If you’re looking for true ‘heavy metal’ fishing, there is one form of fishing in the UK that guarantees arm-wrenching fights, scrambling over jagged rocks and battered lures – and that’s lure fishing for Ballan Wrasse.
There are a million and one articles and how-to’s on this technique but I absolutely love it and can’t resist the chance to wax lyrical about this most exciting form of our sport. This isn’t a full tactics guide, more a ‘this is how I do it’ write up. Hopefully even experienced ‘Pig Hunters’ will find something of interest here, and for anyone who doesn’t already appreciate this magnificent fish then you might after reading, then trying this.
Ballan Wrasse (also affectionately known as Rock Pigs) are the largest of the British Wrasse species. They can grow close to 10lb but anything over 4 is considered an excellent specimen. They fight extremely hard and are renowned for their strong diving runs, especially at the beginning of the fight. They’re not known for their stamina though and if you can survive the first 30 seconds of the fight, you have a good chance of landing them as they tire and come to the surface, though some fish will test this theory (and your tackle!) to the limit. They eat a wide variety of crustaceans and shellfish, they will occasionally take fish too but it is not well studied and theories abound why they will take fish imitation lures with such aplomb. The best time to catch them is in summer, they are at their most aggressive and numerous then, cold weather and rough seas tend to push them in deeper waters, making them perfect for the ‘fair weather fisherman’, as a bright, warm sunny day makes ideal conditions for Wrasse. They are hermaphrodites and are all born with female reproductive organs, only changing sex later in life depending on the need for males. This change is thought to produce the ultra bright colouration seen in some individuals (although colour is also a camouflage response to their environment), with all very large fish being most likely male which is unusual for a fish species. They are a slow maturing and long lived species, up to 30 years in some cases.
Lure choice is superbly broad these days for any form of fishing, Wrasse fishing feels a direct benefit from this, anything the Ballan eats (and that is wide variety) is available in Lure form. Fish, Crustacean and Worm imitations being the most successful, but I have seen imitation Shellfish lures that, if fished correctly, I’m sure would catch fish, though I haven’t tried them myself. Personally I have had most success on cheap rubber shads, 8 – 10cm long and in darker colours with a bit of sparkle in them, but I have caught on almost every colour from White to Black and on Crayfish imitations and curly tailed rubber Sandeels. Also any Lure that has added scent can really make the difference from a good day to a great one. It really is up to you to find out what you prefer. Start simple and work your way up through the different variations. Try not to go for anything massive, Wrasse have comparatively small mouths for the size of fish, big lures will get bites but few hook ups. Of course there is always the all conquering Fiiish Black Minnow, in the more natural colours and either 90mm or 120mm, Wrasse can’t resist. Other weedless lures by other brands work just as well, which brings me on to…
To catch lots of Wrasse on lures you need a weedless rig. They love difficult rocky, weedy and straight up tackle munching terrain! Try fishing a regular jig head with an exposed hook through typical Ballan country and see how long you last. Actually don’t do that, it would be a massive waste of money. There are a few different weedless rigs to use, but I always use a Texas Rig for this type of fishing. Like so much in lure fishing, the Americans did it first and if you don’t know how to set it up this video will help.
Texas rigs are so simple to use and very rarely let you down when fished correctly, no matter how many times you use it, it will always surprise you how you can cast it into the snaggiest of gullies, yet it emerges unscathed. As long as you strike strongly on the take, you will hook the vast majority of your fish. Try not to buy ultra-cheap offset hooks for this fishing, you want your hooks to be sharp, strong and reliable, Ballan’s have mouths evolved to bite through the shells of crustaceans, think what they can do to a flimsy bit of metal. I use size 1/0 mostly but that varies on the size of lure. Cone weights shouldn’t be too heavy unless you are in very deep water, 10-15 grams is perfect. A useful tip is to use a rubber float stopper in front of your cone weight, this will stop the weight falling too far ahead of the lure in the water, its not a necessity but it certainly seems to decrease snagging in my experience.
The Rod & Reel
Don’t be tempted to go too heavy with your rod, you want enough strength to pull a fish away from the snags, but you also want to enjoy the fantastic fight they provide. Lrf set-up’s can be used but I don’t recommend them for a beginner, Wrasse are the dirtiest fighters in the sea and they love cutting light braid on jagged rocks. I prefer a 10 – 30g casting weight spinning rod, no more than 8ft long and lightweight. Any modern spinning reel can be used, there are so many on the market these days you are spoilt for choice, but choose simple and strong, a quality drag is essential for getting the most fun out of Wrasse. With line choice, there can be only one – braid. Fishing with Monofilament or Fluorocarbon main line will dull the experience, you need the instantaneous reaction of braid to really succeed in this fishing. I don’t use any lower than 20lb test and 8 strand because, as mentioned before, these fish will pull you through the nastiest terrain going and a tough line is essential. Even strong braid will still cut quite easily under tension but its pluses outweigh the negatives hugely.
