Shore fishing for ballan wrasse

Ballan wrasse are commonly found throughout the UK and Ireland, but predominantly off the southwest and west coasts. From roughly Hampshire east to Humberside wrasse are generally few and far between. They also range as far north as the Shetland Islands, to the central Norwegian coast, and southward taking in the French, Portuguese and Spanish coasts, and extend to the top end of North Africa, but they are not found inside the Mediterranean.

The ballan wrasse proves to be the biggest of all the European wrasse and the only other wrasse that can be confused with the ballan is the corkwing, and then only when the ballan is sub 1lb in weight.

The ballan has a deep body, small mouth and note that the eye does not reach as far forward as the rear of the mouth. The scales are moderately small numbering 41 to 47 along the lateral line, the dorsal fin carries 19 to 20 spines and the rear edge of the preoperculum is smooth. The corkwing differs in that it has large scales numbering 32 to 36 along the lateral line, the pectoral fins reach almost as far as the anus and the preoperculm is serrated on the rear and lower edges.

Colouration can be varied and vivid in ballan’s as they are adept at camouflaging themselves within the terrain that they live. Normally they are green or brown on the back, but can be orange and red with splashes of yellow, dark brown to black, or a mix of red, brown and green.

They eat mostly small mussels, small crabs and periwinkles, but when adult become predatory taking small baitfish, typically sandeels. They also scavenge on the seabed taking bits of fish and worm left by other predators.

The breeding season falls in early summer and they actually build a nest of algae inside a rock crevice in which to rear their young. When the young hatch they are pelagic initially before working their way inshore.

During prolonged very cold winters wrasse can get caught out still living in shallow water and become comatose and die. This occurred during the cold winter of 1963, and again in the cold winters of 1981 and 1983, and there are reports of wrasse found dead on the shore after last winter during the peak cold of January and February.

Shore ballan wrasse

The best wrasse fishing occurs in the South and Southwest of the UK, west and north Wales and the west and northwest of Scotland. Also the south, west and north coast of Ireland.

Wrasse like structure and will be found below rocky cliffs in shallow and deepish water, also amongst man made breakwaters, around jetties and rock built piers, even amongst shallow reef ground. The common denominator is structure within which to hide and patrol. During slack tides they will patrol a certain route back and forth, but when the tide is running they sit inside cracks and behind boulders looking to dart out as water borne food washes past.

Tides are not too critical for wrasse fishing and they will feed on most tides even very small neaps which are often the best, and through the full flood and ebb cycle. Wrasse prefer calm weather and calmer seas and will move out to deeper water during strong winds and big sea swells. Only when the sea swell has fully subsided will they move back in on the shallower inshore ground.

Shore ballan wrasse

Wrasse are often found right in under your feet requiring the bait to be just dropped in, not cast. For this type of fishing when the average fish will weigh up to 3lbs or so a 1-3oz spinning rod matched to a 4000 or 5000 sized fixed-spool reel loaded with 15lb to 20lb braided line will give great sport and has the power to stop hard diving wrasse.

For big wrasse over 4lbs its best to choose a bass rod rated 2-4ozs but go for one with a fast taper action and stiff butt which has the power to hold the bigger fish when they crash dive. Go for a tough geared reel like the Penn 525 multiplier and load with 25 to 30lb line straight through.

For casting away from the rocks, then a standard 4-6oz beachcaster, Penn 525 reel and 20lb line with a 60lb shock leader has the power to muscle fish back through heavy snags and weed.


A good all round bait for smaller wrasse when fishing breakwaters and rough ground is lugworm. Wrasse, you’d think, would rarely see lug in their natural habitat, yet it makes one of the best baits. Ragworm sometimes works too, as will sandeel, but these are secondary baits.

Crab is by far the best bait for ballan wrasse as it naturally forms the major part of their diet. Most anglers use sections of peeler crab with the shell removed and wrapped around the hook with bait elastic. This works well enough.

A better bait is to use small hardback crabs about the size of 10p to 50p pieces. Wrasse are used to crunching these and will really whack a whole small crab, plus bait collecting is easier.

To mount the crab on the hook, kill the crab by pinching it between the eyes, then insert the hook point in to the belly from the back of the crab and bring it out fully through the back shell to leave the hook point standing proud. You’ll need to match the hook size to the size of the crab.

Shore ballan wrasse

Always practice safety first when accessing rock ledges and rock platforms. Never fish alone and always make sure someone at home knows exactly where you will be fishing. Don’t rely on a mobile phone signal either as these can be unreliable!

The best wrasse fishing inevitably will be in the most physically demanding places to get too. Look for fissures that cut backwards in to the rock face, overhangs of rock that jut out from the shore, and cast out to where any big boulders show out on the surface away from the shore. Wrasse also like to live in deep water kelp beds too.

Always hold your rod when waiting for wrasse bites. Wrasse bit quickly and savagely as they bite through the crabs shell with their sharp teeth. The best way is to let the lead weight touch bottom and just keep tension on the line and rod tip to hold the crab up in the water. The rod tip may tremble for a split second before being pulled downwards. At the first sign of a bite strike otherwise you’ll miss the fish.

As soon as the wrasse is hooked keep the rod up and bully the fish away from the rocks. Wrasse will dive hard for the seabed and available cover when they feel the hook. Keep the drag set almost tight and able to only give line when absolutely needed. If you give wrasse a few feet of line you’ll more than likely lose them.

Always use the lightest lead you can get away with. Bomb shaped leads are best, or round drilled bullets. Being so shaped and relatively light they snag less, plus light leads will bounce across the seabed a little when the rod is lifted and give movement to the bait.

You can also use old spark plugs, big nuts and bolts, old keys, and anything else that’s heavy enough to take the crab down as a weight that is cheap and effective.

Float fishing is very effective as it presents a bait up in the water where it can be see and wrasse are good sight feeders, plus you can use the tidal flow to work the float through all the likely ground and cover more wrasse.

The best floats are the cigar shaped ones as these offer less resistance to taking fish than the dumpy egg shaped ones sometimes sold as sea floats. Set the float to slide with a stop knot above so you can periodically readjust the depth.

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