So, you’ve discovered Hard Rock Fishing and you love lure fishing for wrasse. Quite rightly, you will now want to learn a bit more detail and get involved in all the action. Well, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for the ultimate guide to HRF and lure fishing for wrasse!
While you will catch a multitude of species using HRF tackle and tactics, there is a single fish that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest as the key UK, HRF target – the beauteous Ballan Wrasse (Labrus bergylta).
While Ballan Wrasse are also a legitimate target of HRF’s lighter-weight cousin LRF, the distinction between the two disciplines is simply the size of the expected target. HRF, focusing on larger specimens with heavier, more appropriate tackle. For me, the size of the wrasse targeted with HRF are above 30cm in length. With any fish over 40cm being regarded a great catch, and a fish of 50cm or over as a fish of the season, if not a lifetime.
If weight is more your thing, our target for HRF is wrasse of over two pound or so. History hints at a double-figure Ballan Wrasse being entirely possible, but the official British records for the Ballan Wrasse currently stand at 9lb 1oz for shore caught (1998), and 9lb 7oz 12dr for boat caught (1999). The closeness between the shore and boat records highlights the equality and accessibility of big fish for both shore and boat anglers.
The HRF season
The HRF season is very much dictated by your location. But, if you are willing to travel the season can last all year. Take my local patch from Portsmouth to Selsey Bill as an example. I would say that lure fishing for wrasse is feasible from late March to mid December. Almost 9 months of the year and if anything, creeping further on each season. As you move West the season appears to extend, right the way down to Cornwall, the Scillies and the Channel Islands. At the other extreme, Scotland may only have 6 months of viable lure fishing for wrasse. Local knowledge will save you wasted time, but be prepared to push the accepted boundaries a little. We are pioneers!
To stand any chance of landing a Ballan Wrasse of the record sizes mentioned above, your tackle will need to be both suitable and well maintained. Even if you’ve been angling for a long time, it can be confusing trying to understand all the modern tackle associated with a new method. Here is my guide to HRF Tackle. I’ll try to explain what features you’re looking for, and make some recommendations based on the equipment that I use.
The question I get asked most about rod choice for HRF is, what casting weight is required. There are options, and in time should you get addicted to this exciting form of fishing you may end up with a few different weight rods to cover every eventuality. But, in terms of the most common, you are looking for rods that have a maximum casting weight somewhere between 18g and 30g. If you pushed me to choose one rating to start with, I would say a rod with a maximum rating of 30 gram.
The lower end of the casting rating is less important. Due to the size of the lures you will most commonly use with HRF, it is unlikely you’ll spend much time throwing super light rigs. Plus you have to consider the terrain you are fishing, as well as the potential size and strength of any fish you may catch.
Generally, HRF is a close-quarters-combat. Long casts are not required. So HRF rods are generally shorter then bass rods, between 7-feet and 8-and-a-half-feet. From the shore, unless your local area offers a lot of vertical fishing or close range ‘pitching’, you probably want to choose a rod at the longer end of this scale to help you lift fish up above any snags. Whereas for boat fishing, or close-quarters shore fishing, a rod nearer 7-feet will be more manoeuvrable for you. Easier to wield.
In common with either long or shorter rods, the one you choose should have a reasonably fast action. The problem with parabolic or more regular action rods for wrasse fishing is that a whippy rod can allow a hooked wrasse to get its head down and power back to the nearest snag. I describe a lot of HRF as ‘hit-n-hold’. If you give a big Ballan an inch, it will take a yard. It’s not quite that simple though, because a stiff rod and a locked-up drag will uncover any weakness in your line, knots and tackle. So you’re not after a broomstick of a rod either.
For the same reasons mentioned above, I would always recommend a tubular tipped rod for HRF wrasse fishing. Over a solid-tipped equivalent.
The majority of HRF fishing I do is with a spinning rod. Hard Rock Fishing with a baitcasting outfit is both legitimate and a very cool avenue to venture down. But, as I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this style of HRF, my recommendations are focused on my own preference – spinning rods.
Three of my favourite HRF rods:
1) HTO Nebula ML 2.1M – 5-22g
2) Nories Rock Fish Bottom MH 6’10 – 10-30g
3) Apia Brute HR Harbor Versatile MX 7’7 – 5-18g
Reels for HRF are much easier to define because the function is much less important. A smooth drag is always nice to have, but with HRF you’re likely to have the drag wound up quite tightly. So if your budget is stretched, your money is probably better spent on other tackle necessities. Focusing on spinning reels, the recommended size to look for is between 2500 and 3000. Large line capacity is not necessary for HRF so a shallow spool can be advantageous, but not essential. You should use cheap monofilament backing if your reel has a deeper spool.
