The Obsessive Cult of Microfishing Life-Listers

Meet the anglers who travel the world to catch fish smaller than a penny

a tiny adult orange spotted sunfish
This is an “adult” orange-spotted sunfish. It’s as big as they get—and it’s a trophy catch for a micro-angler.Matthew L. Miller

Say you’re in Boise, Idaho, on a sweltering July day, and you’re looking for a way to cool off. Everyone suggests you head to the Boise River, where you find a calm side channel lined by sand. Dozens of kids play in and along the water, building castles, playing with boats, and splashing each other. Parents dip toes in the river as they enjoy cold beverages. Rafters and tubers pull in to the calm spot to take a break. It’s a pleasantly busy summer scene.

Then you notice a man hunched over in the corner of the pool, just yards away from the chaos. In one hand he holds what looks like a thin magic wand, with a strand of fishing line extending straight down to his feet. He stares at it, waiting like a heron.

That would be me.

You might then be tempted to approach me to ask what the hell I am doing. Don’t be offended if I don’t respond. It’s not personal. Ask my wife. On one such outing, our two-year-old son fell into the river in this very spot, screaming in terrified panic. My wife quickly pulled him out. She looked over at me, standing 10 feet away, and I remained in the same heron position. Later, she would ask why I had not tried to rescue our son. I had no idea what she was talking about. I was too busy staring at a tiny fleck of worm at my feet, trying to catch a speckled dace—a fish about the size of my thumb.

Welcome to microfishing, a pursuit that puts a new spin on extreme angling. It is defined as fishing with hook and line for tiny species of fish, what most people (including other anglers) know simply as “minnows.” Its dedicated adherents use specialized rods, size 32 hooks that are smaller than the J on this page and an 8x tippet that feels like a strand of human hair. Whereas many fishermen measure their fish, microfishers count anal-fin rays to determine the precise shiner species.

At times, I’ve considered the concentration required in tempting a small fish to bite is as close to meditation as I’m likely to get. At other times, I suspect that I concentrate so intently because if I stopped to think about what I’m doing, I might die of embarrassment.

I keep at it, if only because it makes me feel like a kid again. I recall many a childhood fishless day spent at a state park lake, watching as schools of minnows swirled along the shore. I tried to devise ways I could catch them on my trout tackle, but even the smallest hooks proved far too big.

an angler fishing in a small ditch
A micro-angler fishes a small ditch.Solomon R. David

Today, it would be a gross exaggeration to call microfishing a craze, but with online resources, like-minded nerds can share tips and tactics. There are microfishing blogs, videos, and Facebook groups. It has been featured as a human-interest story in large newspapers. There is even a tackle supplier, Tenkara Bum, that offers the miniaturized rods, hooks, line, weights, and floats necessary to outfit yourself for minnow fishing.

Chris Stewart, owner of Tenkara Bum, notes on his blog that he sees his business jump every time microfishing is featured in another news story. “I suppose it is not surprising that most of this new interest is not coming from hard core fishermen,” he writes on his blog. “It seems to be from people who fished as kids and gave it up or who fish a bit but never really got into it.”

While it might seem novel here, microfishing has a long-established tradition in Japan. Japanese anglers pursue a variety of small fish using hook and line, including one tiny specimen called the tanago. The object of tanago fishing is to see how small a fish you can catch, with the grail being a tanago that can fit on a two-yen coin (about the size of a penny). This demands ultrasensitive rods, tiny hooks and bait, and extreme levels of patience. Microfishing in the U.S. has grown in large part because of the availability and interest in Japanese fishing gear. Tenkara, a form of fishing involving a long rod and a line but no reel, has become a bonafide fad and is billed as “radically simple flyfishing.” Tenkara rods are now available at most fly shops and even major outdoor retailers like Patagonia. They’re usually used for trout fishing in mountain streams, not for catching minnows. But the attention also generated interest in other forms of Japanese fishing, including the micro gear.

I suspect it’s more than the availability of gear fueling an interest in microfishing. Perhaps American anglers have begun pursuing shiners and sculpins because their pursuit is simply more accessible than fishing for trout or bass.

