Massive Ballan Wrasse
A tale of anecdotes that led me to change my perspective on whether the Ballan Wrasse (Labrus bergylta) was just a pretty, territorial fish or in fact, a grade-A, formidable predator!

The accepted norm

Like you, I grew up reading angling press and literature that almost unanimously labelled the Ballan Wrasse as ‘territorial’. Through the 80s, 90s and early 2000s the image of the Ballan Wrasse painted in my mind remained the same. A slow, brown fish, sulking around weed and rocks, hiding from tidal flow and making a living levering shellfish off of rocks and munching on the odd hardback crab.

Mostly, my own fishing at the time (with bait) didn’t offer any contradiction to what I’d read. Picking up the odd oversize wrasse on worm baits, at the end of Plaice drift. Or once in a blue moon catching wrasse on crab baits meant for Smoothhound. I remained happy with the status quo until I found lure fishing.

Like other sea anglers of the time, the scope of species accepted as legitimate targets for lure fishing was limited to a handful of summer species. Like others, I was drawn to bass fishing with hardbaits. Fishing shallow, rocky areas from the boat and shore I would stumble across Ballan Wrasse with some regularity. This perked my interest. Mainly because wrasse hadn’t been highlighted as a legitimate target for lures. This was probably the first time I acknowledged the widespread description of “territorial”. Without much in the way of experience or visible insight as to what was going on underwater it seemed entirely logical that my bass lures were occasionally entering the domain of the Ballan Wrasse and annoying one enough to attack. I never questioned why a ‘shellfish and crustacean feeder’ was so upset that a sandeel or sand smelt had dared to encroach.

This point of view started to shift only once I discovered rockfishing (HRF) and fishing soft plastic lures more slowly. Egged on by the writings and successes of the true pioneers of this activity in the UK, I started to enjoy a new and modern form of lure fishing with its roots in Japan. Everything about HRF was exciting. The tackle. The techniques. Even the ‘uniform’. But one thing remained constant. What we thought we knew about the main target – the Ballan Wrasse.

In those early days we threw a multitude of plastic worms and creaturebaits (mimicking crustaceans) at the humble wrasse, because that’s what they ate after all. Occasionally I would read that someone progressive had success throwing goby imitations at wrasse and it would ignite my imagination about why these fish were so grumpy and protective of their patch of seabed. I think the closest I got to a hypothesis was that it was probably related to breeding. Maybe the gobies ate the wrasse’s eggs (which definitely does happen, in retrospect). That’s why they were territorial. Bizarrely, I chose not to question whether Ballan Wrasse bred all year and stayed guarding the same rock for 10, 20 or 30 years!

“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean floor”

I don’t know who said that statement but it resonated with me instantly when I first heard it. I think that is a big part of why I love sea angling as a hobby. At times it does feel like there are still discoveries to be made about life under the sea. Take some of the discoveries by Attenborough’s Blue Planet team in recent years. Their discovery of the Japanese puffer fish that builds the most ornate nest sites comes to mind. In a world where everything feels ‘completed’ for the average man, the sea is still an exciting frontier.

So with that in mind, it was my own experiences of the past 8 years or so that made me start to challenge some of the popular beliefs about Ballan Wrasse. To labour the point, I never set out to challenge popular belief in Ballan Wrasse behaviour. My beliefs were just challenged more and more as my focus and opportunities to fish for wrasse grew. My evidence, your honour…

Wrasse marks are bass marks

Starting with an easy one. One fact that seems glaringly obvious now, especially given the extensive catch logs that I have kept for the past 6 years. Wrasse marks ARE bass marks. Especially when considering specimens of each species. We know that Ballan Wrasse prefer shallow ground and we know they seem to congregate around rock and reef formations. But we don’t seem to consider why. Bass on the other hand, I’m sure most seasoned lure anglers would understand that Bass love the tidal flow over, and breaks in, tidal flow that a rock formation laid across the tide can generate. Giving the Bass an advantage over its prey. I think we also readily understand that skinny water offers the bass a further advantage. The less water between the seabed and the surface gives baitfish less places to hide or escape. Why don’t we give a 4lb Ballan Wrasse the same level of understanding?

The first time I acknowledged this was at one of the early Cornish Lure Festivals. We stumbled across a mark that was almost perfect by design. Zooming out for a moment, it was a medium-sized, sandy bay with quite a strong tide flow, left to right, on the tide that we encountered it. What sets this bay apart is a short, narrow arm of granite bizarrely positioned in the centre of the bay. It looks most odd. I think the only reason that this rock hasn’t split the bay into two is the amount of current passing around it. Perhaps once upon a time it was two bays. Anyway, we looked at it and thought it looked good for bass. There was quite a rip over the submerged part of the rock. We expected to find bass, but once we clambered to an elevated casting position we were shocked to find wrasse. Big Ballan Wrasse!

