Mini fish are young fish. They are not tropical fish, such as tetras, barbs and angels sold in pet stores, but living, breathing ripsnorting American fish, such as baby tuna, infant sea bass, jack crevalles, weakfish, blues, barracuda and other killers of the deep. There are, at latest count, maybe a dozen serious mini fishermen. Any slob can crank in a 90-pound white marlin, but the fisherman who catches a two-inch pompano, three-fourths-inch barracuda or a smidgen of a post-larval striped bass is the man who rates big in mini-fishing circles, especially if he can keep his tiny catch alive in an aquarium.
However small the quarry, mini-fishing circles are enlarging all the time. Last month three vocal advocates of mini fishing, Seth Rosenbaum, a computer analyst, Joe Mintzer, an electrician, and myself, were on a panel held during the course of the American Littoral Society's annual day-long symposium on the sea. I had warned my fellow panelists that given our minute range of interest we could expect only a mini turnout for our hour session, perhaps 20 people at best, but we were overwhelmed to find the lecture hall jammed with 600. For us mini fishermen, it was a maxi meeting, and we held everyone enthralled with our small talk.
In the New York area, where most of the mini fishermen come from, mini fishing is at its absolute peak from late July through November. At this time of year the Gulf Stream carries the young of any number of tropical species north, and offshore fish sometimes come in, too. The adept Rosenbaum has caught baby bonito, ordinarily found far out at sea, on a tiny red and white bucktail jig near the mouth of the East River in Queens, and he regularly catches infant jack crevalle off a pier in Brooklyn. Rosenbaum's apartment is lined with tanks abubble with his catches. Once he made the mistake of putting a four-inch jack into a tank with a nine-inch kingfish. A lone jack will adhere to its schooling instinct and follow a larger fish around, and Rosenbaum's jack all but gave the kingfish a nervous breakdown.
Last year, Rosenbaum went down to Culebra in the West Indies where he used teensy-weensy size-22 trout hooks to catch sergeants major and beau gregories, which he brought back home for his aquariums. Rosenbaum got a three-inch barracuda which he raised to seven inches before his eight-inch octopus ate it. At present his prize is a squat lobster from the Bahamas. "Last week I had to give him a haircut because he had so much algae on him," he says. "I use an electric toothbrush. I have the red brush, he has the green one."
For several years Rosenbaum has collected with the king of mini fishermen, Joe Mintzer, who speaks with a marked New York accent. "Fish are beautiful," Joe says. "They're like boids." Now in his 50s, he has been mini fishing since he was 3, when he pulled a tiny sunfish out of a lake in Central Park. Fittingly, Joe is a little fellow. He has frizzly red hair and a preoccupied expression, as though he were always thinking of mini fish or microscopic algae. He lives in a seventh floor walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side, right under the landlord's pigeon coop, but raised in another time under different circumstances he might well be Professor Joseph Mintzer, distinguished ichthyologist. "This guy is unbelievable," says a member of The New York Aquarium, to which Mintzer has given hundreds of small fish. Among the fish Joe has taken are baby tuna, lizard fish, four-eye butterfly fish, orange filefish, mullet, pompano, grunts and northern stargazers.
Much of Joe's collecting is done at Rockaway Beach which he visits on Sunday by subway, toting snorkel gear, buckets and nets. He has a selection of apron nets which he wears like a bib. To get mini fish which hide in seaweed, he swims face down through the water, holding out the hem of a green apron net. To complete the camouflage, he also wears sneakers dyed green. "Unfortunately, he often wears the green sneakers while seining on white sand, so the theory is a little weak," says Rosenbaum, a droll sort. Sometimes Joe uses a fish trap shaped like a lampshade. There is netting on the sides and bottom, and the top is open. The bottom is baited with chum, and after the fish swim in, Joe simply hauls the trap to the surface. This is patterned after an old technique, but the difference is that Joe's trap is rectangular instead of round. "Fish don't like round things," he says.
Once a year, Joe goes down to collect at Miami Beach, where he has put up at the same hotel for years, or maybe the hotel puts up with him. He has a room on the first floor rear, because, he explains, "I catch most of my fish right there in the soif."
Joe says the hardest part of mini fishing is to get the mini fish to live. "I got a triggerfish up to an inch," he says. "It dropped dead from fright. Menhaden are hard to keep alive, but if you ever get one to live you can't kill it. They're good because they feed by filtering the water, and they keep a tank clean. All my tough fish I put together, the triggerfish, filefish, porcupine fish. Once I tried some baby cod. Promptly when the temperature hits 70° they drop dead. They need cold water." Once Joe scraped up money to go to Bermuda to mini fish, and to him Bermuda remains the promised land. "It's a cinch to catch little fish there," he says. "They don't run away. Nobody chases them."