Throw in a sprat to catch a salmon

This is used in a positive context that in order to gain something big, we need to spend a little. I am looking for a contemporary English proverb or idiom that implies the same meaning.

Also, I am looking for one which also refers to a cunning person who gifts small and worthless things but in return takes a highly priced thing with him.

  • 4
    The version I know is "a sprat to catch a mackerel", which AFAIK is still in current use, at least in Britain. Sep 8, 2017 at 7:54
  • 2
    @KateBunting - In certain social circles in certain regions of Britain, possibly. As a thirty-something professional who's lived all his life in the south east (and never gone fishing), I've never heard of it. I've never even heard of a sprat...
    – AndyT
    Sep 8, 2017 at 10:38
  • 2
    Uh… having listened to British English for 60 years, I'm entirely confident Kate is wholly correct. English often uses a sprat to catch a mackerel and never, in my experience, anything similar; certainly not a sprat to catch a salmon. You would be easily understood if you coined a sprat to catch a salmonand that would not make it idiomatic English. It would make it one person's use of a phrase. Sep 8, 2017 at 23:39
  • 2
    Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
    – Xanne
    Sep 10, 2017 at 4:27
  • 2
    You have to prime the pump. Meaning you need to pour a gallon of water into it to before it will lift.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 8, 2017 at 12:31

3 Answers 3


The version I know is "use a sprat to catch a mackerel", which AFAIK is still in current use, at least in Britain.

Kate Bunting
Sep 8, 2017 at 7:54


"You have to spend money to make money." (about business strategy)

"Gotta burn trees to earn degrees." (about school paperwork)

"There's no such thing as a free lunch." (is a popular adage communicating the idea that it is impossible to get something for nothing)

"Strings attached" (means there is the expectation of reciprocity)

  • Can you explain how your second, third, and fourth responses actually answer the question? Oct 15, 2017 at 5:06
  • 3 and 4 relate to the second part of his question, 2 is simply ideation. Would it have been better to be more conservative? I'm new to this community.
    – Dustin
    Oct 16, 2017 at 2:27
  • It’s better to be more clear.   Your comment doesn’t help me understand what I asked.   I encourage you to edit your answer to clarify it.  (You are of course free to delete any parts that you have misgivings about, or even delete the whole answer, but I’m not suggesting that you do that — although they are options you might want to keep in mind if you get any other negative feedback.) Oct 16, 2017 at 2:39
  • I guess it's my view that idioms and proverbs communicate most effectively when they are well-known or self-explanatory so extra information seems superfluous to me. That said, obviously, if people feel my answer is insufficient I'll defer to their better judgement.
    – Dustin
    Oct 16, 2017 at 19:38
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    "About school paperwork"? Burning trees does not give paper! Jan 14, 2018 at 12:07

Not a perfect match, but we have "You have to speculate to accumulate":


  1. to buy or sell securities, property, etc, in the hope of deriving capital gains

  2. to risk loss for the possibility of considerable gain


  1. to gather or collect, often in gradual degrees; heap up: to accumulate wealth

definitions from dictionary.com

This translates to "You have to spend/risk money in order to make money".

It's not a perfect match because there is no implication of spending small to win big; in fact there is an implication of spending big to win big.

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