The next hour (we were supposed to be species hunting!) was some of the best shore fishing for wrasse that I have ever experienced. We would cast out our shads (bass lures!) uptide and watch as wrasse after wrasse would smack the lure as it was swept over the peak of rock, at speed. They were queuing up. Each fish between 3 and 4 pound. We were gobsmacked! This behaviour was not in the textbooks.

It’s a sprint, not a marathon

A critical piece of information that I didn’t recognise at the time was the distance between where the wrasse could hold and where their prey came through. Whether you bat for Darwin or Jesus, either Ballan Wrasse are ambush predators because they can only sprint short distances, or they only need to sprint short distances because their place in the world is as an ambush predator. Either way, it’s important to highlight the point. The reason that not all bass marks are wrasse marks – sand banks for example – is because Ballan Wrasse are ambush predators. They might compete with Bass over short distances, but over any real distance the Bass will always win. Which is a neat segue to my next observation.

Wrasse fishing from the boat offers a unique vantage point that you rarely get from the shore. Quite often I fish vertically with heavy shads as we drift over a reef. It adds a level of control that you wouldn’t have if you dragged a lure over a weedy structure. You’d just snag nine times out of ten. Anyway, this method gifted me an amazing experience one day. The water was crystal clear and it was like fishing an aquarium. Sometimes that doesn’t help the fishing but this day, for whatever reason, the fish were firing. On one particular drift I was stood on the bow of my boat guiding my 4-inch shad around the worst of the weed as we drifted up a slab of rock. At the moment we passed the high-point, two fish entered my peripheral vision. A Bass of around 3lb and a Ballan Wrasse of around 4lb. They were both locked-on to the lure and paid me absolutely no attention, despite being stood only a couple feet above them. It was raw nature. The Sussex Serengeti!

As it happens, in this instance the Bass won the ‘prize’. Which I’ll be honest, was slightly disappointing for me! But the episode remains vivid in my mind to this day. A special insight into life on the reef. And a cornerstone in my belief that Ballan Wrasse are not just territorial. This was out and out war between fish species.

As an interesting side-line, a wrasse of that size is an old fish with lots of experience. The fact that it entered the race with the Bass suggests that sometimes in the past it has won. That’s an interesting episode to picture.

Does my arse look territorial in this?

Speaking of pictures, the fish in the photograph at the top of this post is one of the most exciting in recent times. The Ballan Wrasse measured an enormous 51cm and had filled-out, as big wrasse do. A stunning fish.

I caught this fish accidentally while targeting Bass. You can see I was using a deep-bodied, shad. The lure and jig head measure around five and a half inches. Ordinarily this isn’t what I would use to target wrasse. Their non-protrusible mouths can’t vacuum feed as well as the bucket-mouthed Bass so, my theory is thinner, supple baits are better suited. But this fish hadn’t read the script. It’s an amazing capture to this point, but the part of the story that isn’t revealed by the photograph is the 6-inch, part-digested Pouting that it ejected onto my deck. This wrasse, possibly all, are badass!

Does a part digested, 6-inch Pouting suggest purely-territorial to you?

The episode with the pout-eating-monster-wrasse set me off on a research exercise. I wanted to see if the internet held further evidence of pout-munching mega wrasse. That’s when I stumbled across the 1912 story of Mr F A Mitchell-Hedges of Looe and his record Ballan Wrasse of 12lb 12oz. It’s a fascinating story with the plot twists of a Hollywood blockbuster and I implore you to read up on it if you enjoy wrasse fishing or indeed fish records and historic angling literature. There’s a reason that 12lb 12oz isn’t the current Ballan Wrasse record. But in summary, in the early twentieth-century, specimen sized Ballan Wrasse were revered perhaps more than they have been in recent times. Renowned specimen hunters of the era would target record-breaking fish for glory. And what did they use as bait? Yep, you’ve guessed it. Live Pouting! Sometimes I’m reminded that, as a race, we seem to have forgotten more than we currently know.

Could eat an apple through a tennis racket

Lastly, the small matter of those teeth. Fuelled by popular angling literature, I definitely grew up with the belief that Ballan Wrasse teeth were about prising shellfish from rocks. But if you’ve ever been brave enough to stick your prized index finger inside a big Ballan’s mouth (don’t try this at home kids, I might have been lucky!) you were probably surprised that you didn’t lose it! A Ballan’s bite seems under-powered to me. Much more likely that these teeth are to grip and disable moving prey – a prawn, a sandeel, and so on. For the record, I would not stick my finger in a parrotfish’s mouth!

There you have it. These are some of the key reasons that I’ve changed my opinion on the not-so-humble Ballan Wrasse. And the reason my admiration and respect for the species has grown beyond their technicolour dreamcoats. A truly underrated UK sport-fish.

If you like the sound of Hard Rock Fishing (HRF) and targeting big Ballan Wrasse on appropriate tackle, check out my Ultimate Guide to HRF. It has recommendations on what gear you need to get started plus, a load of tips and techniques to help you catch.