Three of my favourite reels for HRF:
1) Shimano Stella 2500
2) Daiwa Certate 3000
3) Daiwa Infinity Q 3000
Mainline For HRF
For me, braid mainline is the choice for HRF. Even despite the harsh environments this relatively fragile line will have to face. The main reasons are sensitivity and hook-setting capability. The low-stretch attribute of all braided fishing lines achieve two things for us. Firstly, it better magnifies the bite. Wrasse are renowned for a single hit at the bait (the ‘tonk’). That single interaction is sometimes your only chance to hook the fish. You don’t want to miss it. And secondly, the vast majority of HRF is carried out with weedless rigs, requiring a solid strike to set an often buried hook-point. Low stretch braid facilitates this, over stretchy monofilament.
In terms of recommending the strength of line, like nearly all of my lure fishing, with HRF I tend to focus on the line diametre rather than the breaking strain. The Japanese ‘PE’ system of line classification simplifies this choice, over sometimes flaky advertised measurements.
My recommendation would be to choose a braid between PE0.6 and PE1.0 (with PE0.6 being the thinnest and PE1.0 the strongest). A PE0.8 is a great place to start as a novice. If you’re experienced with using modern braids, a PE0.6 may offer some advantages but require a bit more maintenance and skill. For reference, a PE0.6 may offer around 12-14lb breaking strain and PE1.0 up to as much as 20lb. Either is more than you will ever need for any wrasse. It’s more about abrasion resistance.
HRF is actually one angling discipline where cheaper 4-strand braid makes sense over the more intricate 8-strand braids. The reason is that for the same diameter and breaking strain, a 4-strand braid is slightly tougher and more resilient to abrasion. The reason is four thicker strands in the weave versus eight thinner ones. The only contradiction here is that the price of a decent 8-strand braid has come down in recent years. Meaning you can choose a smoother, more supple 8-strand braid as long as you regularly cut back and eventually replace the line as soon as it gets damaged. Lines are always very personal so I recommend trying a few different lines over time. And just to clarify, even though 4-strand is marginally tougher, it is in no way tough when faced with a heaving fish and barnacle covered rocks. This is why we must always use a leader.
Three of my favourite braided lines for HRF:
1) HTO Nebula X8
2) YGK G-Soul Upgrade X4
3) Duel Hardcore X4
Leader For HRF
As discussed already, a leader material is an essential part of HRF when using braided mainline. When the primary consideration is abrasion resistance there is an obvious choice – fluorocarbon. You want to find a fluorocarbon line that has a good balance between abrasion resistance and suppleness. Some of the toughest fluorocarbon lines come off the spool like a coiled spring. Stay clear of those. They will dampen the sensitivity of your braid.
Unlike my mainline, confusingly I consider my leader line choice by its breaking strain, over its diameter. There is a reason for this. The ideal scenario is to have a leader that is lighter in breaking strain than your braid mainline. The reason being is that when you have to pull for a break from a snag, you want the leader material to part, rather than your braid to part somewhere randomly between your leader knot and rod tip. You would get through a lot of braid and it’s never a good look leaving the seabed littered in lost braid.
Which creates our first dilemma. Because if you fish a particularly savage environment with granite, kelp and line-destroying-barnacles, you will be forced to used a heavier FC leader – say 15lb. That 15lb leader that you’ve matched to the environment you are fishing, dictates that your mainline braid needs to have a breaking strain of more than 15lb. This choice effectively rules out using a PE0.6 braid and even some PE0.8 options. This is probably a scenario where you should consider a PE1.0 braid. In contrast, if you’re fishing around boulders covered in algae and soft weeds you may be able to fish effectively with an 8lb leader, opening up the use of a PE0.6 braid mainline.
I use a choice of two different knots to join my fluorocarbon leader and braid mainline. The FG Knot or the Uni-to-Uni. The FG Knot is the superior knot in terms of knot-strength, maintaining nearly all the strength of the joined lines. But it is labour intensive to tie. Especially before you get used to tying it. The key benefit for me is that when you pull for a break, the weakest part in the system should be your knot to the hook. Meaning you have a very high chance of getting your leader back, which means it’s much quicker to get back in the game.
I will tie an FG Knot at home in preparation of a day’s fishing. If I lose my leader whilst fishing – normally due to braid damage – I will re-tie my leader using the Uni-to-Uni knot because it is much quicker to achieve a strong connection out in the open elements.
My two favourite fluorocarbon leaders for HRF:
1) HTO Nebula Fluorocarbon
2) YGK Nitlon DFC
HRF Hooks & Jigheads
Granted, for most of our Hard Rock Fishing, because of the nature of the environment we will focus on, weedless hooks are the most commonly used. Weedless, offset hooks allow us to rig soft plastic baits in such a way as to limit snagging the bottom, while maintaining an acceptable rate of fish-hooking capability. The first thing you need to understand is that weedless rigging will never achieve the same level of success in hooking fish (the hook-up ratio) compared to a more standard, open style hook. The reason we make this sacrifice is because fishing an open style hook in certain environments would result in snag after snag. Even if you’ve got all the money in the world, you can’t catch fish if you spend all your time retying leaders and rigs!