Consider Japan. The country has 127 million people crammed into an area half the size of Texas. Written accounts of tanago fishing often give the impression that its appeal lies in the meditative state and patience required to fool an elusive yet minuscule fish. But let’s be honest: Given the choice, most anglers would choose to pursue large, tasty fish. Japanese anglers pursue tanago because there are simply too many people for everyone to pursue large species.

Chief Sitting Bull famously said, “When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom.”

“Japanese anglers pursue a variety of small fish using hook and line, including one tiny specimen called the tanago. The object of tanago fishing is to see how small a fish you can catch, with the grail being a tanago that can fit on a two-yen coin—about the size of a penny.”   

In even the most crowded conditions, some people still choose a life of hunting and fishing. One of the greatest hunting books is D. Brian Plummer’s Tales of a Rat Hunting Man, in which the author pursues rodents across British wastelands, at one point hunting rats in a giraffe carcass at a livestock disposal facility. In his book The Way of the Hunter, Thomas McIntyre writes, “In the last bomb-cratered city, someone will fly a bird of prey over the wreckage, or turn his dog out after game in the vacant lots among the rubble.”

And maybe: Cast a bait into a sewage ditch, hoping for minnows.

A distant future? Perhaps not. There are signs the American sporting landscape is already becoming limited for the everyday hunter and angler. Public lands remain the sole reason hunting and fishing are available for the masses. Most prime sporting ground is rapidly being tied up in expensive leases. Blue-ribbon trout waters once considered navigable and open to public use now command fees of $500 or more a day. Barbed wire is strung across streams from Pennsylvania to Montana. I grew up in a time when unposted meant open to the public. Now those places are ringed with “No Trespassing” signs.

But people will catch fish wherever there are fish. Flyfishing for carp has become fashionable. Carp are certainly fine game fish (despite being non-native), but one wonders if the rise in carp fishing correlates to a decline in trout fishing opportunity. A group of anglers recently gained internet notoriety for fishing (successfully) down storm drains. Is that merely a stunt, or is it because the local ponds are now guarded closely by homeowners’ associations?

When it comes to microfishing, the smaller finned species can live just about anywhere—in city park ponds, in narrow drainage ditches, in canals, in the overlooked little seeps and creeks. A microfishing kit can be stowed in the smallest apartment. As long as there’s water, you will be able to go microfishing.

But microfishing in the United States isn’t borne of necessity, not yet. Despite the growth of expensive leases and private fishing clubs, there’s still plenty of free opportunity available, from city fishing piers to wilderness areas. No, for now, microfishing here traces its genesis to another popular angling trend: life-listing.

Check Mates

My introduction to both life-listing and microfishing originated when an Illinois resident named Ben Cantrell wrote me in response to a blog I had written on sucker fishing. He regularly fished a local spot he dubbed “Garvana” due to its large congregations of shortnose gar. Would I be interested in checking it out?

He didn’t have to ask twice. I met him on a warm summer morning, and we bushwhacked into a surprisingly remote Central Illinois river. The river ran a bit high and muddy, and after 30 minutes of fishing we had not located any gar. I felt no concern; in my fishing life I’ve spent plenty of fishless hours and days. Indeed, I did not catch many of the fish I focused on in this book until the last hour or even last minutes of a trip. That’s fishing.

a small mosquito fish
An angler shows of a “trophy” mosquitofish.Solomon R. David

Not so for Cantrell. He immediately shifted tactics. There was nearly always some fish that would be biting. The thought of spending a couple of hours in fruitless quest for a gar seemed like a waste of a good opportunity, especially if there was a chance of new species.

Cantrell is a fishing life-lister, one who keeps track of the species he catches on hook and line. This concept is well known among birders, who meticulously track the species they see. A lot of anglers are goal-oriented: They have lists of destinations they’d like to visit and trophy fish they’d like to catch. Some participate in quests like the Cutthroat Slam. But the concept of specifically seeing how many species you catch is just beginning to take off. A small group of enthusiasts—most of them know each other—plan trips for knuckle-sized darters, human-sized sharks, and everything in between. They share their photos and trip reports on blogs and social media, and record their lists on websites like Roughfish.com and Species Hunters.

