little fish

The challenge of catching this juvenile pickerel on a fly rod required an uncommon but very fun approach to fishing.

FOR ME, angling is not a competitive sport but rather one to be enjoyed through varying levels of success and camaraderie.

If I get skunked on the water, I can always take pleasure in watching one of my friends land a few. I never keep a tally or allow a numerical value to be the measure of enjoyment. Working within this mindset, nobody ever wins or loses.

Last week, my friends and I cast aside this lack of competitiveness and initiated a challenge that became much more difficult than we had thought. When it ended, it was also the most fun we had had on the water in a long time.

The rules were simple and culminated with no prize other than bragging rights. Our challenge was to catch the smallest fish possible on a fly rod. There were no limits concerning species, location or proof of catch. The honor system had to govern the contest, within which we were given five days to accomplish.

Each approach was as unique as the individual angler and everyone had a plan that seemed to have merit and potential success.

I knew my target fish immediately and based my decision on the predatory instincts of one of my favorites. The Eastern chain pickerel would be my choice and their propensity toward gluttonous feeding at any age would be a crucial advantage for my contest.

Once I had selected the fish, I needed a location. Fighting instinct, I had to look for those conditions that provided habitat preferred by juvenile fish rather than the aggressive adults. Catching an adult pickerel is easy and opportunities abound but anything larger than 5 inches in length would result in failure. I had to aim small.

I remembered launching my boat in a bass pond a few weeks earlier where warm, shallow water grew thick with aquatic vegetation and stumps. Small fish would surely seek this cover while waiting for an opportunity to cautiously feed themselves. While bass fishing, I caught a dozen pickerel and knew that they were successfully breeding. Their offspring would be abundant and available for my pursuit of tiny victory.

The final decision would be choosing which fly would best entice a baby fish to eat. While most of their diet consists of microscopic plant and animal life, I have very few flies that mimic that. A fish of the desired size would be cautious and not likely to rise for a dry fly. Likewise, a heavy nymph may be too big and spook small fish that are actually eaten by predacious insects like beetles and hellgrammites.

Abandoning all of the hoity-toity attitudes of fly fishermen, I got back to basics and realized that no fish can resist a worm. Fortunately, there is a fly designed to mimic an aquatic worm and is known rather simply as a San Juan worm. With a gleam in my eye, I realized that I have hundreds in my fly box and selected a tiny red one for this adventure.

There was very little traditional fly casting in my approach. I stood ankle deep in the pond and dangled the fake worm in likely spots. After a short time, small pickerel appeared and nipped at the red piece of worm. As I did my best to wiggle the bait, fish bit with mouths too small to get around the hook.

In final desperation, I switched to a similar fly tied with wool and dropped it into the same spot. Almost instantly, a pickerel that measured less than 2 inches in length attacked it. Although it was not hooked, its tiny teeth got stuck in the wool and I quickly hoisted it out of the water.

The confused baby fish fell into my wet hand just long enough to take a picture and release it at my feet. Mine was the smallest catch and allowed me a victory in an otherwise backwards pursuit of a trophy fish.

Adventures Afield with Andy Schafermeyer appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Contact Andy at

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