For any angler who’d love to catch a record fish, perhaps the best chance is not with net-busting carp or pike these days, but much smaller species! They might not get your arms outstretched, but the likes of gudgeon, ruffe and bullheads have a fascination all of their own. This month, Dom Garnett has a special interview with stickleback record holder Mat Faulkner, along with useful pointers on catching and recording miniature monsters.
Like so many anglers, I’ve had a soft spot for smaller fish species ever since childhood. For me personally, it started with a Thames bullhead (which sounds like a euphemism!). I’d been fishing with my dad in the middle of a canoe race and we were catching nothing at all. But then, suddenly, my float dipped and up came a fish we’d never seen before. Totally unlike our usual roach and dace, that little freshwater blennie not only saved the day but stuck fast in the memory.
This very year, during Covid, it all came back during happy afternoons catching minnows, stone loach (above) and bullheads with bare hands to show my young daughter. A healthy exercise, because while this might be a series on record fish, every fish has its place in the eco system and a “specimen” that fits into the palm of your hand can still be fascinating and impressive.
And so, it was my great pleasure to talk to fishery owner and current record holder for the three-spined stickleback, Mat Faulkner.
First of all, thanks for being involved in this series, Mat. It’s not every angler who can say they hold a British Record. How does it feel?
Well, it’s a great talking point. I guess I did it for the novelty, but a record is a record! Some people wouldn’t give such a tiny fish the same status as larger species, but maybe we should have more respect for these smaller fish? They’re vital for the food chain.
Take us through the capture. How were you fishing and who were you with?
I was fishing my own lake, on Lower Beauvale Ponds. I run a fishery and am a bit of a fish fanatic in general as I have a business in the aquatics trade (www.mf-aquatics.co.uk), so I knew we had some big sticklebacks. I was with the fish photographer and wildlife filmmaker Jack Perks, who is a friend, and we were fishing for tench and crucians.
What sort of gear are we talking? Do you think you need quite fine or specialised kit to catch a mini record?
Fine tackle definitely must have helped, but we’re not talking ridiculously specialised tackle. I was using a really delicate canal float that only took three no.6 shot, along with a 3lb hooklength. Mind you, tackle has come such a long way in modern times, a few decades ago, 3lb line was probably twice as thick!
So what happened next? Was the process of weighing and claiming nerve wracking or just a bit of fun
Well, I knew we had some big sticklebacks in the lake, but Jack said it was the biggest he’d ever seen. So, we Googled the record and while Jack retained it, I raced home to get the kitchen scales. It weighed 9g, which we rounded down to the nearest whole number at 8g just to be on the safe side.
What started as a bit of fun then became quite nail-biting and serious! I had to go and sign an affidavit from a solicitor, and that was queried because of my handwriting! It’s a very rigorous process, and I can see why some people don’t try to claim records.
Do you think your record is safe, or is there an even bigger stickleback out there?
There are definitely bigger ones out there, no doubt, although the record hadn’t been broken for 20 years. A few others have looked into it, but none of these captures were verified. I’d caught other fish previously that were bigger and would easily have broken the record! The actual fish I caught was a female but was carrying no spawn- so a “double” of 10g or more is very much possible!
That’s epic! I love the idea of an angler asking what you’ve caught and you saying “a double-figure stickleback”! They are amazing little creatures though and very nostalgic for so many of us. What makes them special for you?
Well, they’re certainly an interesting species. When they shoal, they can form large baitballs on some waters. The males are also nest builders- and are know for their aggression, rather like male robins. As a kid you’d catch on a worm and you’d almost get two at a time because they just wouldn’t let go of a worm! They also go through the most amazing colour changes, from silver to red.
And what ingredients do you think are needed for the chance of a massive stickleback? Is there something special about your lakes?
Low stock density is key, along with no perch or other major predators. My lakes are lightly stocked with crucians and rudd. They’re natural venues with lots of food, and they’re stuffed with daphnia and bloodworm. Natural food is key and we’re certainly not throwing in lots of bait!
That said, I think one of the really nice things about sticklebacks and other small fish is that the next record could come from anywhere. With say carp or barbel, the list of likely waters is quite small. Mini species are more of an unknown. Only the other day we were catching some huge minnows on the Derwent and when you look at the record it could be possible. I might even have a go! I also know where there are some really big bullheads.
Smaller fish species: Top tips for catching a mini monster!
- Pick a healthy, natural venue where fish stocks are low and food is plentiful. For tiny fish, this means fodder like daphnia and bloodworms. A lack of predators can also help.
- Scale right down! The smaller your hooks, the better the chance of getting the tiniest species. For the likes of stone loach or bitterling, a size 26 would be sensible. The comparatively large size of most anglers’ hooks is one of the main reasons these fish are seldom caught on rod and line.
- Bring fine detail scales with you for an accurate measurement. Jeweller’s scales that weight fractions of a gram are perfect if you are serious about specimen hunting on this scale!
- Sort your camera out and get a witness. Bear in mind that all record claims are intensely scrutinised! Quality pictures are a must, whether you invest in a macro lens or have a modern, high-res camera on your phone (not all are equal- and the best have a macro, close focus option). You could also take a picture of your catch alongside a measure such as a ruler with mm markings.
Our thanks go to Jack Perks for the stickleback pictures in this article. You can catch more of his work at www.jackperksphotography.com or hear more from him in our exclusive interview feature. Meanwhile, his awe-inspiring photographs also feature in a brand new book from Dr Mark Everard, The Complex Lives of British Freshwater Fish, out now.