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Microfishing targets smallest fish around with pocket-sized rods and minuscule hooks

Gerry Hansell holds a blackstripe topminnow he caught at the Independence Grove Forest Preserve on September 21, 2017, in Libertyville, Ill.

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By CINDY DAMPIER | Chicago Tribune | Published: November 10, 2017

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."

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. "The goal is to catch a fish that fits completely on a 1-yen coin," says Stewart, "which is about the size of our penny."

It has a fetish-y appeal: Handmade rods are an obsessed-over traditional handcraft in Japan, and some say the first tanago fishermen, seeking the finest possible fishing line, used human hair; preferably the long hair of a woman, who should probably be in love with the fisherman, you know, for extra luck. But Stewart found tanago fishing appealing for another reason.

"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." YouTube bears this out: Even the most tarted-up tanago fishing videos are punctuated by moments so quiet all you hear is the wind.

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, while he was a student in Wisconsin.

"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." He had done a little bird watching as a kid and decided to start a life list for his fishing, keeping a record of the species he had caught. "Some people keep lists," he says, by way of explanation. "Others don't."

Then he took an engineering approach, experimenting with different gear. "I started downsizing my hooks and I remember catching a log perch for the first time using a small hook and realizing there were a whole lot of fish out there that I could catch if I had the right tackle."

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."

"As a fisherman," says Stewart, "you run through the few species that are big and then you are left with the little ones, of which there are thousands. Guys like me just like to catch fish -- I don't care if it's a large fish or a small fish, but one thing about the small fish is they are everywhere. You don't have to go to Patagonia. You can fish at the end of the block."

For life-listers like Cantrell, who went on to fish nearly every corner of Illinois while working for Caterpillar in Peoria, the ease and abundance of the sport means lists that can grow in proportion to your willingness to seek out the next species.

"Microfishing opens up this world of all the small, interesting, wonderful fish you never thought about before," he says. "It forces you to learn so much about watersheds and the ecosystem. It gets you looking at a lot of smaller streams and learning what lives there. Someplace that would never hold a bass or some other fish people target."

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."

"From a conservation point of view, if you really want to catch a large diversity of fish you have to seek out some of the most pristine waterways," says Cantrell. "Once you've traveled to every corner of the state you live in, you start to realize there might only be a half-dozen spots like that, and they're pretty precious, and you see some big hog farm or something nearby, and you realize that one big spill and it can all be wiped out."

Microfishing, he hopes, can raise awareness of not just small fish, but small waterways.

"We tend to focus on larger rivers, but the water that goes into there is from thousands of different streams. You really have to care about them at the stream level, make sure manure or industrial waste is not getting dumped in there. How do you get someone to care about a small stream? Maybe catching a beautiful little fish makes you start to care about that stream."

Both Cantrell and Hansell now microfish while traveling _ when Cantrell was transferred to San Diego this summer, he microfished his way across the country. The online microfishing community translates pretty nicely to the real world, he says, noting that he and other fishermen trade techniques and often show each other around their home territories, acting as unofficial guides. Though outsiders, he notes, might still find the sport a little puzzling.

Online comments aside ("Does this appeal to anyone other than for bait collection purposes?" goes one Field & Stream blog post), the most common response to a guy fishing in what looks like a ditch, or a trickle, or a puddle, Cantrell says, is simple skepticism _ and maybe a little empathy from anglers who know what it's like to come back empty-handed.

"I've been told dozens of times that there are 'No fish in there.' And they're sure of it," Cantrell says. Once, he returned to his car after fishing a roadside creek to find a note directing him to a nearby pond, where he would surely find better luck. "People seem to be genuinely concerned that you're going to have a good day of fishing."

Cantrell can smile about that -- his life list is up to 485, and he is mulling his chances to hit 500 before the end of 2017. And he hasn't forgotten his original goal as a fisherman: To get outside, slow down a little, notice things. "Many men go fishing all of their lives," said Henry David Thoreau, "without knowing that it is not fish they are after." A good day fishing? Depends on how you define your good days.

___

(c) 2017 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Gerry Hansell fishes at the Independence Grove Forest Preserve on September 21, 2017, in Libertyville, Ill. "Many men go fishing all of their lives," said Henry David Thoreau, "without knowing that it is not fish they are after."
ARMANDO L. SANCHEZ, CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

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