The creek behind Alex Arcia’s house in Plantersville, about an hour northwest of Houston, is no more than two feet wide. But when Arcia, now fifteen, was in elementary school, the cool current running past holly and pine trees felt like an expansive and magical world. When he was four or five years old, he learned to hold a fishing rod; by seven, he was heading to the water by himself to hook bluegill. For a while Arcia kept a walkie-talkie on hand so his parents could check in on him. “I spent so much time down there, years down there, just fishing my heart out,” he says.
As the years went by, however, Arcia felt the creek’s childhood magic starting to fade. His interest turned to larger lakes where he could catch big trophy fish like bass and catfish. The creek still ran not far from Alex’s bedroom at his dad’s house, but it didn’t feel the same.
Then, while in a late-night rabbit hole in angler YouTube about three years ago, Arcia stumbled across a video that asked a simple question: what if fishermen stopped looking for the biggest fish? What if variety were more significant than size? Soon after, Arcia walked through the pasture behind his house and went fishing in the creek with a new perspective. “It just fascinated me, all the species—not new species, but new to me,” he says.
The creek was filled with amazing, colorful species of fish: blackstripe topminnow, freckled madtom, blacktail shiner. They were tiny, sure, but astoundingly beautiful. Looking closely, Arcia noticed the minute dots playing across a freckled madtom and the geometric patterns hidden within the dark stripe of the topminnow. It was a revelation to discover all this life hidden in his backyard. Arcia wondered what other overlooked but fascinating fish he might find if he roamed a little farther. Before long, he went to find out, traveling with his family across Texas with a tiny fishing rod and size-30 Gamakatsu midge hooks jammed into his backpack. Though Arcia didn’t quite realize it at the time, he was the newest member of a small group of anglers flipping the script on the traditional bigger-is-better approach to sportfishing—and potentially reimagining our relationship with fish.
Microfishing, a niche sport in which anglers attempt to catch some of the smallest fish possible, is in many ways an old practice by a different name. The sport has its roots in an ancient Japanese form of fishing called tanago, which targets the Tokyo bitterling (tanago in Japanese), a little fish in the carp family. It grows to no more than two inches in length and is found only in creeks and ditches on the outskirts of Tokyo. Instead of endeavoring to catch large fish, tanago fishermen make it a challenge to hook the smallest bitterling possible. Devotees often use a bamboo rod no larger than a chopstick.
In the United States, that practice of targeting small fish has, over the years, merged with multispecies angling, or the effort to catch a wide variety of fish, to form microfishing. Part of the sport’s appeal is its accessibility: you don’t need expensive gear, you can catch a lot of fish quickly, and you can fish pretty much anywhere. Although plenty of Texans have stories of trying to catch minnows in their neighborhood pond, microfishing didn’t really start to take off until the last decade or so, thanks in part to social media. Fans now post photos of their catches (which they almost always release), swap tips on the best spots, and share gear recommendations on thriving Facebook groups and Reddit forums. Like birders, microfishers often maintain “life lists” of all the species they’ve snagged. Members of a small but enthusiastic subset of serious microfishers, including Arcia, also record the fish they’ve caught using online apps or sites such as iNaturalist, sometimes traveling to new waterways in the effort to grow their life lists. These advanced practitioners use specialized rods, tiny hooks, and intricately tied flies sold by only one specialized store nationwide to nab a diverse and colorful array of fish often no longer than a few inches each. In many ways, the sport has the same charm as regular fishing, but there is, arguably, one distinct difference: most people get into fishing for the sport of it or for the utility of catching their own food, not because they consider fish to be objects of wonder and awe. Microfishers, almost universally, emphasize the latter. There’s a poetic, contemplative quality to the hobby, along with a sense of discovery.
“I get goose bumps when I go out to get a new fish,” says Michael Scherer, program director of the South Padre Island–based nonprofit Fishing’s Future and an avid microfisherman. “Not the same few fish that everybody wants to go after—the other fifteen thousand fish out there that no one cares about, but [that] play a critical role in the habitat of an area.”
Part of that joy is because microfishing is a celebration of biodiversity in a way that traditional fishing is not. Most anglers will catch only a few dozen species of fish in their lifetimes; microfishers might hit that number in a single afternoon. Although Texas has at least 191 species of freshwater fish, only a few of those are considered game fish, which are almost universally larger than nongame fish. By virtue of downsizing, microfishers are exposing themselves to a far larger pool of species, and this creates a sense of novelty that can reinvigorate the most seasoned angler. Even the approach to photography is different. The familiar trophy shot of someone grinning and brandishing a giant catch is replaced, in microfishing, with close-up photos of species that highlight their physiologies and colors.
“Every time you catch something new, you giggle,” Scherer says. “I’m sixty-three years old, and I giggle out loud.”
Still, the rapid growth of microfishing has at least some fisheries managers concerned over its unregulated nature and possible downstream impacts. Because the practice is still so new, fish biologists admit they know very little about how microfishing affects small species and their habitats. A 2020 policy paper published in Fisheries Magazine posed a list of 23 critical questions for future research, raising concerns about microfishing’s effect on the mortality rate of caught-and-released fish; the potential impacts on small, delicate streambeds; and whether seasonal limits might be needed to protect little fish at sensitive points in their life cycles.
