Catching Wrasse On Lures
Although I may be an LRF angler at heart, I still dabble with the heavier lures too. One of my favourite targets on the heavier gear is the ballan wrasse - think of a multicoloured tank with fins! Affectionately known as 'Rock Pigs', these powerful crab munchers are one of the most popular UK sea species, mostly due to their large size, ease to catch and powerful fight. Ballan wrasse are a rare example of a saltwater species remaining popular despite not being a table fish. Lucky for wrasse, they not fine eating.
The majority of ballan wrasse are caught by casual anglers on heavy rods with ragworm or crab as bait. Over the last decade though, targeting them on lures has become more popular. In the first week of June, I joined my good mate Ryan Goudie on a big pig hunt, using a variety of lures to see if we could find a fish over the magic 4lb mark. It proved to be an epic session, here's how we got on...
Ryan knew of a fairly remote low water mark, where the big spring tide would expose thick weeded gulleys and give us access to rocks normally submerged by water. I have to say I was excited, Ryan had tales of catching big fish after big fish, he didn't need to tell me more, I was already salivating! I have fished a lot of the popular marks in South Devon but hadn't come across this one before, there is always a buzz of excitement to fish a new mark, especially if your mate has been bigging it up!
We arrived on a cool, overcast morning, knowing our spot would be fairly sheltered from the wind that was whipping over us. Wrasse marks are often down difficult paths or even involve climbing down cliffs with ropes! That isn't to say they are only there, we are lucky to have some monsters swimming around the seafront of Plymouth and most rocky harbours or cities will be the same. I will say though that in my experience, wrasse will often get wise to lures fairly quickly or they will move after being caught a couple of times. This has led me to try and find new marks with plenty of naive wrasse to target, which that day we were hoping to find.
My HRF (stands for heavy rock fishing) rod is the brilliant Anyfish Anywhere Tournament Lure rod rated from 7-28g. It's 8ft long and has a surprisingly sensitive tip backed up with real power in the blank, perfect for wrasse fishing. Anything of similar spec will do. I back that up with a 3000 size reel loaded with 20lb Daiwa J Braid. Connected to the braid via an FG Knot is 4-6 ft of 20lb Fluorocarbon. Fluoro is perfect for wrassing as they live in rough ground and fluoro is extremely abrasion resistant. If the ground is really rough then I will go for an even longer leader so I have more faith in bullying the fish when needed.
We had arrived at the mark and clambered over the heavily weeded rocks that jutted out onto the sand. The water looked crystal clear and every time the breeze let up, the water would settle long enough to peek into the aquarium like gulleys below. I couldn't have been keener to wet a line. Ryan advised me to focus on the gulley to my right, where rock met sand, he had done well there before.
I rigged up a Texas Rig using a ten gram tungsten bullet weight, glass bead and a Crazy Fish size 1 weedless hook (any strong size 1 or 2 weedless hook will do). The glass bead has the twin effects of both protecting your knot and creating a knocking sound every time the weight hits it - wrasse are inquisitive and a little sound can work wonders. Lure choice I was going to rig on my most reliable wrasse lure - a dark blue 9cm soft plastic paddletail. The paddletail I was using on that cast was just an unbranded one from China but you can find so many different brands out there - the 7.5cm Monkey Lures King Lui from the the SFL store are perfect. I prefer paddletails to stick baits for wrasse but other anglers will say the opposite, it's just personal choice.
I made my first cast into the unknown. I let the lure sink to the bottem, feeling the weight thud onto the rocks. I had buried my hookpoint into the soft plastic of the lure, giving me confidence I wouldn't snag. I then tightened up and flicked the lure off the bottom, letting it sink back down, then I let it stay still for a few seconds - no bites yet. I repeated the trick, flick, reel in the slack, rest the lure on the seabed for moment. The key to lure fishing for wrasse is having the confidence to leave your lure stationary for up to 10 seconds at a time, often a wrasse will attack it when the lure is completely still.
I kept it up and I knew I was approaching the strike zone, the lure had dropped into the gulley in front of me. I left it still for a second, THUD THUD on the rod tip, the classic ballan bite. One more THUD and I struck hard. The rod bent over into a good fish, my drag was set firm but still the fish took line. My heart raced as I knew this was a decent wrasse, the fish tried to bury itself in the weed in front of me. Lifting the rod high, angled against the fish so I could bully the beast out. I couldn't break my 4lb personal best on my first cast could I? Ryan certainly thought so, hyping me up as the tail of the fish slapped the surface with anger. The fish could see the kelp below him and kept diving for it, it had surprising stamina for a ballan! I managed to turn his head and with a gulp of air he was done, beaten and now coming to the net without resistance.
What a start! Ryan lifted the green and orange beauty from the water, his flanks mottled with blues, browns and yellow. I knew it was a 'He' by his colourful complexion, male wrasse are more colourful than the females. This chap was no different, with swirling orange stripes around the cream of his chin. My original hope of him weighing over 4lb were dashed by the scales going 3lb 11oz. As he rested in the rockpool below me though, I wasn't disappointed; there lay my best fish of a very weird and disjointed year.
Like all of my wrasse I returned him to the water as delicately as possible, he kicked his tail and dove into the kelp to rest and sulk.
