Wrasse fishing is some of the most fun you can have while rock fishing in the UK. Ballan Wrasse are the largest of the wrasse species found in the UK, and the only one that makes for a serious sport fish (excluding LRF tactics which make sport of everything!). These fish live in rough ground, amongst heavy kelp and boulders. The fish gradually change colour to match their environment, with fish ranging from bright red to dark brown, yellow and vibrant green. They are hermaphrodites, and begin life as females before becoming male after reaching a certain size. Male fish are territorial and unlike bass, pollack and other species, tend to stick around one area which is their territory. The fish have large, goofy teeth that can take barnacles and limpets from rocks.
Photo Credit to Matilda Björklund
Lure Fishing for Wrasse & Best Wrasse Lures
Lure fishing for Wrasse has become immensely popular since Japanese fishing rods that cast about 28g became popular in the UK. It’s still a fairly fringe pursuit as of 2021 compared to bait fishing, but this approach is highly, highly effective. There’s only one simple rig that’s commonly used for this style of fishing, and that’s a weedless hook with a straight tail soft plastic and a small lead weight designed for weedless hooks directly above it. These lures don’t snag much at all if rigged cautiously and get your lure right amongst the kelp. Wrasse hate them, and hit them hard, every time. If using this method, given how tough the mouths of Wrasse are, it’s crazy not to use weedless hooks if you can.
You should not cast and retrieve the lure as if you’re targeting bass or pollack. The key is to cast, let the lure sink right to the bottom, and then gently lift the lure up and let it sink. Twitching the lure aggressively is a better bet if the fish are feeding aggressively, but often a very slow retrieve is best. This means literally lifting the lure 30cm and then letting it drop back down and leaving it for another 10 seconds. While wrasse fishing, it’s often a good idea to dead stick every now and then, leaving the lure to do absolutely nothing, as if it’s a bait. This is hard to get your head around for people new to wrasse fishing, but you’ll find the fish often strike once the lure appears to be out of action. Lifting the lure too high and too fast can definitely intimidate these fish, depending on their mood.
There’s some debate as to why wrasse hit lures. Some claim they hit the lures out of territorial aggression. The evidence for this is that the fish will strike lures that they have no chance ever getting into their mouths, including large bass plugs. The alternative theory, is that wrasse are actually more predatory than they seem when you watch them cruising around the kelp while snorkelling, and actively hunt small fish. I know of spear fishermen that have seen wrasse chasing and feeding on sand eel, and smaller wrasse also hit lures, despite having no reason to be territorial since they aren’t males defending an area. Therefore, I believe the wrasse to be a predator, even though it mostly eats limpets!
Float fishing for Wrasse
A better method for bait fishing for these fish would be to use a float, so that you can suspend your bait just above the kelp. Fishing a ragworm 1m above the kelp anywhere in Cornwall where I live and you’re guaranteed to catch you a wrasse on a clear day unless you’re really unlucky. Any time of year is fine, as long as the ground is really rough. It’s quite common for new anglers to try to fish only in areas where they won’t get snags, but this is not a good method for catching wrasse, or a great many other species!
Bottom fishing for Wrasse
If you’re bait fishing, you will catch these fish by bottom fishing just on the edge of an area of rough ground, by casting onto sandy ground – snag free – to tempt the wrasse in the kelp to come out. There is no bait that compares to the rag worm for catching wrasse. Lug worm is good, sandeel will work – but rag worm just turn these fish on. You can also fish directly down the side of harbour walls, and this is 100% the best place to be fishing if you are on a harbour. Don’t bother casting out, you’re casting over all the fish!
In the Isles of Scilly – where all the monster fish seem to live – Wrasse can sometimes grow to over 10lb. A very big fish is 5lb, and a nice Wrasse is 3lb.
Where to catch them
Wrasse live in kelp – right in the thick of it. If you go snorkelling on a clear day you’ll see them, sitting or slowly swimming through dense brown kelp beds. The first place you should cast upon arriving at a rock mark is directly at your feet. The wrasse pictured below was caught first cast 5m out. These fish often hug boulders and the very rocks you’re stood on – perhaps for protection from seals – but also because they feed on the shrimp and limpets that cling to rock faces.
You’ll also catch Wrasse on wrecks offshore – these fish are never far from structure. Lure anglers suddenly catch a lot of these fish once they start regularly using weedless hooks, as you need your lure to literally be in the kelp, falling into the cracks and gullies, to catch these fish. They are also occasionally caught by unsuspecting anglers on mackerel feathers, plugs and spoons – these fish are not fussy eaters.
