An Irish Anglers World

Bruising Ballan’s

I caught my first ballan wrasse as a fourteen year old along the cliffs below the Vico road, Killiney, Co. Dublin. Walking down the steps to Whiterock surrounded by bracken and gorse, over the pedestrian railway bridge, stopping to look down before descending the second flight of steps to the beach. Tucked in under the cliffs Whiterock with its purpose built concrete diving platform, great for fishing off, produced flounder, plaice, pollack, codling, and an odd bass. To the east a number of bluffs and coves, filled with boulders and kelp provided an ideal environment for wrasse. On hot summer days when the sea was like glass, casting a single lug baited hook into sandy patches between or in front of the kelp resulted in purposeful bites and rod thumping tussles with this deep, lusty, colourful, rubber lipped fish. Quite often a tug of war as a large ballan would bore deep heading for the kelp fronds, their thuggish fight and willingness to feed during the hottest of days making them a welcome quarry for a fledgling angler, and a favoured species to this day.

Ballan wrasse are widespread around the coastline of Ireland, with the exposed Atlantic facing cliffs and headlands of the west and south west counties of in particular Cork, Kerry, and Clare providing an ideal environment for this hardy species. Large tough scales, muscular, narrow but deep in body, a broad paddle like tail, and a mouth full of crushing teeth enable it to live in a rough tough environment. Contending with Atlantic swells amid rocks and kelp forests cannot be easy. Colourful to say the least, the bodies of wrasse in the main are mottled brown/green fading to a creamy off white underbelly, with their throats a lattice of red, white, and turquoise blue lines. Depending on the surroundings wrasse can adopt various colour schemes from dark brown to russet, even orange. Deep set with broad shoulders, the angular head contains a set of long triangular teeth ideal for prizing limpets off rocks, and crushing the shells of crustaceans, a favourite diet of wrasse.

A thumper of a wrasse, image courtesy of Rob Hume, photographer, England.

Wrasse devour hardback crabs, the best bait for this species and easy to collect. Bring a bucket and search below the tide line along rocky shores and close to harbour walls. Looking under wrack and lifting suitable rocks to see what lies beneath will expose green shore crab, small edible crab, velvet swimmers, and butterfish. It usually does not take long to gather enough, covered in bladder wrack they will last a number of days. A good second option is ragworm, wriggly and visible, a great wrasse bait with a slight downside, it has a noticeable tendency to winkle out the smaller fish. Thirdly, if crab or worm baits are in short supply knock a few limpets off the rocks.  A get out bait if all else fails, wrasse will avidly take this common shellfish.

The environment that wrasse live in is harsh, deep heavy swells at the base of Atlantic cliffs, kelp forests, boulder fields, local currents generated by gaps, fissures, and holes in the rocks. Visually these places look awesome, the kelp waving to and fro, crystal clear water aerated and fizzing with foam as the waves rise, suck, and crash along the cliff face. Dangerous too, anglers have to keep a weather eye at all times for that rogue wave. Even on flat calm days swells generated far out in the ocean can rise up on the shore 10, 12, 15 feet or more, you just do not know. So place tackle bags, etc, well above the tide line and choose a fishing station accordingly.

Playing a ballan wrasse on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork, Ireland.

Gearing up for wrasse is easy. There are two main approaches, down the wall and float fishing. In both cases use an old but strong beach caster, teamed up with a 6500 size multiplier for down the wall and a medium size fixed spool reel if choosing the float. The initial dive of a wrasse is powerful heading towards the safe haven of swaying kelp, if the fish makes the weed invariably but not always it is lost. Better to play the percentages, a strong rod tips the scales towards the angler. Keep terminal gear simple, for down the wall use a single strong 2/0 hook on a short 10″ snood about 2-3 foot above the weight. Spark plugs are ideal sinkers, cheap and expendable, make friends with a local mechanic. If float fishing use a single 2/0 hook below a sliding cigar float. amnesia is ideal for the hook lengths which ever approach is used, and equally suitable as a rotten bottom for the spark plugs.

