A photo of a stickleback

Fishing for sticklebacks is a nostalgic nod to childhood, where the smallest catch meant the grandest adventure. These tiny, prehistoric-looking fish, no larger than a few inches, were once a common delight for budding anglers. Today, they may be harder to find, but the thrill of the chase remains.

Catching sticklebacks offers a respite for children from the digital world, promising hands-on excitement in nature’s streams and ponds. This guide invites you to rediscover the joy of this simple pursuit, sharing the best ways to catch the elusive stickleback and create lasting memories by the water’s edge.

Understanding Sticklebacks

Sticklebacks may be small, but they carry a rich history in their tiny frames, resembling creatures from a time long past. Typically, they grow no larger than two inches and live for about three to five years. Their bodies are a tapestry of dark greens and browns, with a shimmering silver underbelly that serves as excellent camouflage against predators. It’s this natural disguise that makes them a fun challenge to spot in the wild.

In the UK, three distinct species can be found. The most common is the three-spined stickleback, easily identifiable by the sharp points along its back. Less frequently encountered is the six-spined variety, a rarer find for the keen-eyed fisher. The third, the fifteen-spined stickleback, is a marine species, preferring the salty waters of the sea to the freshwaters where its cousins reside.

The three-spined stickleback is the one you’re most likely to hook, making it the star of our fishing tales. The six-spined stickleback, while harder to find, offers an extra reward for its rarity.

A shoal of sticklebacks in a small stream

With this knowledge, you’re better equipped to seek them out, understand their behaviors, and ultimately, catch them.

What are the Best Ways to Catch Sticklebacks?

Catching sticklebacks can be as simple or inventive as you wish. Here are three tried-and-tested methods that cater to different styles of fishing:

1. Using a Net

The quintessential image of a child with a net in hand, wading through a stream, is synonymous with stickleback fishing. Nets are perhaps the most accessible tool for this endeavor. The challenge lies in the stickleback’s speed and agility in the water. The trick is to place the net in the water stealthily, with as little disturbance as possible, and then in one swift motion, sweep it through the water to capture the fish.

2. Rod and Line Fishing

For those who prefer a more traditional approach, using a rod and line can be equally effective. In narrower waterways, a long rod may be cumbersome, so a small, flexible branch can make an excellent substitute. A lightweight line, a tiny hook (size 22 is recommended), and a piece of worm as bait can entice a stickleback to bite. This method requires a bit more skill and patience but can be incredibly rewarding.

3. Creating a Minnow Trap

If you’re inclined towards a DIY approach, constructing a minnow trap could be an exciting project. Using simple materials, you can create a trap that allows sticklebacks to swim in but not out. This method is hands-off and can yield a good number of fish, especially if left in the water overnight. However, it’s crucial to check the trap regularly to avoid stressing or harming the fish.

A net and buckets used for catching sticklebacks
The simplest way of catching sticklebacks

Each of these methods has its own charm and teaches different aspects of fishing and patience. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced angler, catching sticklebacks is an engaging way to connect with nature and enjoy the simpler pleasures of life.

Where Can You Find Sticklebacks?

Sticklebacks are not just versatile in their appearance but also in their choice of habitat. They can be found in a variety of water bodies, from the smallest, gurgling brooks to expansive lakes. The key to their presence is the quality of water—it must be clean and consistent, not prone to drying out.

For those on the hunt for these elusive fish, brooks and small streams often prove to be the best fishing spots. The sticklebacks thrive among the weeds and vegetation, where they can dart and hide, evading both predators and eager fishermen. Their mastery of camouflage is impressive, so patience and a keen eye are essential for those who wish to spot them.

When searching for sticklebacks, look for areas where the water is teeming with life. They prefer environments where they can use their coloring to blend in with the muddy bottoms or the green of the plants.

A typical habitat for sticklebacks

By understanding the stickleback’s preferred habitats and their behavior within them, anglers can increase their chances of a successful catch.

What do Sticklebacks Eat?

Sticklebacks may be small, but they are formidable predators in their aquatic world. Their diet consists mainly of small insects, daphnia, baby tadpoles, freshwater shrimp, and even the fry of other fish. This predatory nature means they are always on the lookout for movement in the water, ready to pounce on their next meal.

For the angler, this information is crucial. It suggests that the best bait for sticklebacks would be something that mimics their natural prey. A tiny worm or a small piece of insect can be irresistible to a hungry stickleback. When using a rod and line, it’s the movement of the bait that often attracts these little predators. Therefore, a gentle twitch of the line can be an effective way to simulate the kind of movement that would entice a stickleback to bite.

Understanding the stickleback’s diet is not just about knowing what bait to use; it’s also about appreciating the role these fish play in their ecosystem. As predators, sticklebacks help to control the populations of the smaller creatures they feast upon, contributing to the delicate balance of their habitats.

A close up photo of daphnia
A sticklebacks favoured meal (daphnia)

This insight into their feeding habits can deepen the angler’s connection to the environment and the cycle of life within it.

What Other Fish Hang Around Near Sticklebacks?

Fry: In larger bodies of water, you may come across fry, which are juvenile fish of various species. These could range from common freshwater species like roach, rudd, and perch to the young of larger fish such as chub, barbel, and even pike.

Minnows: These small fish are often found swimming in schools in mid-water. They are more noticeable than some of their counterparts and can add to the excitement of the catch.

Stone Loach and Bullheads: These species prefer to stay hidden under rocks or within dense vegetation. They might be harder to spot, but they do come out to feed and can be caught with the right technique.

A photo of a stone loach that are often found with sticklebacks
Stone loach often share the same habitat as sticklebacks

Understanding the diversity of fish that share the ecosystem with sticklebacks can enhance your fishing experience. It’s a reminder of the rich life that thrives beneath the surface of our waters, often unseen.


Catching sticklebacks is a delightful excursion into nature, offering a break from the digital world and a chance to bond with family. It’s an exercise in mindfulness, where the joy comes from the experience itself—the quiet of the outdoors, the strategy involved in the catch, and the excitement of a successful attempt. As you employ nets, rods, or traps in pursuit of these tiny fish, remember to savor the moments and the environment around you.

When you gently return your catch to the water, you’re not just practicing conservation; you’re honoring a timeless tradition that celebrates our connection to the natural world. Let the stickleback be your guide to rediscovering the simple pleasures of life by the water’s edge.

Frequently Asked Questions

How big do sticklebacks get?

Sticklebacks are among the smaller fish species, typically reaching a maximum size of about 7 centimeters and weighing roughly 1 gram. They are a perfect size for novice anglers and children to handle with ease.

Can I catch sticklebacks in a river?

Absolutely, sticklebacks can be found in rivers, often congregating in the shallower areas near the banks. Look for them around underwater vegetation and reed beds, where they like to hide and hunt.

Should I put sticklebacks back after catching them?

Yes, it’s best practice to release sticklebacks after catching them. If you’re interested in keeping them in an aquarium, ensure you have the proper knowledge and setup for fish keeping to provide a suitable environment.

Do sticklebacks have a red belly?

During the spawning season, male sticklebacks develop a bright red belly to attract mates and deter rival males. It’s a distinctive and colourful display that makes them even more interesting to observe and catch during this time.

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