Scoping out microfishing: Nothing like a good first time doing a new thing in the outdoors

Scoping out microfishing: Nothing like a good first time doing a new thing in the outdoors

Illinois fisheries chief Mike McClelland microfishes a small stream in Schuyler County. | Dale Bowman

It was a good and informative day learning microfishing with Mike McClelland, Illinois’ fisheries chief, in Schuyler County.

SCHUYLER COUNTY, Ill.—Mike McClelland introduced me to microfishing by unpacking a small camo bag, repurposed from its original role in muzzleloader deer hunting.

On the tailgate of his gray Dodge truck, he spread short Tenkara rod blanks. Two had cork handles. Line would be tied to a small red yarn loop on the end of each rod.

McClelland, Illinois’ fisheries chief, mentioned during the pandemic lockdown that he was learning microfishing. It sounded fun and we got together in early June.

“I find that microfishing is analogous to stream fishing for smallmouth – it’s best to go after the spring rains have tapered off allowing for low, clear water levels,” he emailed beforehand.

Microfishing is fishing for small fish with downsized equipment. McClelland learned from a mix of reading and watching YouTube videos.

Gear for microfishing. Credit: Dale Bowman Dale Bowman
Gear for microfishing.

He started us with pre-rigged setups with red No. 18 Umpqua U-Series hooks on 8x tippet.

“I will go down to No. 24, which is really good for darters,” McClelland said.

The only way I could have done microfishing was to use pre-rigged line and hooks. I could never have threaded one of those tiny hooks.

For a minuscule two-pronged hook remover, McClelland cut off the top of a needle eye.

For bait, many use bits of PowerBait. He prefers thin slices of snack sausage or bits of ham. The rinds help keep the bait on the hook.

He uses three sizes of clear plastic wells for photographing the small fish.

We packed, then set off. McClelland wore a blue “I Fish” T-shirt, shorts and wading shoes. I had jeans and rubber boots. McClelland stayed cooler, but I led when walking through stinging nettles.

A stream perfect for microfishing. Credit: Dale Bowman Dale Bowman
A stream perfect for microfishing.

He started us at a small wooded stream.

“You want low, stable and clear water, you want to see the fish and the fish to see the bait,” McClelland said.

Schools of tiny fish swam off as we waded in, the water knee deep at the most.

The instant the bait hit the water, fish swarmed. It was not easy. Well, McClelland landed the first small creek chub within a few casts. I missed several, flipped two others, before I caught my first.

Because we missed so many, McClelland downsized to a .3 mm red hook. It worked, though he noted, “The hard part is getting it down in the water column.”

He solved that with a tiny split shot.

After that, things went so well it was 2 p.m. before we stopped for lunch.

In my proudest moment, before stepping out, I drifted the small-hook presentation through a classic stream setup, the current swinging to make a washout under a log jam. I was rewarded with the only red shiner.

A red shiner in a well, one way to better photograph fish during microfishing. Credit: Dale Bowman Dale Bowman
A red shiner in a well, one way to better photograph fish during microfishing.

We only caught the two species, but McClelland also spotted southern redbelly dace, which neither of us could catch. In the stream, other times, he has caught common or striped shiners, bluegill and central stoneroller.

Because of his field experience, McClelland knows the fish. For us mortals, he suggested “Peterson Field Guides” or “The Fishes of Missouri.”

“One thing worth mentioning about microfishing that I think is imperative for anglers to note is the potential occurrence of threatened/endangered fish species for the location they will be fishing,” McClelland emailed beforehand. “My personal preference would be to make sure I don’t go somewhere that I might catch and harm a T/E fish.”

A county listing is at https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/ESPB/Documents/ET_by_County.pdf.

Late afternoon on our second stream, I missed another fish at a drop-off, then exclaimed, “Awwwllll.” “That is the never-ending sound of enjoyment of microfishing,” McClelland said.

It was time.

I sat on a sandy bank to watch him catch a couple more to take us to two dozen.

A creek chub in a well, one way to better photograph fish during microfishing. Credit: Dale Bowman Dale Bowman
A creek chub in a well, one way to better photograph fish during microfishing.

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