This review describes some recent theoretical and empirical research into the way fish respond to spatial heterogeneity in their environment, and particularly to patchily distributed resources. The ways in which the need to acquire food interacts with other important requirements such as thermoregulation and predator avoidance to determine space use are considered, as are interactions with other members of the same species, viewed both as shoaling companions and as competitors. Recent developments in ideal free theory are discussed and the extent to which this formulation can explain how fish distribute themselves among feeding patches is examined. The implications of overtly aggressive interactions, in the form of dominance hierarchies and territorial systems, for distribution patterns in the laboratory and in the field are also reviewed. Finally the extent to which cost–benefit analysis can help to explain fish distribution patterns and the relative importance of behavioural processes compared to other determinants of the distribution of fish are considered.