Cantrell fished a bit when he was growing up, but it remained a casual sport, at best, until he attended the University of Wisconsin as a graduate student. Surrounded by lakes and world-class fishing, he started going out more. But focusing on walleyes every trip didn’t fit his personality.

“I admit it. I’m obsessive by nature,” Cantrell says. “I think it runs in my family. When I get into a hobby, I get really into it.”

He always loved keeping records, which led him to a career in engineering with Caterpillar. In college, he was a competitive powerlifter—a sport demanding a detailed and precise training regime.

That dedication to detail fueled his hobbies, too. “At one point, my big hobby was craft beer,” he says. “I kept track of every kind of beer I’d ever had. My list grew to 1,500. Then I started fishing.”

He began noting the species he caught. When he stumbled upon the Roughfish website in 2010, he was—pardon the pun—hooked. That site had a feature that allowed members to list their species caught and contains detailed information on catching just about anything you could imagine.

“I suddenly realized all the fish I could be catching,” Cantrell says. “I don’t keep track of beer any more. I only have room for one obsession in my life.”

I felt intrigued by this focus. When I met him in Illinois, his list was nearly three hundred species. How could he rack up such numbers? He planned trips with the precision of military operations, listing all potential “targets” and developing plans to catch them. It also meant he never lingered very long, as time spent in futile casting was time that could be spent adding new species to the list. Steelhead fishing, where you might spend a week before getting a solid hit, would be Cantrell’s idea of a medieval torture chamber.

As we switched our focus from gar to other fish on that Illinois river, it became apparent that most of the larger species were not biting. He began rigging up tiny hooks on his ultralight rods. So tiny, I could  barely see them. I soon learned an essential truth of life-listing: most fish species are really, really small.

I saw a swirl of tiny silvery fish circling in front of us. Cantrell had said we were going to be microfishing, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how “micro” he meant.

“Are you really going to try to catch those little fish?” I asked.

“I’ve caught fish a lot smaller than that,” Cantrell said.

man holding up a small sand shiner fish
Sand shiners don’t put up much of a fight.Ben Cantrell

Cantrell demonstrated his technique. He put a tiny dab of worm on the hook and dangled the line right into the school of minnows. He stood perfectly still, intent on watching the darting forms below him. Then he jerked the rod in a swift motion, bringing up a small sand shiner.

“When a fish strikes, you have to pop the rod,” he said. “The pop is the key.”

He handed me his rod. I concentrated on the minnows, many of them too small to even be considered bait. I had my first taste of the total concentration required by microfishing. Nothing but me and minnows. I also had the vague sense I was losing my mind.

I saw a minnow nip at the hook. I pulled back and missed it. Another minnow swirled. I set the hook. Nothing.

“Your pop is terrible,” Cantrell said.

I kept at it. Microfishing involves sight fishing—you have to see the small fish to get the bait right in front of them—and the fish nearly always have an interest in the bait. Catching them, even with the tiny Japanese hooks made especially for this task, is another matter.

After a dozen failed attempts, I lifted the rod—and there was my sand shiner, an admittedly nondescript pale minnow.

“Your pop is still terrible,” Cantrell said. “But you got a new lifer.”

A new lifer. I immediately felt a new dimension opening up in my fishing life. After I went home, I began researching the growth of life-listing, and the same names kept popping up, anglers who embarked on month-long species catching road trips and one guy who had caught more than one thousand species, including tilapia out of mall fountains. I wanted to meet them. It turns out, I didn’t have to look far. They came to me.

Fish of a Lifetime

Life-list anglers spend a lot of time researching locations for obscure and difficult-to-catch species. They trade spots with each other. There becomes a bit of a circuit for certain fish: If you want to catch a walking catfish, for instance, there’s a section of canal in Big Cypress National Preserve that everyone visits.

