Published Jan 1. 2001 - 15 years ago


This forage fish feature (say that 5 times fast!) is a the third in a series of articles being created as a group effort by members of the Streamer List. There are over 300 species of sculpins, most of them are salt water or brackish water occupants, but several are found in North America.

click here:

for a photo index to the sculpin patterns

click here:
for a Text-Only index to the sculpin patterns

Introduction: This forage fish feature (say that 5 times fast!) is a the third in a series of articles being created as a group effort by members of the Streamer List to provide some background information on the species of forage fish we most commonly try to immitate with streamer patterns. Many thanks to Doug Saball for coordinating this effort, as well as the list members who contributed patterns and other information!

Sculpins (Cottidae)

This description of the Sculpins was submitted by Doug Saball.

There are over 300 species of sculpins, most of them are salt water or brackish water occupants, but several are found in North America. In the northeast United States there are three species, the slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus), the mottled sculpin (Cottus bairdi), and the deep-water sculpin (Myoxocephalus quadricornis). The slimy sculpin is the most predominate species in the New England area.

The Slimy Sculpin (Cottus cognatus) is a bizarre looking little fish with a broad flattened head, thin tapering body, and expansive wing-like pectoral fins. The eyes are located high atop the head, and the mouth is large and well provided with small teeth. There are one or more small spines on the preopercle (gill covers), and a patch of prickles is present behind the pectoral fin. The remainder of the skin is smooth. There are 7 - 10 weak spines in the first dorsal fin, 14 - 19 soft rays in the elongated second dorsal fin and 10 - 13 soft rays in the anal fin. The small pelvic fins are situated beneath the pectoral fins and have one hidden spine in the flesh followed by 3 -4 soft rays.

The coloration is mottled brown to gray on the back and sides with a whitish belly. Dark cross-bands is sometimes present on the sides. Often there are two dark, oblique saddle marks, one under each of anterior and posterior portions of the second dorsal fin. The first dorsal fin is darkly pigmented at the base and almost clear marginally. The second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins may be lightly barred. The pectoral fins usually have wide bands. The chin is uniformly pigmented and not mottled. During breading season, males become nearly black, and have a broad bright reddish orange border on their first dorsal fin.

Distribution: The slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus) occurs widely throughout northern North America, and occupies more northerly waters than its close relative the mottled sculpin (Cottus bairdi). It is found from Labrador Canada, to Virginia USA, westward through the Great Lakes to the upper Columbia River system, to Alaska, and on St. Lawrence Island in the Baring Sea. It is also found in eastern Siberia on the Chukot Peninsula and east to the Anadyr River.

Spawning occurs in the spring of the year. The procedure is basically the same for both the slimy and mottled sculpin, and essentially similar to the spawning behavior of other members of the genus. The average temperature of 41 to 50 degrees F promoted spawning. The ripe male selects a spawning site under a rock or ledge, (there are also accounts of spawns under submerged tree roots). The female is courted and enticed into the nest and presumably after additional courting, deposits adhesive eggs in a mass on the ceiling of the nest, then driven off by the male. The nest usually contains eggs from more than one female. The male guards the nest and young even after the young have begun to feed.

Age and Growth: The slimy sculpin attains a length of about 41/2 inches although most adults are between 2 and 3 inches long. In the spring of 1998 I saw a male slimy sculpin in breading colors measuring 7 1/2 inches from the East outlet of Moosehead Lake in Maine. Little has been published about the growth rate of sculpins. However, a 3 year old female measuring 4 inches produced approximately 1400 eggs measuring 2.3 - 2.6 mm. In the Montreal River Canada, spawning occurred during early May at about 46 degrees F and the eggs developed about 4 weeks later.

Habitat: The slimy sculpin occupies deeper waters of lakes and colder streams and occurs further north than the mottled sculpin (C. bairdi). It frequents rocky orgravely streams and lake bottoms, darting swiftly from place to place when disturbed. The slimy sculpin has been reported to be in abundant numbers accompanying the threespine sticklebacks in tidal pools of Ungava Canada. Although common in rocky shallows of lakes in the north slimy sculpins are frequently found in cold spring-fed streams in the south and east. In Lake Michigan studies concluded that it was more abundant in the northern part of the lake where it occurred from near shore to about 300 feet but was also found as deep as 420 feet. However, this study obtained these specimens from stomachs of lake trout and burbot and the depths are those at which the predators were caught. A US Fish and Wildlife survey conducted in the late 1950's and early 1960's concluded that the slimy sculpin was taken from 18 - 270 feet, with most at depth of 120 - 240 feet, while the deep water sculpin (Myoxocephalus quadricornis), occurred at deeper depths. In Lake Superior the largest catches of slimy sculpin were at 300 - 345 feet.

