'The gay cleaners'


In the way that many freshwater anglers `cut their teeth' on the humble perch, a free biting and attractive fish, sea anglers, certainly in the south and west of the country, are often initiated into the sport by catching wrasse.

Since we began fishing in Dorset we have caught considerable numbers of wrasse from rocky places between Swanage and Portland. Good fish have been taken on a wide variety of baits, with hard crab being the favourite. Our two largest wrasse (about 6-pounds each) were caught on legered lugworm fished close to the rocks over a bottom of sand and stones. Significantly, this particular catch was made in a turbid sandy sea following a violent storm. (Since then we have caught many large wrasse on plugs, including a few of six pounds plus.)

We have never specialised in wrasse fishing and it would be pointless to go on at great length about a subject that other anglers can write upon with more authority. However, we feel that the following information could be of interest to all wrasse anglers.

The common species of wrasse, the corkwing and the larger and more desirable ballan, are rarely to be found very far from rocks and weed. The ballan wrasse, although it is such a common fish, has many interesting features related to its life and habits. When these wrasse mature, at an age of about six years, they are all females. Subsequently, somewhere between the ages of seven and fourteen years, they change sex so that all large ballan wrasse are males.

Growth of the ballan wrasse off the Isle of Man (aged by the opercular bones). Fish grow slowly and live for up to 29 years.In the waters off the Isle of Man (where most of the early research was carried out) ballan wrasse grow very slowly and live for up to about thirty years. A twenty-nine-year old fish is roughly twenty inches in length, whilst a decent specimen of 3.5-pounds in weight could be as much as twenty-five years old. They can be aged by means of the annual rings on their opercular (gill cover) bones. The growth pattern is very unusual as there is no apparent decrease in the rate with age. A 5-pound fish from the Dorset coast appeared to have grown much more quickly than those from the Isle of Man.

The tough rubbery lips with their many grooves and folds, the strong flattened teeth and the powerful grinding throat teeth are all indications that these fish favour a rather crusty diet. The wrasse has no stomach and the length of its gut suggests that it is an omnivore (eats almost anything) with catholic tastes. However, ballan wrasse tend to be carnivorous, with shore crabs, edible crabs and squat lobsters the main items of food, particularly in the larger fish. Marine `woodlice' are of secondary importance as food and the superbly coloured little blue-rayed-limpets, which live on the fronds of kelp, and various winkles third. Lesser quantities of brittle stars and barnacles are also eaten.

Very few fish or algae are eaten by wrasse. The ballan wrasse feeds offshore from about March to June but is inshore for the rest of the year. Feeding activity is much less in winter than in summer when, after spawning in June, the intensity of feeding increases sharply to reach a peak in August (so this should be the best time to catch them from the shore).

In fishing for wrasse it is well known that fish baits are generally ineffective. Worms are good baits and will attract fish of all sizes but tend to select for the smaller specimens.The mouth of a 5-pound ballan wrasse caught on a Rebel crayfish plug. On the other hand, in line with the natural diet of the fish, hard crabs, whole or in pieces are superb baits for larger wrasse. All wrasse are essentially daytime feeders and the onset of dusk usually heralds the cessation of bites from these fish.

The usual problem encountered in fishing for wrasse is that of snagged and broken tackle. Not only do their rocky haunts entail fishing in heavily weeded conditions but the wrasse themselves react in a characteristic and annoying fashion, when they are hooked, by taking refuge in the nearest crevice. The outcome of this behaviour is that a successful strike,Food of the ballan wrasse.  Larger wrasse tend to feed on crabs and squat lobsters. following a good bite, is often greeted by total immobility, followed by loss of end tackle.

  1. Edible crab
  2. Shore crab
  3. Squat lobster (blue and orange species)
  4. Slaters
  5. Blue-rayed limpet
  6. Brittle star
  7. Long-spined sea scorpion (Bullhead fish)

Sometimes, though not as often as one might hope, heavy tackle will enable a fish to be hauled from its hiding place. In general the strength of the line is not too important, provided that it will withstand a certain amount of abrasion from rocks barnacles and the teeth of the fish. Usually it is necessary to adapt tackle and line-strength to the venue.Another big wrasse which took a crayfish plug. Over rough rocks with innumerable holes and cracks, even small fish will frequently make good their escape. If, by contrast, the rock surfaces are comparatively smooth and the weed is not too dense, even large wrasse, which are not dogged fighters despite their chunky build, can be landed on 10- or 12-pound B.S. lines.

(If you read the angling magazines you will normally see that lines of 30-pound BS or more are invariably recommended for wrasse fishing. Of course this type of gear is totally out of proportion to the size of the fish and prevents them from 'showing their paces'. We have now established beyond all reasonable doubt that large fish can be regularly and consistently landed on lines of 8- or 10-pound BS by spinning with plugs.)

Corkwing wrasse will frequently be caught when fishing with worm for ballans.Comparison of the heads of (A) corkwing and (B) ballan wrasse.  The Former has a saw edged pre-opercular bone. They are rather more colourful than the ballan wrasse, which they otherwise resemble quite closely, but the saw-edged pre-opercular bone, on the gill-cover, easily distinguishes them. A large proportion of the corkwings that we catch have, on the shoulder, a characteristic lump, rather like a boil, caused by the presence of a parasite under the skin.

Another interesting aspect of wrasse behaviour is that of cleaning other fish.Corkwing (lower) and ballan wrasse.  Fish lice are visible on the skin of the larger fish. (click on picture to enlarge.) In much the same way that birds pick leeches from the mouths of crocodiles and ticks from the backs of antelopes, the corkwing wrasse has been observed to clean parasites from the skin of the red bream. The tiny goldsinny and rockcook wrasses also behave as cleaners for larger fishes, as do certain pipe fishes. (In the eighties and nineties large numbers of live wrasse were caught for their value as cleaners of fish lice from cage farmed salmon.)

Ballan and corkwing wrasse are also unusual in their breeding habits. In the period from June to July they construct nests of algae, which they wedge into rock crevices.