Quite by accident, my local creek fishing spot may be the world’s greatest chiselmouth fishery. This is a decidedly modest claim. I have yet to meet an Idaho angler who even knows what a chiselmouth is.

chiselmouth small fish
The chiselmouth is a sought-after species for life-list anglers.Ben Cantrell

This is not a microfish. In the stream I fish, many reach a foot or more. Their namesake feature is indeed a chisel on its mouth, a flat hard edge that forms the bottom lip. When spawning, their silvery sides contain bright-orange highlights. I’m partial to them.

One summer day, I caught some particularly nice ones after an evening of fishing. I couldn’t really share my success with my neighbors, so I did what modern anglers do: posted a photo on a life-list fishing social media site.

Within minutes, someone with the unlikely name of Greenwood Vytautus Champ posted a comment: “Sexy.” Seconds later, my phone dinged again, this time a private message from the same person.

“Hey Dude!” it began. “Me and my buddy Alex are heading out West and we’re wondering if you could help us with finding chiselmouths.”

About 10 minutes later I received a message from someone named Alex Orr. “Hey, I’m in a species fishing contest and would love to find chiselmouth. Would be willing to trade you spots for fish you want to catch.”

I wrote back that I’d be happy to take them to my chiselmouth spot. They told me to expect them in two weeks or so.

Alex and Greenwood keep life lists, but they were participating in a particular variation of listing: the Roughfish June Species Contest. Every June, the site offers a custom fishing rod to the angler who records the most freshwater, standard-sized species (in one of the rifts of the life listing community, the site’s owners have a bit of antagonism about microfishing).

The contest began as a way for versatile anglers to show their chops around their local waters. Alex decided that wasn’t enough. A contractor, he began taking the month of June off, and fishing across the country, in a whirlwind characterized by road food, late-night campouts, and sleep deprivation. He had won the contest three straight years, piling up progressively larger lists of fish. The year he contacted me, he headed west from his Minnesota home—an unusual route given that species diversity tends to increase as you head south.

In his photos on social media and fishing forums, Alex almost always appears shirtless, a large Darth Vader tattooed across his chest. His earlobes are pierced with cylindrical gauges, and a cigarette usually dangles from his mouth.

While Alex is tall and thin, Greenwood bears a superficial resemblance to School of Rock vintage Jack Black. While he only recently completed his GED, he’s known in the rough fish circles for his encyclopedic knowledge of fish. As I was soon to discover, very few PhD fisheries researchers possess the depth and breadth of Greenwood’s taxonomic knowledge. He takes a similar obsessive approach to death metal; his entire wardrobe consists of black t-shirts bearing the insignia of bands like Gorgon and Decapitated Cattle.

I began following their current road trip via Roughfish.com, as the site posts a leaderboard with latest contest entries. They quickly ticked off the expected species around their Minnesota home, then began picturing more exotic fishes as they headed west: rudd from Iowa; Jack Dempsey cichlid in South Dakota; grayling in Montana; Utah sucker in Utah; Mozambique tilapia in Idaho. They were getting closer.

I got a phone call a couple days later. I made arrangements to meet them in a nearby parking lot; they arrived in a low-slung white van, seemingly every inch occupied by fishing rods, tackle, and snacks. They hopped out of the car and made friendly introductions, but it was clear they were on a mission. We drove about 25 minutes to my spot, the contest anglers following me as Boise’s high desert foothills shifted into the ponderosa pine forests of the Rockies. As signs of the city faded, a mid-size river flowed along the increasingly winding road. We parked in a little turn off.

Fishing Through the Apocalypse
This story is included in the book, Fishing Through the Apocalypse.Amazon

“Where the hell are we?” Alex asked. “This is a rad area.”

He looked around appreciatively, then rigged up and sprinted down the bank. Greenwood followed, both eager to hook a chiselmouth, a species they’d never caught.

“What would you say our chances are?” Greenwood asked.

I hesitated. This is always a risky question. “I catch them nearly every time I come here.”

