Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle


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"Questions about bait fishing for wrasse."

Most years I have a couple of wrasse fishing sessions. I generally use hard crabs for bait and I really enjoy catching wrasse large or small. I now have an added incentive to fish for these fish as they are prime targets for my grandson when other fish are thin on the ground. Anyway, here's a few lines I penned in 1992 that still seem relevant and a couple of questions.

The fat-bellied, multi-coloured ballan wrasse hunts among the thick kelp fronds that gently sway in the deep, clear waters that wash our coastline. Broad, paddle-like fins propel the fish’s hefty body armoured with large, loosely attached scales and counter shaded from dark tones on the back and head to buttercup yellow, orange, white or blue underneath. The beautiful colouring is often enhanced by greenish bars and pale spots along the sturdy flanks. The striking thing is that every fish seems to have it’s own distinctive colouration.

Ballan wrasse have smallish mouths adorned with massive turquoise lips, grooved and slotted for flexibility and rubberised to cope with eating tough-shelled prey. Behind the lips is a set of powerful pearly teeth and deep down in the throat are another group of equally powerful pharyngeal (throat) teeth designed to finally grind down its dinner. Truly, the ballan wrasse is perfectly designed to hunt its prey amid the rugged rocks and weaving weeds where it chooses to set up home.

Wrasse of all kinds are tough fish and have an almost a magical ability to find shelter in rocky caves or beneath boulders once they feel the steel of a hook. Although a big ballan wrasse will only weigh around 5lb you can’t tackle these bulky beauties on light rods and fine lines. It doesn’t matter if a bait is suspended beneath a float or dangled from a paternoster rig, you will have to use at least 12lb or 15lb line.

Hooks need to be stout, very sharp and selected to match the size of bait, while rods need plenty of backbone, say a test curve of 2.5lb to 3lb, to check the fish’s first dive to cover. There are exceptions to the strong tackle rule. When heavy seas have churned up the seabed large ballans will often leave their rocky haunts to forage on the surrounding sand or grit. At these times a carp rod or light spinning rod and 8lb line will suffice. Surprisingly, similar tackle can also be used for spinning with buoyant plugs, even over rough ground. Many good wrasse are caught, by plugging, every year on the Dorset coast and rarely does a fish hooked in this way escape by seeking refuge beneath weed or rocks.

As a general rule smaller fish will take worms (with a distinct preference for rag), sea slaters (a sort of wood louse), prawns, brittle stars and blue rayed limpets (those little brown jobs with shining blue stripes that you find sticking to kelp fronds). To avoid the tiddlers and select for the larger specimens you would be well advised to use a bigger hook and decorate it with large lumps of hard crab or squat lobster, both of which the big fish relish.

Although ballans are rarely caught on conventional fish baits, it is a fact that they are quite partial to the little bullheads or sea scorpions that are so common in rock pools. In view of the fact that ballans sometimes chase swimming creatures it is hardly surprising that they are susceptible to spun artificials, like plugs. It probably pays to use drab lures that resemble the natural prey, but fish will also take metallic coloured plugs. Of course hunger may not be the main reason why wrasse take lures and the fish may simply think that they are chasing “the invader” from their territory.

Wrasse are active only in the hours of daylight, so restrict your fishing to the period between dawn and dusk. Prime time should be just as the sun comes up over the cliff or the horizon, because the fish will have spent the night fasting as they rested in their rocky holes. Although wrasse are occasionally caught around most of our coastline they are mainly warm water fish and are much more abundant in the south and west than elsewhere. For similar reasons they are essentially fish of the summer and autumn. Of course, the term “warm water” is relative and many big wrasse are caught well into the winter by anglers legering with big baits over steep rocky shores. Nevertheless millions of wrasse were killed by the very cold winter of 1962/63. It will already be clear that you must seek wrasse where their favourite foods are abundant, over rocks and weeds. Deep holes just below the low-water mark are often good wrasse spots when the tide is out.

Fish will feed well even in gin clear, calm and sunny conditions but a bit of colour in the water often sharpens their appetites, particularly on the flood tide. Although there is a temptation to seek out the deepest gullies, it is a fact that VERY big fish will venture in to shallow water, particularly over beds of wrack. A light legered or freelined crab or a carefully worked Rapala will often be seized with enthusiasm, in such areas, to be followed by a spectacular, if rather brief, battle.

Wrasse provide excellent sport when other fish are hard to come by and since they make poor eating and take many years to reach their full size, the fish should always be returned with care. Sadly, many are caught in gill nets and either discarded or used as pot bait by commercial fishermen. Like the bass and grey mullets they are prime candidates for protection from inshore netting and it is high time that they were accepted solely as sport fish.

Lobbing the 1oz weight and 2/0 crab baited hook into a small clearing in the middle of a rocky chasm you hold the rod up to keep the line taut between lead and rod point. After a couple of minutes wait you feel a sharp tap on the line held between finger and thumb. The tapping is repeated and then the line goes tight and begins to move slowly but steadily to your left - a wrasse has taken the bait in his mouth (all big wrasse are males). You swing the rod into a hard, powerful strike and continue the movement as a sweeping lift. The fish resists and for a few seconds gains line against the tightly set clutch. Quickly you wind down to recover the lost line and heave upwards again. The big ballan gives ground and after a couple of less enthusiastic dives, comes slowly to the surface and rolls on it’s side, a glowing mixture of bronze and gold. The fish slides over the net and you lift it carefully from the water. That’s wrassing!

As I said I wrote this piece a few years back and I now have a couple of questions about wrasse fishing

Firstly, has anyone tried the "Berkeley artificial crabs" for them? I intended doing it last summer and never got round to it. I would like to do a comparison with real shore crabs just to see if the artificials work. Frankly I'd be surprised if they produced any bites at all but I'm open to be proved wrong.

Secondly, I know that bass, triggerfish, smoothhounds and the like seem to be working their way north but is the same thing happening with wrasse? Is anyone catching LOTS of them on the North East coast? Are they becoming a nuisance for cod anglers using crab baits?

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com


Questions about bait fishing for wrasse.

Bait caught wrasse.

Dave Cooling (a bit younger than today) with a wrasse caught on bait.

Rapala'd wrasse.

Even small ballans will take lures, usually by the tail.

Another one on a Rapala.

This one took a trolled lure.

Unhooking a wrasse.

Forceps help to get the hook out of rubbery lips.

Returning a fish.

I like to see them all go back fit and well.