Detailed food studies for the slimy sculpin indicate that the primary food is invertebrate benthic insects. Studies conducted in upper New York state showed that aquatic insects, crustaceans, small fishes, and some plant material were consumed, but aquatic insect leave and nymphs made up more than 50% of the diet and often 85% or more. The more important insect groups were mayflies, caddis flies, dipterous larvae, stone flies, and dragonflies. Large fish tend to eat the larger larvae species.

A number of predatious fish, such as lake trout, brook trout, salmon, speckled trout, northern pike, and burbot feed upon this sculpin. Streams inhabited by the slimy sculpin are invariably good brook trout waters.

Remarks: The use of the slimy sculpin as a bait fish for trout dates back to the mid 1920's when it was a favorite bait under the name "cockatouch" for brook trout in the Nipigon Canada waters. Many of the trout that won the "Nipigon Trophy" were caught on "cockatouch." The slimy sculpin is a common associate of both lake trout and brook trout and forms part of the food supply of both. Perdition by slimy sculpins on trout eggs were studied, but there was virtually no evidence that sculpins feed upon the eggs and only rare instances of predation on young brook trout.

Common names: Slimy sculpin, Miller's thumb, cockatouch, slimy muddler, common slimy muddler, muddler minnow, northern sculpin, stargazer, Bear lake bullhead.

The Mottled Sculpin (Cottus bairdi) is similar to the slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus) in overall appearance. The difference is that the eye may be a little larger, a slightly different teeth arrangement, the numbers of spiny and soft rays on the fins, and a slight color variation.The coloration of the mottled sculpin is light to dark brown with darker (sometimes almost black) mottling on the back and sides, becoming light or even white on the belly. There are two and sometimes three dark saddle marks under the second dorsal fin. The chin of the mottled sculpin (C. bairrdi) is usually irregularly speckled, but the slimy sculpin's (C. cognatus) chin is a solid color. The dorsal fin of the mottled sculpin is pigmented with a spot fore and aft, which becomes continuous in breeding males to form a dark band with a broad orange distal edge. The second dorsal fin is spotted and banded. The caudal fin is more or less randomly speckled. The pectoral fins are banded.

Distribution: The mottled sculpin range is widely scattered throughout North America. It is found from the Tennessee River basin of Georgia and Alabama to Labrador Canada on the north and west to the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes basin. Other pockets of populations include parts of the Missouri River and the Columbia River in southern Canada, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

Spawning activities of the mottled sculpin is the same as the slimy sculpin, (see above description). The spawning dates varies with geographic locations. Studies have documented females with nearly rip eggs on May 3 and 10, 1930, and spent females by June 14 on the Mad river in Ontario. On May 30 eyed eggs and small sculpins were found in brook trout stomachs. And on July 3, young-of-the-year (15 mm long), were abundant on a mud bottom at depths of 2 - 10 inches. Another study in upper New York documented spawning at 50 degrees F with 2 to 3 year old mottled sculpin. Although the sexes are approximately equal in size, males are usually darker, have a larger head, and higher second dorsal and anal fin than females. the largest specimen found is from St. Ignace Island, Lake Superior and measured 5.2 inches total length.

The mottled sculpin occurs in cool streams and lakes. A study conducted in eastern Ontario noted that the mottled sculpin was caught most often over a sand bottom in lakes and streams. Another study reported that the mottled sculpin was most often associated with brook trout and found in areas with shaded source waters with low temperatures, small volume of flow, and many rapids. However, the mottled sculpin (C. bairrdi) does not usually occur as far up headwater streams nor as deep in lakes as the slimy sculpin (C. cognatus), which has a more extensive northerly range.

Like other members of this genus, the mottled sculpin is a benthic feeder subsisting mainly on aquatic insect larvae. Stomach contents from 2 inch mottled sculpins at the Mad River Ontario predominately contained chironomid larvae and mayfly nymphs. Where as larger mottled sculpins ate fewer chironamide larva and more larger nymphs including; mayfly nymphs, stonefly nymphs, caddisfly larva, and crayfish. Food studies of mottled sculpin conducted in upper New York also included crustaceans, annelids, fishes, fish eggs, and plant material to be consumed. A few studies have been reported of sculpins eating trout eggs but in fact they are not considered to be destructive of brook trout eggs, actually sculpins are known to form a part of the diet of large brook trout.