I directed Alex to fish a little pool below a rock, where the chiselmouth often hold. Greenwood fished a little riffle slightly downstream. A fish swiped at his worm. “That looked like a smallmouth,” he said.

“There aren’t smallmouth in here,” I replied.

Of course, on the next cast Greenwood landed a smallmouth bass. I saw him glance at Alex, and I saw the doubt enter his eyes. I could feel the unspoken question hanging in the air: Did we just follow this guy to a fishing dead end?

Taking someone fishing to a special spot always gives me butterflies, especially if the fishing is a “sure thing.” Because fishing is never a sure thing, not really. I’ve been in the opposite situation so many times, where someone guarantees great fishing and it turns out to be a skunk.

Twenty minutes later, the bass remained the only fish caught. Usually, chiselmouth bite as soon as the bait drifts by them. I fidgeted. Greenwood asked me if I had ever caught the Wood River bridgelip sucker. I had not. He informed me that it was a subspecies so distinct that many biologists considered it a separate species. I felt in over my head. I began to apologize for the lack of fish, but Alex appeared more understanding. (As I’ve gotten to know him since, I’ve found that the Darth Vader tattoo and often angry social media posts mask someone unfailingly kind and generous—one of those people who actually would give you the shirt off his back. If he was wearing a shirt.)

Twenty minutes in, chiselmouth fishing felt like an hour. Then Alex’s rod made a light tick, and he hoisted a small four-inch fish onto the bank. We looked at the square jaw, the defining feature of this minnow.

“Yeah, boy,” Alex said, trembling slightly. “I can’t believe this.”

“It’s a small one,” I offered.

“It’s a chiselmouth,” he replied.

He cast out again, and this time his rod bounced harder, and soon he had a proper chiselmouth, about 10 inches and its sides streaked red in breeding coloration. Now Alex sat down on the bank to compose himself.

After a photo, in which he appears to be bowing down and worshiping the fish, he released it and hand-rolled a cigarette. “Any fish you want to catch, I’ll tell you the spot,” he said. “You can have anything. Dude, anything.”

Greenwood added, “We have a thing for big minnows.”

I like chiselmouths. They are a cool-looking, overlooked fish. But I hadn’t quite expected this response, and said so.

“Dude, look at me,” Alex said. “Does it look like much has gone right in my life?”

He went on to win the contest with 68 species caught that June, more than many anglers will catch in a lifetime.

Chiseling a New World Record

After the chiselmouth success, I began getting more inquiries from the avid species hunters. One of those requests was from Steve Wozniak. Because I had been spending way too much time on life-listing websites, I knew he was not the Apple guy. In species fishing circles, though, he had achieved the same legendary status. He was inarguably the life-lister with the highest species count, a whopping 1,767 at the time of this writing. A gregarious business executive, he writes a blog, 1000 Fish, that recounts his trips in stories filled with not only fish but also accounts of bad roads, bad food, a colorful cast of supporting characters, self-effacing humor, and endless fish puns.

Wozniak began this quest in the fall of 1988, when he and a buddy returned from a day of bat ray fishing near his California home. “The question came up over dinner as to who had caught the most species of fish,” he says. “I am scary, unhealthy competitive. I added them up and came up with 60 or 70 species. I won and I was very happy with this.”

As he drove home, he kept thinking of other species. As an inveterate list maker, an idea began to form in his head. “What happened next is a combination of male psychology and my own deviant personal psychology,” he says.

He began with a lifetime goal to catch one thousand species. He travels a lot for work, allowing him to often add a few days or hours of fishing wherever he goes. He started adding species quickly, and in 2007, he reached his goal.

“I was sitting on this boat off the coast of Norway,” he says. “I honestly didn’t know what would happen. It was like my high school hockey team, when we won the state championship. We had put so much time into that, and then we achieved it. I got home and I just kept thinking ‘What’s next?’ I wondered with fishing, with my goal met, if I was now going to have to take up golf.”

He sat in the boat, reflecting, and then the captain pointed to a school of fish below. “I grabbed a rod and was right back in it,” he says. “It was on to two thousand. I think I can get there. It’s not going to be easy.”