Wrasse are now commercially targeted by trawlers in larger numbers to be taken to salmon farms. The fish are not desirable for eating because the flesh is flaky, soggy, bony and not very tasty. Salmon farms in Scotland have a problem with parasitic lice feeding on their salmon, with the average fish having three lice. Wrasse eat lice off the salmon, so have become quite valuable. It’s mainly the Corkwing and Goldsinney wrasse which are targeted for this – which brings us on to…
Other Wrasse Species & Wrasse ID
Wrasse are part of a huge family with an incredible diversity of species. Even in the UK we have Corkwing, Goldsinney, Rockcook, Cuckoo Wrasse as well as the much larger Ballan’s. Large corkwing wrasse are often mistaken for ballans, because they don’t always have a black spot on their tails, which is the most common ID method.
In my estimation these fish are Britain’s most underrated species. They are around all year in good numbers, they fight much harder than bass or any other predators and are more challenging to land, and they come in a variety of extraordinary colours. It’s a good job too that they taste disgusting, or their wouldn’t be so many of them.
There are eight species of Wrasse in British waters, though I have only ever seen five of these caught and two of them are extremely uncommon catches. We’ve looked at Ballan’s already, so below are the smaller species of the family, which are typically caught as bycatch or else targeted by specialist light game species hunters with LRF tackle.
These fish are dark and mottled, with more rounded bodies than the Ballan Wrasse with which they are often confused. They don’t grow very large, but can get big enough to seem convincingly like a small Ballan – and they fight just as hard for their size. Often, they have a black spot just before their tail, which gives the fish away. However, this spot is often not present or doesn’t contrast enough with the fishes mottled, orangey-brown speckled appearance to be visible.
These fish love to eat small ragworm rigged on size 8 hooks, or else a worm imitation lure such as this one on Amazon, which is almost equally effective, and much cheaper. Fish directly down the side of the harbour wall or else directly off the rock face, don’t bother casting out to catch these fish.
Rock Cook Wrasse
The Rock Cook looks much like a Corkwing Wrasse, but with vibrant, neon blue marking all down its back. This fish is very rarely caught and is far, far rarer than the Corkwing Wrasse. I’ve have only heard of these fish being caught in remote rock marks but anglers using LRF gear and worm imitation lure such as this one on Amazon.
This is the most glamorous fish in British waters, with it’s vibrant orange and turquois colours, and more understated red markings on the females. They win the exotic beauty contest every time, though some of the Ballan’s do try and the Rock Cook makes a good effort…
Cuckoo Wrasse are a species only really caught by boat anglers in the South, or else at rock marks with steep drop offs into very deep water. They hit lures on rare occasion, though modern HRF tactics are effective for them. Rag worm fished on or near the bottom and around wrecks are the most effective way to target these fish, which are only really caught as bycatch because they’re uncommon enough that actively targeting them could be frustrating for all but the most patient.
The Cuckoo Wrasse’s vibrant appearance makes it look like somebody spilt a water colour pallet on a fish. Most people wouldn’t believe these exotic looking fish are common in British waters.
These fish are more elongated and slender than the other British Wrasse species, and are the smallest of them all. They also have a black spot on their tails, but unlike the Corkwing’s it is on the top of the tail rather than the middle. They are also characteristically golden in colour.
They are even more aggressive than the other Wrasse in my opinion, or maybe it’s just the way their teeth are more visible than in the other species… These fish are caught as bycatch while fishing with small size 8 hooks with rag worm, or else actively targeted with LRF gear and worm imitations. Shrimp would be very effective for this species, since they likely depend on them for much of their diet.
There aren’t many of these left in Cornwall now that they are actively targeted for use in Scottish salmon fisheries. These fish used to be abundant around harbour walls, but then disappeared, along with the Corkwings.
If you see this fish in your lifetime, you are a lucky person indeed. Even hardcore species hunters don’t really ever catch these. These fish have yellow spots that run all the way along the back, and grow up to 25cm, making them more likely to be confused with a Cuckoo wrasse than the other species.
Rainbow Wrasse (not another name for the Cuckoo, but a different species)
These are easy to catch in the Mediterranean but extremely rare in the UK as of 2021. They are very long and slender, and fish caught in the UK must feel lost indeed.
Similar to the Corkwing but much rarer, these fish have pinkish lips and a longer face. I have only heard of these fish being caught in Weymouth, and they are a very rare catch even with LRF gear and Marukyu Isome.
Wrasse and their teeth…
Wrasse eat barnacles, crustaceans and worms. In school, they would be the kid with the big goofy teeth – and indeed they are spectacularly geeky looking when their their lips are gently lifted to reveal their nashers. These are fish which can bite through barnacle shells, and have more grinding teeth in the backs of their throats (called ‘pharyngeal’) for dealing with all that hard calcium carbonate in the various shells they feast on. I’ve never been bitten, unlike by the Common Blenny or Tompot Blenny, which have very sharp teeth for the same purpose and often draw the blood of unsuspecting anglers.
Given how stupid these fish seem when they smash into plugs and spinners far too large for their mouths, it’s impressive that these fish make nests using their own mucus and seaweed, to lay their eggs in. What an extraordinary family of fish.
A huge thank you to Matilda Björklund for her amazing photos towards the top of this page.