“I’m not laying in bed at night wondering if fisheries are going to collapse because of microfishing,” says Steven Cooke, a biology professor at Carleton University and the author of the paper. “But there are definitely a few things we need to think through and work through.”
Such species as the fountain darter and the Devils River minnow fit the bill of small, threatened Texas fish that could accidentally end up on the line of an uninformed microfisher. Vulnerable species like these serve as indicators for the health of the broader ecosystem and are often located in springs that are especially sensitive to disturbance. Some, like the toothless blindcat, exist only in isolated cave systems. If hobbyists start splashing around a previously undisturbed spring or spelunking to nab rare fish for their life lists, that could pose a serious problem.
“As [microfishing is] getting more known, people, especially biologists and educators, are starting to ask questions,” says Adam Comer, an aquatic education specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “Is this safe? Is this ethical?”
Along with these concerns come opportunities, as Dean Hendrickson, the curator of UT-Austin’s vast ichthyology collection, points out. Hendrickson helps maintain a public database, Fishes of Texas, that tracks the abundance and distribution of fish species in the state, with records going back to 1850. He envisions a future in which microfishers might provide valuable population data, much in the same way that amateur bird-watchers help ornithologists track bird distribution. UT-Austin already operates a Fishes of Texas page on iNaturalist that serves as one of the hubs of Texas microfishing. Although microfishing reports are never going to be the most efficient way to sample the biodiversity of a stream, they could play an important role as an early warning sign. By monitoring amateurs’ posts on these platforms, biologists sometimes notice the decline of a species in a certain area, or they’ll see that a new one is popping up. “It’s not uncommon that we learn about a new invasive species because of iNaturalist,” Hendrickson says.
Nick Loveland, an environmental science master’s student at the University of Texas–San Antonio, grew up in Kerrville, where he learned to catch tiny sunfish in the Guadalupe River with a little cane pole and a hook. Now, all these years later, the beauty of small fish continues to amaze him: their color, their variety, and the places they take you.
Loveland, who currently has the third-most observations on the Fishes of Texas page, has even started snorkeling in rivers to identify and catch new species for his life list. He’s committed to the sport. But beyond the joy of listing or any sense of competition, Loveland sees microfishing as a chance to fundamentally alter our approach to fisheries management. Aside from the useful applications of citizen science, microfishing asks us to reconsider why we seek out some fish but not others.
“It’s arbitrary in a lot of ways,” Loveland says. “European white males have assigned a lot of value to a few species, like rainbow trout and largemouth bass, that have dominated the management world ever since.”
In Loveland’s view, which fish we target is informed by a cultural value system, not any inherent worth or beauty of the fish. He cites the rainbow trout as an example of managing waterways to satisfy angler preferences rather than to conserve native species.
“Its native range is California to Washington,” Loveland says of the rainbow trout. “But very shortly after we made it out west, early settlers were moving them all over the country into the native range of other trout that now are a huge conservation concern.”
That prioritization of non-native game fish has led to a long-term disparity in the management and research of native species. Globally, populations of migratory freshwater fish have declined by an estimated 76 percent, on average, since the 1970s. In Texas, 48 percent of native freshwater fish species are considered imperiled. Yet the vast majority of management funds go to a few, often non-native, sport fish species. TPWD spends about $17.5 million on sport fish restoration annually, but can only devote about $1 million per year to preserving freshwater fish and mussels, according to Tim Birdsong, the agency’s head of fisheries management and conservation.
A big reason for that disparity is that fisheries management is a customer-driven model funded almost exclusively by fishing licenses. That means anglers are the customers, and they can exert influence over key fishery policies, such as which fish are stocked where. In decades past, that leverage played out in stranger-than-fiction episodes like the 1962 poisoning of a nearly five-hundred-mile stretch of the Green River in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado to kill native species that were seen as interfering with game fish populations. Although native fish are no longer treated exclusively as an irritant, they still face serious risks. According to the World Wildlife Fund, a third of all freshwater fish are threatened with extinction.
“It’s an insane amount of species that are in trouble, and a disproportionate amount are small freshwater species,” said Andrew Rypel, a professor of fish and conservation biology at UC Davis. “These are the same species that a lot of microfishers are targeting.”
Although that might seem to put threatened fish at greater risk, the opposite is also true. As anglers’ attitudes change, so do conservation priorities. Consider the alligator gar, a large and bizarre-looking creature that for years was considered a “trash fish,” a nuisance unworthy of conservation or sport. Now it’s a sought-after trophy species with bag limits and management restrictions. If the microfishing community grows, and with it a desire to see a vast and varied number of fish species, the customer base that buys fishing licenses might soon have very different priorities. Instead of focusing on a few charismatic game fish, microfishers could push for an emphasis on diversity. This strange hobby of searching for tiny fish could play an outsized role in protecting them. “I think the scope for microfishing to grow as an organized community that pushes on the management levers is very high,” Rypel says.
In that way, there’s a chance that Nick Loveland and Alex Arcia, fishing in their humble backyard creeks, are the vanguard of a new generation of anglers who value species over size, with immense consequences for the management of native fish.
“I want to go everywhere, catch every fish, and experience all that fishing has to offer,” Arcia said. “Microfishing is the way to do that.”