As with any obscure subculture, life-list fishing has its internal rifts and petty feuds, its purists and rogues. Nearly all life-list anglers detest bowfishing, and species caught by means other than hook and line don’t count. Some, like Alex, have even more stringent standards: He considers fishing guides and lodges, for instance, forms of cheating.

Wozniak can be a polarizing figure. Some complain about his use of guides, his willingness to fish in pay ponds, even his potty humor on the blog. However, I’ve also noticed this: I’ve never met one of his detractors who has actually fished with him, or even met him.

Wozniak takes it in stride. In fact, he even seems to egg it on through his celebration of fishing spots that are unconventional, to put it mildly. He has bribed security guards to fish mall fountains. He once visited a backyard pond in Switzerland to catch sculpin that the owners were keeping there for trout bait. One blog recounts a “fee fishing area” in Japan, where he caught two trout species after the owners dumped the fish in a bathtub-sized pool in front of him. When he got criticized for that, he took a trip to a fish hatchery, and caught a fish in one of the holding tanks.

a red-headed tilapia
Check a redhead tilapia off the life-list.Matthew L. Miller

This drives certain anglers stark raving mad, but I suspect that he’s just trolling those who take this too seriously. Yes, Wozniak has a long list of world records (those records, he points out, are in part due to his extensive time spent fishing, and in part because many species listed by the International Game Fish Association are so obscure they didn’t even have submissions until he entered). And yes, he’s competitive. But he also is clearly having fun and not afraid to show the silly side of this quest.

Those who have fished with him describe him universally as friendly and funny, and a gracious guest, as I found out for myself when he visited me in Boise on his chiselmouth quest. Accompanying him was Martini Arestogui, himself a notable figure in the angling community. His father, Marty, holds the record for the number of world-record fish, and has compiled a lengthy list of fishing firsts. Martini, now a graduate student in fisheries at the University of Washington, has his own lengthy list of world records as well as a species life list numbering hundreds of species.

He frequently joins Steve on his road trips and plays a bit of the straight man. They showed up at my door early on an unseasonably cool summer morning. I felt considerably less optimistic about our chances. The winter had brought record snowfall, and that snow now melted into the streams, making them high and muddy. I had yet to catch any chiselmouths, or any other fish. Steve and Martini knew the routine and seemed to accept it. They surveyed the roiling water in front of us; they both fished enough that they knew this wasn’t going to be easy. They rigged up, and while both will take guided trips, they are elite anglers, and it quickly showed as both caught largescale suckers within minutes. Martini added a Columbia sculpin, a species I had never caught here and one that also was missing from Steve’s life list. Steve suggested if Martini kept this up, he’d be thrown into the raging stream.

The chiselmouths didn’t show. I finally had to leave for work, but they stayed at it until sundown. Martini caught his first mountain whitefish, and they caught an impressive number of suckers, as well as rainbow trout and northern pikeminnows. But no chiselmouths. They took it in stride and took off across Idaho in pursuit of other new species. They returned to Boise two days later. They spent more hours at my spot and each caught chiselmouths. Martini’s was a world record.

Most anglers will never have the stamina, interest, or resources to pull off hard-core life-listing. But maybe, as with birding, listing can inspire everyday fishermen to learn more about what is in their local waters. Life-listers have already contributed to scientific knowledge, documenting species in streams outside their known range, and recording the spread of invasives. Apps like iNaturalist, used by anglers, offer another way to contribute to what researchers call citizen science. But maybe it’s a mistake to attach too much meaning to either microfishing or life listing. It’s best to keep the pursuit of minnows, or chiselmouths, light-hearted—a humorous antidote to a time in history when it’s all too easy to take things too seriously.

As Steve Wozniak puts it: “There is something profoundly funny about a 250-pound man standing in a stream trying hard to catch something the size of his pinky toe. If you can’t laugh at yourself for this, you really can’t laugh at anything.”

This story was excerpted from the book, Fishing Through the Apocalypse (Lyons Press), by Matthew L. Miller.