Down the Wall

When ledger fishing deep water wrasse marks in a lot of cases one does not need to hit bottom with the sinker. Wrasse swim in and above the weed and can be found feeding from the sea floor right up through the kelp forest. Find an area of moving water below a rock platform which is aerated, whirling, and foam flecked, ballan’s love this environment. The trace should comprise a foundation of mono with a swivel at the top. Keep it simple, use a loop to connect the short hook snood, and loop in a rotten bottom about three feet below to which a spark plug is tied. Hooks should be strong 2/0 and long shanked. Bait up with crab or ragworm and initially cast out about twenty metres into the broken water. When the weight hits the water engage the reel immediately and let the end rig drift back in towards the rock face. If fish are present heavy rattling bites will occur almost instantly.

Big and powerful, a heavy set ballan wrasse from West Cork, Ireland.

Keep the rod angled downwards and maintain a tight line. Thump thump the rod tip will be pulled around, when this happens set the hook while raising the rod and reel simultaneously without stopping. Even a tight drag will give line to a large ballan, they are that strong. A hooked fish will swim downwards towards the nearest safe haven. Hang on and keep reeling is the key action, it’s not pretty but it is effective. The rod will buck and the line will sing, fish will be lost through line breaks and straightened hooks. Many bites will be missed, worm and crab will be crunched and sucked off hooks, but the action will be intense. Eventually the wrasse in the particular hole chosen, and that is an apt description, will go quite due to the activity. When that happens move along to a new spot and start again.

Float Fishing

This method requires a large cigar shaped sliding float about 7-8 inches in length by 1.5 inches in diameter, requiring about half to one ounce of lead to cock it. Again use the beach caster coupled with a 6000 size fixed spool reel loaded with mono. Pass the main line through the float, thread a bead up the line, and then thread one or two drilled bullets (enough to cock the float) before tying on a small swivel. Attach about three foot of amnesia to the swivel with a 2/0 long shanked hook at the business end. Again bait with crab or ragworm. Lugworm and limpets are a more then adequate second best.

Ballan wrasse, image courtesy of Rob Hume, photographer, England.

To fix hard back crab on the hook first remove the claws and one back leg. Pass the hook through the leg socket and out piercing the triangular flap on the rear underside of the crab. Making sure that the hook point is exposed, set the depth using a rubber stopper situated up the line. These can be shop bought however a small piece of elastic band tied on proves just as effective. When cast out the mainline will be pulled through the float by the weights. The stopper will jam in the top of the float and the bait will now fish at the correct depth which should be just above the weeds.

Wrasse and even pollack will observe from below the wriggling worm or pulsing crab legs, rise up engulf and dive into the weed. Topside the float will bob and slide under, set the hook and reel like blazes. Less fish will be lost in this way given the advantage of being hooked above the weeds. That said ballan wrasse are tough and doughty fighters scraping all the way to the net. A big one could be likened to Mike Tyson, an unforgiving pugilist. Again hang on, beat the first dive or two and the fish is yours.

Rob Hume wrasse fishing on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork, Ireland.

Close on thirty six years have passed since I landed my first wrasse and the thrill of fishing for them still has not diminished. Wild places harbour the biggest specimens requiring long walks out onto rugged headlands and scrambles down to suitable vantage points. Only carry the necessary in a ruck sack, tell a friend where you are going for safety reasons, watch for that rogue wave, pick a vantage point above a suitable wrasse hole, and take care. Never go wrasse fishing in the wet, people do but it is not advised, rocks are slippy and unforgiving. Wear suitable hiking boots and pack breathable wet weather gear along with the lunch, just in case. Carry the bait in a cool box, always bring a spare rod and reel, and have fun. Ballan wrasse are an obliging species, willing to feed on the brightest of days,  hard fighting, and in these days of diminishing fish stocks thankfully plentiful both in size and numbers. They are beautiful to look at and a worthy quarry, a real sport fish.

For further reading, click on: Hole Lotta Wrasse.

Ashley Hayden © 2010