Ordinarily in all forms of lure fishing, hook sizing is appropriate to the size of lure you want to fish. In HRF, because we are often forced to use wide-gape, weedless offset hooks for most of our rockfishing, we need to consider the impact of these sizable hooks on our main target – the Ballan Wrasse.
Unlike the Largemouth Bass, where most of the popular HRF rigs originate, the Ballan Wrasse does not have a bucket-mouth. In fact, it doesn’t even have a protrusible mouth like other popular sport-fishes. The key point being that the size of the mouth opening is limited. As an extreme example, you couldn’t easily get an 8/0 offset hook through most wrasse’s open mouths. So we have to consider which size of wrasse we are ruling out when choosing our hook size. Which in turn may limit which lure you choose. A big lure won’t put off a small wrasse. But a big hook will eliminate the chance of catching them.
For me, the biggest offset hook I will use for HRF is 4/0, but that is when I am targeting oversize fish. With the understanding that I won’t hook the smaller ones. I’d say my most common size of offset hook I use for wrasse fishing would be a 1/0. Just like shoe sizes though, different brands’ hook sizes and gape patterns do differ quite a bit. My advice would be to carry a good selection of hooks to start with. You’ll work out what suits your style and favourite lures.
Weedless jighead styles are normally just extended offset hooks with a weighted head. The same rules apply, but consider that an offset hook with an attached weight is even harder for a wrasse to ingest. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its place though.
Lastly, I would implore you to consider flattening the barbs on your hooks when fishing for Ballan Wrasse. I do this instinctively now. In my experience it doesn’t affect my success in landing these fish. If there’s ever a moment of slack line, something has gone very wrong. Wrasse do not jump out of the water like freshwater bass! Apart from the obvious fish welfare here, the main reason I suggest switching to barbless is the unhooking process. We’ve already discussed how challenging it can be to get a sizeable offset hook inside the wrasse’s mouth in the first place. Well, now you’ve safely landed the fish, you need to be able to get the hook back out again. Ballan Wrasse’s mouths are both rubbery and limited on space. Unhooking is infinitely easier, quicker and fairer on the fish with a barbless hook. You will spend more time fishing and catching, with barbless hooks. Simple.
My knot of choice for the leader-to-hook connection is the Uni Knot.
Four of my favourite offset hooks for HRF:
1) Gamakatsu EWG Worm Offset
2) Decoy KG Worm 17
3) JungleGym Ring Rocker Offset
4) HTO All Round Weedless
For pure HRF it’s easier to first define the lures as exclusively soft-plastics. While this feels fairly narrow-minded compared to other branches of the sport, the variety of shapes and sizes is still vast. I’ll help you break them down:
Worm-shaped lures are an important category within UK HRF. Whilst they do work year-round, I tend to be drawn to them as my first choice in the hardest, early season period, from January to April. I feel this maybe the predominant forage for Ballan Wrasse during these months. And the wrasse are much slower coming out of their winter slumber. It’s important to note that worm-shaped lures aren’t limited to replicating marine worms. A white Senko does a great impression of a dying baitfish.
I also consider curl-tail grubs in this category. They appear to work in the same scenarios.
There’s something about throwing creature-baits at wrasse. It just feels right. If you’ve spent any time at all in sea angling, you know that Ballan Wrasse eat crab and other crustaceans. I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about how a Ballan Wrasse takes on a sizeable hardback crab, and although I’ll probably never see that with my own eyes, the bites seem to suggest that it’s violent! Thankfully there is a huge array of creature-baits available from freshwater bass fishing. Don’t worry that these crawfish shapes don’t exactly mimic our resident crab population. They all appear to be equally destroyed in the wrasse’s domain.
Have fun with colour choice. Browns, blacks, greens, reds, oranges, purples and even blues all appear in nature and feel like good choices for replicating our own saltwater crustaceans. Change to more see-through colours and you’ll impersonate another Ballan favourite, the prawn. Creature-baits between 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch appear to be the sweet-spot.
Once you let go of your prejudices and rightly consider the Ballan Wrasse as the apex predator of rock and reef, you’ll find that using fish style lures is where it’s at during late summer and autumn. They are feeding up for winter just like everything else. So as long as you consider which lures are correctly sized and supple enough to be taken by wrasse, they should play an important part in your rotation. Approach fishing shads and pintails as you would for any other species. Natural colours in clear water and so on. Don’t be put off by 4 or even 5-inch shads.
