When I was fishing a species tournament with Ronnie Green this past winter near Tampa, it wasn’t the unimpressive 14” redfish or the 20” Spanish mackerel that won the tournament for us; we won by targeting the smaller species, like squirrelfish, pinfish, and puffers, that the other teams weren’t targeting.
Since there are more species of small fish in the ocean than big fish, our strategy helped us win. In general, as G. Evelyn Hutchinson (1959) described, there’s a greater diversity of smaller species than large ones because there are more niches to occupy and a wider range of diets and habitats for them to exploit. However, most fishermen tend to target the relatively few large species because a 4’ snook is more impressive and puts up a larger fight than a 4” creek chub.
Ronnie with a very unimpressive Hardhead Catfish (Ariopsis felis), that helped us win the species tournament! It’s not the size or number of fish that help you win species tournaments, but the number of species that you catch.
Not microfishers, though. Microfishers are people who use extra light tackle and small hooks to target small fish, often in small bodies of water like tiny creeks, tide pools, and puddles. Some microfishers (like myself) target these smaller fishes to add to our lifetime list of species (I am up to 322!). We are called lifers.
However, most microfishers aren’t lifers and don’t always target micros. Often they just use small hooks when going for trout or reef fish in the hopes of catching a great number of fishes. This may risk a straightened hook on the biggest of fish, but allows you to catch those smaller fish that keep nibbling away your bait. When the bite for bigger fish slows down, it’s nice to at least catch small fish rather than no fish.
Microfishing is also about the challenge of catching the smallest fish possible in the smallest body of water on a hook and line, often in a scenic area. Sure, anybody can catch a big shark at the beach by surfcasting with some cut bait on steel leader. It takes real skill, determination, patience, and powerful thighs to hike to a remote mountain stream and catch rare, beautiful color morphs of small trout and darters on a size 28 hook.
Many microfishers fish remote places that few people have ever been, let alone fished. Recently, I caught a variety of micros while fly fishing a gorgeous North Carolina mountain stream, where I did not see a single person the entire day. I wasn’t catching the biggest fish, but it was an extremely peaceful and relaxing experience.
Lately, when I don’t have time to load my kayak onto my car and drive to a big lake, I simply put a tiny nymph on my 3 wt fly rod and go for minnows and darters in a nearby stream. It’s just nice to fish even for a few minutes on a busy day, hoping to catch any fish and add some new tiny species to my list.
If you want to catch some new species, which are often extremely beautiful, like many small coral reef fishes (damselfishes, angelfishes, butterflyfishes) and some small creek fishes (chubs and darters), you should give microfishing a shot! It is also a great way to explore new bodies of water, give your fishing skills a challenge, and to figure out what those little fish in the creek by the park are!
Noah Bressman is a PhD candidate studying fish biology, behavior, and biomechanics at Wake Forest University. Below is Noah with a Bluehead Chub (Nocomis leptocephalus), caught on small nymph while fly fishing in 3’ wide creek in South Mountain State Park, NC.
Hutchinson, G. E. (1959). Homage to Santa Rosalia or why are there so many kinds of animals?. The American Naturalist, 93(870), 145-159.