalese conservationist Baba Dioum said.
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