Me and Ryan awkwardly bumped elbows in a Covid-19 limited celebration. I was high as a kite and eager to see what else was down there. What followed next was a barrage of heavy hitting, mean fighting ballan wrasse action. Nearly every cast I made was greeted with a savage bite as the fish came on the feed. One huge fish ripped line off the reel and buried itself in the weed, shaking the hook in the process - I can only dream what that one weighed! Ryan was doing well too on the blue paddletails, with another big orange and green ballan falling to him.
Although the weedless set-up gives you some protection from the snags, you have to be a little clever in where you aim your lures. If you bring your lure up over a few jagged rocks, you run the risk of jamming your weight in a gap, or striking into a snag. The best tactic is to try and cast along the gulleys, bringing the lure through them if possible. The wrasse will chase and attack your lure as it crawls and jumps along the margins. Every time the lure stops, the wrasse takes it's chance and bites the lure, giving you a chance to hook it.
Sometimes the fish are so aggressive that they take it on the drop, engulfing even 12 or 15cm lures with ease. One of my fish that day nearly swallowed a big Rad Baits paddletail. Clearly this was a hungry fish!
Quite why wrasse take lures is up for debate. The textbooks say wrasse have a mostly crustacean and mollusc based diet, yet fish based lures catch them. Some say that they just defend their territory and attack in defence, yet why do they try and swallow their kill then? Clearly ballan wrasse eat fish, although not as regularly as bass do. These are aggressive, active predators and we were taking full advantage of that aggression - catching fish after fish.
The paddletail lures were getting chomped to pieces, so it was time to mix it up a little. I had been looking forward to testing the LMAB Finesse Filet Craw on a wrasse. These lures (available from the SFL store here) look like a squat lobster, which is a delicacy to our local wrasse. I rigged it up on the same size 1 hook and cast into the fray. The ultra thin claws on these soft plastics have a brilliant flutter in the water, I had no doubt this would work.
Casting towards the shore, I used the same slow technique that worked so well on the paddletails, as the lure made it's way into deeper water it was stopped in it's tracks. The rod tipped pulled round and I struck into a fish, clearly smaller but he was keen to bury himself into every piece of weed he could find. With the fish being small I had been too gentle and he had found a snaggy overhang, the line went solid. Damn! This wasn't my first rodeo though and I knew if I gave the fish a little slack and a little time, he was likely to swim free of the snag. I opened the bail arm and waited for a minute or so, like clockwork I watched the bow of slack line straighten as the fish moved from his hole. Once I was satisfied that the fish was clear I reeled like hell, lifting the fish clear of the weed. It just goes to show how dirty these fish will fight, even the small ones.
Clearly the reason we use heavy rods and heavy lines for these fish is due to their strength and habitat they live in. Ballan wrasse may grow very rarely to 8lb plus, but the majority are fish in the 1-2lb bracket. Yet even these small fish can find snags and holes that will lead to lost gear. With that information in mind, it's best to keep the drag set tight and be ready to wrench these fish out of snaggy situations. If the ground is cleaner, you can afford a little give and the blistering first couple of runs from a ballan can be exceptional, even at a small size. I don't recommend targeting big wrasse on LRF gear but if it does happen, you hold on by the skin of your teeth! It's that power and their incredible colours that keeps me coming back for these epic rockfish.
The tide had receded almost to it's lowest point now and the bites had dried up, clearly most of the fish had left for deeper water. We had done well though, with well over 20 fish between us in just over an hour. It was the best wrasse fishing I had enjoyed in years. I thanked Ryan for showing me the mark, knowing we would try and catch a few more on the incoming tide. To kill time though we walk around the point, exploring the exposed gulleys and rockpools. Some of the pools left by the tide were over 6ft deep and clear as a mountain stream. We could see pollock fry and two spot gobies flitting about the kelp fronds, trying to stay off the menu.
I spotted movement in one of the gulleys, a wrasse had moved beneath an overhang. I cast over it and slowly brought the lure through the shadow... THUD-THUD-THUD strike! A green coloured ballan had taken the paddletail and was now crashing around the shallow gulley in front of me, causing the pollock fry to scatter in panic. It was glorious to see this beautiful fish kicking around in the clear water, every sinew of it's muscles on show. Like all ballans though, after the first few runs the fish was beat. I unhooked the fish in the water, the de-barbed hook coming out easily. The fish flicked it's tail and sank back into the gulley.
After a short lunch break, the tide switched around and started pushing in. Being a spring tide we knew that our time would be limited. The hope was maybe we could get an hour on the rocks before the tide started to drown it (and us!). I was trying some silver coloured paddletails, knowing that these wrasse must be fish eaters. It did not take long. Ryan was still at the car getting his food when I started catching ballans again. The next fish took the lure at my feet, aggressively smashing the lure. After a few hairy runs around the rocks in front of me, I netted the fish. This was a completely different coloured fish, a camo coloured female.
The next hour was fish after fish as the tide flooded in. The majority were medium sized females, these were much more muted in their colours but still fought just as hard. All of our lures were battered, ripped to pieces from the powerful jaws of these fish. I started experimenting and caught a few smaller fish on Berkley Minnows, possibly showing that the smaller fish are more agile and likely to hunt baitfish down.
We eventually got pushed off the rocks by the water, combined we'd caught over 40 wrasse. That made the day one of my best targeting these rock pigs. I have to say a huge thanks to Ryan for putting me onto what was clearly a special mark. We will have to keep trying for the 4lb plus brute. Thanks for reading, you can find loads more like this on my own blog here.