Gerry Hansell has too many worms.
Otherwise, he’s well equipped for a lucky weekday afternoon spent fishing — microfishing, to be specific: the art of chasing not trophy bass or 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. But those worms ….
He’s brought an almost embarrassing surplus, a whole cup of wigglers he retrieved from the back of his fridge, where they’ve been cooling their heels since a bigger fishing trip in late August. 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.
Luckily, worms are resilient, and these will go back to the fridge. Meanwhile, Hansell puts on his fishing hat and crosses the parking lot of a well-tamed north suburban forest preserve, headed for his fishing grounds.
Microfishing, which involves line fishing for species that rarely grow above a few inches in length, some warier and rarer than others, has been slowly attracting a devoted following in the U.S., though it’s still a tiny offshoot of the sponsor-hyped juggernaut that is the sport fishing world. There’s a healthy concentration of microfishing enthusiasts in Illinois and elsewhere in the Midwest, a specialty tackle supplier that caters to microfishing needs and all the usual tracks in the internet sand: microfishing Facebook pages, YouTube videos, and websites and a steady stream of young Instagram posters putting up glamour shots of pretty, tiny fish posing against the palm of a hand. “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 (“He’s on there!”) and hoists his thrashing quarry from the stream, slick, wet, shining in the sun. He holds up the catch to be admired: Panting against his open palm, the fish is barely longer than one joint of his finger. A generous observer might size him up at an inch and a half.
“See, that’s a pretty small topminnow,” Hansell says. The chunk of worm Hansell used for bait, about the size of a fat grain of rice, bulges out of the minnow’s mouth, tasted but uneaten. “He’s too small for the bait,” Hansell says. “He’s kinda translucent, even.”
He’s surprisingly beautiful, though, with a sleek racing stripe down the tiny silver body. Hansell identifies him as a blackstripe topminnow and slides him back into the stream. “I don’t know if you could see it,” he says, “but their head is flattened out, which means they can shovel up food. He’s been doing that here since the last ice age.”
Hansell’s afternoon on the water will yield a few more catches, a few thwarted attempts and a happily splashing dog that pretty much disperses his miniature prey. When your fishing spot is a puddle, one sloppy retriever can turn the whole thing to mud.
Some fishermen might cringe at those results, especially when the biggest catch was shorter than an index finger, but for a microfisherman, it wasn’t a bad day at all. The sport seems to turn the entire mythology of fishing on its head. Fish stories — the kind that feature noble combat between man and fish — are woven into the culture at DNA level: Huck Finn, Hemingway, Norman MacLean’s Montana with a river running through it. And like the fish that gets bigger and bigger with each retelling, sport fishing itself seems to bypass nuance in exchange for today’s version of the myth.
Check YouTube, where Florida fisherman Josh Jorgensen (“an extreme angler who has an adrenaline seeking appetite for monster fish!”) jumps around screaming encouragement (“That’s a GIANT, dude!”) as guests like NFL linebacker Sam Barrington pull in huge grouper or sharks. Jorgensen’s videos are among the most popular fishing videos online, with views in the millions. Why not? The flash-and-trash is as irresistible as it is inevitable. Nick Adams was trying to soothe his war-raked soul in the cool river where he fished for trout, but Hemingway eventually became notorious, in part, for machine-gunning sharks off Cuba.
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.”