Through our hook choices we’ve highlighted one of the key challenges with wrasse fishing which is their non-protrusible and relatively small mouths. So it’s not by accident that a lot of the most popular HRF rigs have built-in articulation or a free-running weight. Lets look at a few HRF favourites:
The archetypal HRF rig. An offset hook, a bead and a cone weight. Super simple. Easy to tie. Can be used with a range of lure styles including, worm, creature and fish baits. The cone weight can be fixed in place, known as ‘pegged’, to fish more like a jighead. But, given everything we have discussed so far, it may be very advantageous to allow the lure to run freely. As with other rigs here, you’d do well to carry a range of weights to match the circumstances. A range of weights between 5 and 21 grams would be useful.
The Free Rig is Texas 2.0. It takes a successful idea and squeezes a bit more out of it. This is typical of the relentless tweaking between US and Japanese bass fishing techniques (although the Free Rig is actually Korean). Instead of using a cone sinker above the lure, the Free rig uses a drop-shot style column wight with a round-eye. Or any number of purpose designed weights, like a favourite of mine, the Bean sinker. For me, it’s about the change in angle of the line to the weight, allowing the lure to move more naturally. As well as how quickly the weight gets to the bottom. When fishing the Free Rig I tend to exaggerate the lift, knowing the weight will quickly return to the bottom, allowing my lure to fall naturally, unhindered. This has quickly become one of my favourite rigging methods in recent years.
The Cheb or Cheburashka rig appears to have a stronger following with HRF anglers than it does in other branches of lure fishing. Possibly because it’s very suitable for working creature baits along the seabed. Although the uniquely designed weight is connected directly to the hook, the level of articulation seems to allow wrasse to ingest the lure without too much resistance. The Cheb Rig’s party-piece is the ability to change hooks without having to re-tie. Just slide out the ‘paperclip’, swap out the hook, and carefully slide the clip back into the slot in lead ball.
Another Japanese rig that transitioned from bass fishing to HRF is the Jika Rig. In some senses it is like a Dropshot Rig with zero drop. However, your leader material is tied directly to a metal ring that holds both the hook and sinker. It has a similar level of articulation to the Cheb Rig, casts well, and has unparalleled feedback for bottom-contact.
With all this talk of weedless applications for rockfishing you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no place for the simple jig-head. But I quickly learned that it was often the killer method when the right situation allowed. Direct contact with the lure and the fish has advantages. As does the narrower gaped J-style hooks. Being easily taken in by the wrasse. But you can’t let a standard jig-head sink under the weed or into rock crevices or it will be lost. Where I use this most is slow-retrieving over the top of weed that is flattened by the tide. I’m effectively skimming it over the top of cover. As slow as I dare. This method has accounted for more wrasse than any other. But be prepared for losses.
This technique isn’t common at all, but in recent years I’ve become addicted to it. It’s a very active method which resembles a standard Jighead rig. The main differences are the bullet or triangular head, the stick-like soft-plastic lure resembling a baitfish, and the action itself. As the name suggests, the lure is made to dart using the rod tip. Left and right in large or small arcs. I fish this method above the ambush structure where I know wrasse are hunting. When the biggest wrasse are keyed-in on baitfish this is a killer method with the most amazing takes. You’ve drawn the fish away from their ambush positions so this is best described as hit-n-run fun!
It should be pretty easy to research wrasse fishing locations. To date, wrasse marks do not appear to be held in such high regard as bass marks. I think that will change over time. Certainly, I value my best wrasse fishing marks over and above pretty much anything else. So scour social media. Ask in tackle shops (be prepared to be laughed at). And scrutinize Google Earth for access to suitable looking rock marks. Pack light, get out there with an Ordinance Survey map and start discovering. It’s part of the fun.
I think it’s fair to say that the South and West Coasts have the vast monopoly on famous wrasse fishing marks, however be aware that the West coastline continues all the way to Scotland! Albeit for a more condensed season. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the wrasse I’ve discovered in the most unlikely of places, when I’ve given it some thought. You don’t need to be stood on rock to catch Ballan Wrasse. You just need to cast to it. Or at the very least, weed, boulders or structure.
For those with access to boats, the options are much wider. After half a lifetime of fishing the same area I’ve been absolutely amazed at what wrasse fishing I’ve found on my doorstep, once I put my mind to it. With modern marine charts it’s easier than ever to find suitable fishing ground. Reef systems, kelp forests and rock ledges could all hold a fish of a lifetime.
Remember, safety is paramount. Sometimes, you’ll spend ages scrambling to a mark only to discover the access isn’t straight-forward, or the conditions are dangerous. Rather than risk a life, use those times as a learning exercise for future sessions. Or try a safer option. And clearly, the shallowest of rocks and reefs don’t mix well with boats. So take care, do your planning and adapt if necessary. No fish is worth risking your life.