Common names: Mottled sculpin, millers thumb, Columbia sculpin, blob, gudgeon, and freshwater sculpin. The Deepwater Sculpin (Myoxocephalus quadricornis) has a more elongated body than other sculpins. It had a latterly flattened head, and large pectoral fins characteristic of the sculpin family. The eyes are located on top of the head, close together, with a relatively small diameter in relation to the total head. The mouth is large with fine teeth in brush like bands on the upper and lower jaws. There are 2 dorsal fins. The first dorsal fin has 7 to 10 spiny rays, the second is separated from the first, and is elongated with all soft rays.

The key characteristic to identify the deepwater sculpin is the spines on the gill cover, (preopercular spines). There are 4 preopercular spines in all. The upper two are large and slender, appearing as one enlarged bifurcated spine pointing upward and posteriorly. The remaining 2 smaller preopercular spines point directly downward, which is not found in other known species.

The overall color of the deepwater sculpin is grey-brown to black on the upper sides, becomeing lighter about midline and light on the belly. The back and sides are lightly specled or mottled black with four to seven thin, dark, saddle-like marks. The pelvic fin is lightly pigmented with the other finage variously barred.

The deepwater sculpin occurs in two forms, one marine and the other fresh water. The marine population live in cold, salt and brackish water in the northern hemisphere. The freahwater populations are found in Europe, Asia, and North America. In the Great Lakes region they extend southward to about the 42nd parallel of latitude. The population is distributed in deep waterbodies throughout Canada, but only found in the Great Lakes and Torch lake, Michigan in the US.

Due to the depths that this species is found, virtually nothing is known about the life history. Spawning probably is in late August or early September in Lake Ontario. This is surmised from adults that were sampled at that time of year nearly ripe with eggs. The species has been sampled at depths of 150-600 feet in the Great lakes. The greatest depth that the deepwater sculpin was sampled was 1,200 feet by trawl in Lake Superior.

Stomach content from deepwater sculpins contain copopods and chironomid larvae.

The deepwater sculpin is a significant item of food for lake trout and burbot as revieled through stomach content analysis.

Common names: Deepwater sculpin, fourhorn sculpin, scorpion fish, sculpin, lake sculpin, deep-water blob, and Great Lake fourhorn sculpin.

Other Sculpins:

Spoonhead Sculpin, (Cottus ricei) is widely found throughout Canada. In the United States it is found throughout the Great Lakes including Lake Michigan, and Lake Charlevoix, Mich., and in lakes on Isle Royale. The overall coloration is light brown or tan in the lower Great Lakes, but distinctly darker when found northward. Darker saddle-like patches are on the back, often four in number. The first three occurring through the base of the second dorsal fin the fourth on the perduncle, (the flat area just before the caudal fin). But these markings are not always found on larger Great Lake specimens. The remainder of the back is variously speckled with light or dark spots that also occur on both dorsal and caudal fins, and sometimes on the anal fin. The pelvic fins and ventral surface generally immaculate. But populations on island lakes may exhibit scattered pigmentation on ventral surfaces including the chin and especially the caudal peduncle. Little is known about the spoonhead sculpins diet. However, it has been found is stomach analysis of lake trout, burbot, and whitefish.

Common names: Spoonhead sculpin, Rice's sculpin, and spoonhead muddler.

Torrent Sculpin, (Cottus rhotheus) is found in the west coast of North America in the Columbia River, Puget sound drainages, and the North Thompson River.

Shorthead Sculpin, (Cottus confusus) occurs in the Pacific drainage area of North America, in the Puget Sound and Columbia River basins only.

Prickly Sculpin, (Cottus asper) ranges along the Pacific slope of North America from Seward, Alaska, south to Ventura River, California.

Coastrange Sculpin, (Cottus aleuticus) is found from San Luis, Obispo County, California northward along west coastal streams to the west coast of Alaska's Aleutian Islands.


  1. Freshwater Fishes of Canada, Bulletin 184, Scott, W.B., E.J. Crossman, Fisheries Research Board of Canada, Ottawa 1973.

Pattern Listing

click here:

for a photo index to the sculpin patterns
click here:
for a Text-Only index to the sculpin patterns

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