Article by Chris Stewart
I almost entitled this article “The Next Big Thing is Little” but calling micro fishing the next big thing may be a bit of a stretch. Micro fishing is still small. Fly fishing for micros – micro tenkara – is smaller yet.
Still, interest is increasing, as witnessed by the recently established Tenkara Micro Fishing Facebook page.
Fishing for little fish is not new. Dame Juliana Berners wrote in 1486 that you should fish “for the Menowe with a lyne of one heare” [one horsehair]. I am sure it is older than that, though. People have been fishing for little fish ever since they realized that a little fish on a hook could catch a big fish.
Fishing for little fish solely for sport isn’t new either. Tanago fishing in Japan dates back at least as far as the Edo period (1603-1868). For that matter, even fly fishing for little fish (which really is the niche within a niche within a niche) is not new. While the first written record of what is now called tenkara was in 1877, the first written record of Japanese fishing with artificial flies was two hundred years earlier! One could argue that it wasn’t tenkara because the fish were chubs and dace rather than trout and it wasn’t in a mountain stream.
I have no desire to argue about what is and what isn’t tenkara. My point is that fly fishing for micros is not new. A micro, by the way, according to the two guys who coined the term “micro fishing,” is a fish that fully grown does not reach a pound in weight; but I have no desire to argue about that, either. There’s a guy I know, although only online, who as near as I can tell fishes only for little sunfish.
A Bluegill Sunfish can reach well over a pound, so according to the purists, it isn’t a micro. I’m not a purist and to me, a little fish is a little fish. Whether it is a micro or a baby macro, I don’t really care (and neither does he). However, I will freely admit that catching micros other than sunfish is more interesting – unless you catch very rare sunfish, like perhaps a mud sunfish or banded sunfish, which in New Jersey you can’t legally fish for and in New York if you happen to catch by accident you can’t legally photograph.
There is one term that I would define pretty narrowly, though. If you happen to catch a micro while fishing for trout or bass or other big fish, it’s not microfishing. Microfishing, to my way of thinking, is specifically trying to catch micros. Thus, Coach’s splendid common shiner in full breeding colors doesn’t qualify as microfishing. He was fishing for trout at the time.
Although Coach’s common shiner was caught on a size 12 fly, and I have caught several micros on size 12 and 14 flies, if you want to catch micros I would strongly suggest a smaller fly. Although I have caught baby smallmouth bass with a size 32 Stewart Black Spider, I would guess I’ve had my best luck with a size 20 bead head Black Killer Bugger. It is about the right size to represent any small nymph and the bead helps to get it down to where the fish are. If you are sight fishing, which I often do with micros, the gold bead allows you to watch the fly, and to watch it disappear as a fish takes it.
I have done quite well with size 26 Killer Bugs also (even if they are blue, as is the one shown in the photo, taken by a creek chub during my Blue Fly Challenge in 2013). Really, just about any really small fly will work for many micros, and will take much larger fish as well.
The chance for larger than expected fish can be a potential problem for micro fishers. On the one hand, you would want to use a rod that is soft enough and delicate enough to allow you to feel the fight of a 3” fish. On the other hand, though, you would want to use a rod that will not break if you hook a fish that is larger than you expect. I truly thought my Shimotsuke Miyako tanago rod would break when I hooked a six-inch brookie.
It didn’t break but I know of a guy who broke his twice, once when he hooked a potential state record warmouth and again when a 12” bullhead ate the micro he had hooked before he had a chance to get it in. I no longer carry the Miyako although I do still carry a Nissin Gokoro tanago rod. Many new micro fishers choose a Nissin Sasuke or Shimotsuke Kiyotaki, either of which may be overkill for a 2 incher, but they should survive the unexpected 12 incher. I often suggest a Suntech Kurenai, which to me is the nicest rod that can be used for both micros and trout. That said, you can use your current tenkara rod, and I would much rather you start micro fishing with the rod you have than not start because you think you have to buy a new one.
One nice feature of the Kurenai is that it can cast a very light line. The lighter the line, the more likely the strike of a micro will register. I am pretty sure that hits that would cause a size 2.5 line to twitch wouldn’t even show with a heavy furled line. I would also go with a light tippet. The flies are small and the rod is delicate. You might hook a much larger than expected fish. When fishing for micros, my heaviest tippet is 7X and I often use 8X.
Micro tenkara has been on the fringes for some time now, but it is coming into the mainstream. It is fun, it is challenging and it is convenient. There are micros (or at least “little fish”) in just about every body of water that doesn’t dry up in the summer or freeze solid in the winter. You almost certainly have places to fish close enough that you don’t have to plan a weekend or even a full day just to wet a line. All you have to do is use your most sensitive rod, your lightest line, your smallest flies, and be satisfied catching your smallest fish.
Do it very much and you will almost certainly catch fish you’ve never caught before. You’ll almost certainly catch fish you’ve never heard of before! That’s part of the fun of it. I won’t say trout are boring, but catching something you’ve never caught before and then trying to figure out what you’ve just caught is intriguing and is a large part of the attraction of micro tenkara. As with tenkara in the early days, the guys who pooh-pooh it are the guys who haven’t tried it.
Chris Stewart, (aka) the TenkaraBum, grew up in Colorado and is currently based in NYC. He is the owner, CEO, & shipping clerk of TenkaraBum LLC. He usually can’t be found because he’s wearing camo.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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