Location is, as always in fishing, crucial. The most perfect lure set up isn’t any use where there aren’t any fish. Though Ballan’s can be and are caught on sandy clean beaches, your best chance of fish is in rocky terrain. Sunken boulders, shipwrecks, reefs and gulleys are prime real estate for these fish. I fish around the Plymouth area in the South West of England, so I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to marks. What I look for is rocky areas with lots of gullies, with a variation of deep and shallow water. The majority of the time the best spots are the most difficult to get to, clambering down cliffs overgrown with Gorse Bushes and Brambles is a regular occurrence (everything that grows on cliffs tends to either sting or spike so wear sensible clothing). Please be careful if you decide to brave the cliff descent, try not to fish alone and don’t overload yourself with fishing gear, Wrassing doesn’t require a lot of kit so you can travel light. If that sounds a little too dangerous then try any other rocky mark, there will be Wrasse there and even small fish will take your lure. I have just found them to be more numerous and larger away from the beaten track.
If you have some experience of lure fishing, this technique is going to feel strange and alien to you, it requires patience and confidence in your tackle. If you fish too fast and high in the water you will very rarely catch. These fish hunt right on the bottom amongst the rocks, to catch them you need to get right in the rough stuff. I like to position myself, at the shore end of a gulley, as centrally as possible. I look at the rock formation around me, and try to picture all the crevices and snags in front of me. Think of the gulley as ‘landscape’ when you are looking across it to the other side, and ‘portrait’ when you are looking down it towards the sea. You don’t want to be casting across rocky gullies ‘landscape’, even a texas rig will likely snag this way, go with the terrain ‘portrait’ style, you want to be pulling the lure through the little channels and gaps in the rock, this is where the fish wait. With my texas-rig ready and hook point just nicked into the rubber (keep checking this as you fish, it will keep snagging to a minimum), I cast out around 5-10 metres depending on the size and ‘snag potential’ of the gulley, I then wait for it to hit bottom, with braid this will be an obvious ‘thump’ on the line as the cone weight hits the rocky bottom. I then reel in the slack line, I use a quick, sharp jerk and lift to pull the lure off the seafloor then let it sink back down again and wait – vary how long you wait, Wrasse will often hit a completely still lure. I repeat the technique, reeling in the slack line as you jerk it towards you slowly. Do not be afraid to go ultra slow, these fish are inquisitive and will investigate any sound or movement near them. The aim is to keep the lure on or as close to the bottom as possible the majority of the time, the quick lifting of the lure will usually pull it over any really nasty snags, whilst also giving local wrasse a good eyeful of a potential meal. If that isn’t working, experiment with smaller lifts or none at all, just slowly bumping the lure across the seabed. It’s a case of finding what works on the day, just keep that lure in the rough stuff and you’re in with a good chance. Be prepared because bites can be furious! Some fish will hook themselves as they aggressively smash the lure, but most will require a decent strike. You will quite likely feel a quick ‘dum-dum’ through the rod tip, strike then, if you fail to hook up it is most likely a smaller fish, reel in quickly keeping your rod high to avoid snagging, straighten your lure back out and try again. This time let the bite build, giving the fish an extra second to get its toothy chops round the lure, then strike.
Lets be honest, fishing for Ballan is all about the fight, an epic battle that the fish always has a good chance of winning. You want your drag set firmly but with decent give, a solid drag completely wastes the fight and can lead to snapped lines or bent hooks. Be aware that the fish will head straight to the nearest hole in the rock, that first dive is where most fish are lost, stand firm, use the rod to cushion the blows and above all, enjoy that raw power! As said before, the Wrasse will soon run out of steam but always be prepared for one last dive into the deep at the end.
I’m thankful that Ballan Wrasse are regarded as a poor eating fish in the UK. These fish are very susceptible to overfishing and in my opinion should always be released after capture. With this in mind I recommend a few things to help keep these fish from harm once they are the rocks. Obviously using a long handled net to get them out of the water, I also use a landing mat – these needn’t be expensive, just a cushion to stop the fish damaging itself, they also help if you want to take a photo with one, as when the fish inevitably struggles free of your grasp it will drop the short distance onto the cushioned mat. I also crush the barbs on my hooks, as long as you keep the line tight you won’t lose many more than normal and it saves so much hassle and trauma for the fish. This involves a decent pair of forceps or long nose pliers, which are a must for unhooking fish, Wrasse have an incredible bite and you don’t want to put your fingers beyond those teeth. If you need to keep the fish out of water for a couple of minutes e.g. for photos, then put the fish back in the landing net and rest it back in the sea, you can then pull it back out once its recovered to take the required trophy photographs. When you release the fish it is also good practice to release them this way, so that the fish can properly prepare itself for its return into the swirling depths. Ballan Wrasse give everything in the fight and we owe it to them to look after them once we have the fish beaten, hopefully for future fishermen to catch again and again.
So there you go, if you haven’t tried it, get out there this summer. If you are already a convert then I hope you have enjoyed reading how I go about catching my Wrasse. Either way lets support these incredible fish with responsible fishing and respect.
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Happy Fishing and I’ll see you on the rocks!