There are over six hundred species of wrasse throughout the world. Most are small fish but some – such as the comically named humphead wrasse (found only in the Pacific and Indian Oceans) – can grow to eight feet in length. There are two main species of wrasse which are of interest to the UK sea angler: the ballan wrasse and the cuckoo wrasse, as well as a number of other smaller wrasse which is often classed as mini-species. All wrasse species live in rocky areas and are adapted to feed on animals found in this environment such as shellfish and crustaceans. They also tend to live in relatively shallow water and are rarely found offshore, meaning they can be easily targeted by shore-based sea anglers. Wrasse also have a highly unusual life cycle which is described below.

Ballan Wrasse
Ballan Wrasse

  • Scientific name: Labrus bergylta
  • Size: Can grow to almost 3ft and 10lbs. UK shore caught typically 1 – 3lbs.
  • UK minimum size: 9ins/23cm
  • UK shore caught record: 9lb 1oz
  • IGFA world record: 9lb 9oz
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Fairly common in rocky inshore coastal areas all around the UK, although highest concentration (and biggest specimens) found in the south and especially the south west of England.
  • Feeds on: All kinds of shellfish such as mussels, cockles, limpets and winkles. Also eats all manner of crustaceans and occasionally small fish.
  • Description: Stoutly built fish with a broad body and large scales. A single, long dorsal fin that extends all of the way along the back and rounded tail fin. Colour ranges from brown/reddish to dark green, with light spots and a paler belly. The mouth is fairly small and lips are prominent. Teeth and jaws are powerful.

Ballan wrasse are the biggest and most common wrasse around the UK coastline. They can grow to around ten pounds in weight, although one of half this size would be a very good catch for a UK sea angler. They inhabit rocky areas and will be found in mixed ground, but the heavier, rocky marks will hold the highest numbers and the biggest fish. Wrasse feed primarily on shellfish. Their thick lips and sharp front teeth are adapted to pull shellfish from the sides of rocks, and they have powerful teeth located further back in their throat to crunch through the shells and get to the flesh inside. They will also feed on crustaceans and can easily consume hardback crabs and small lobsters. Ballan wrasse will come into shallow water and will feed on shellfish attached to submerged cliff faces and inshore rocks. Wrasse also prefer areas where there is heavy kelp and seaweed cover.

Cuckoo Wrasse
Cuckoo Wrasse

  • Scientific name: Labrus mixtus
  • Size: Does not grow much bigger than 12ins and 2lb. UK shore caught typically under 1lb.
  • UK minimum size: 9ins/23cm
  • UK shore caught record: 1lb 12oz
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Found all around the UK, but like the ballan it is more common in the south and west.
  • Feeds on: Crustaceans and shellfish.
  • Description: Body is somewhat slimmer and elongated compared to the ballan wrasse. Extremely colourful fish with a clear difference between the sexes. Immature males and females are a mix of pink, orange and red. Females have three black spots on their back behind the dorsal fin while these are absent on males. Mature males have blue heads and orange bodies, with blue stripes and mottled patterns running the length of the body and on the edges of the fins (male cuckoo wrasse pictured above). Similar mouth and teeth as the ballan wrasse.
Female Cuckoo Wrasse
A female cuckoo wrasse in its natural environment.

Cuckoo wrasse are much more colourful than their ballan cousins and can have colouration more associated with tropical fish than a species found in the temperate waters around the British Isles. They are much smaller than ballan wrasse, only growing to a maximum of around two pounds in weight and specimens caught by UK anglers are usually much smaller than this. They generally prefer slightly deeper water than ballan wrasse and do not come into very shallow inshore waters, although they can still be caught by the shore angler. They have the same kind of prominent lips and teeth as the ballan wrasse and have the same mostly shellfish diet. In many areas populations of ballan and cuckoo wrasse will overlap.

Other Species of Wrasse in UK Waters

Corkwing Wrasse
A corkwing wrasse.

There are several other wrasse species caught in UK waters. The corkwing wrasse (Crenilabrus melops) which is a small fish, rarely exceeding 8 – 9 inches in length. Females are brown/green and are often mistaken for small ballan wrasse. The male has bright green and gold wavy lines along its body and can be confused with cuckoo wrasse. The best way to identify a corkwing is to look at the tail. There is a clear black spot on the wrist of the tail which only the corkwing wrasse has.

The goldsinny wrasse (Ctenolabrus rupestris) is the smallest of all, rarely exceeding six inches and a few ounces in weight. This species can be brownish, greenish or orangey-red in colour with a paler belly. There is a faint black spot in front of the dorsal fin and a distinct black spot at the top section of the tail.

Goldsinny Wrasse
A goldsinny wrasse with the black spot on the tail clearly visible.

This species is found in shallow inshore waters towards the west and south west of Britain and Ireland (although it seems to be extending its range northwards) and can only be caught by anglers using tiny baits and hooks sized 6 – 10 due to the small size of this fish. In addition to this there is the rock cook wrasse (Centrolabrus exoletus), also known as the small-mouth wrasse, the scale-rayed wrasse (Acantholabrus palloni) and the Baillon’s wrasse (Symphodus bailloni). Due to their small size, these species of wrasse are mainly caught by anglers using Light Rock Fishing (LRF) methods and techniques.

Life Cycle

Wrasse are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they have a very unusual life cycle. All wrasse are born female and remain female for the first part of their lives. Being a relatively slow-growing species they take around two years to reach six inches in length and will not reach sexual maturity until they are around six years old. At this point around half of the wrasse will transform into males and be able to breed with the wrasse which have remained female. Spawning takes place in late spring and summer with wrasse building a nest of seaweed wedged between rocks which contains the eggs. They will then defend the nest aggressively (this may explain why wrasse attack lures, although they still do this outside of the breeding season when they do not have nests to defend). After a few weeks the eggs will have hatched and the larvae will have floated away from the nest, where they will eventually grow and repeat the cycle.

Commercial Value

Cuckoo Wrasse
Cuckoo wrasse offer anglers the chance to catch a species which looks like it belongs in tropical waters, but have no commercial value.

Although wrasse are edible they are not a popular food fish in Britain and there is very little demand for this species from commercial fisheries. The fact that they live in shallow, inshore rocky waters mean that they are mostly protected from being caught as bycatch in trawlers nets. Since wrasse are a long-lived and slow-growing fish that doesn’t mature until a late stage of life their numbers can be noticeably reduced by anglers, so most people fish for this species on a catch and release basis. Both ballan and cuckoo wrasse are currently considered species of Least Concern by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Ballan wrasse also has value as a ‘cleaner fish’ which pick parasites (particularly sea lice) off high value farmed fish such as salmon. There are concerns that wrasse stocks are being depleted around much of Europe as large numbers are being taken from the wild in order to stock fish farms with cleaner fish.

Methods and Techniques to Catch Wrasse

Wrasse can be caught with a range of different methods and on a number of different baits. Furthermore, recent years have seen anglers across the UK having success catching wrasse on soft plastics and other lures. Wrasse are daytime feeders, lying dormant on the seabed or hidden away between gaps in rocks or in crevices during darkness. They can be caught all year round, but catches from the shore are generally better in spring, summer and early autumn, as cold weather will send the wrasse into deeper offshore waters. Rough, choppy seas and bad weather can also see wrasse disappear into their hiding places and bites dry up.

Bait Fishing on the Seabed

Two Wrasse
A pair of wrasse caught on a two hook flapping rig fished on the seabed. Note that due to the snaggy ground being fished a spark plug has been used as an alternative to a fishing weight.

Wrasse will scour and scavenge on the seabed and can therefore be caught with baits presented on conventional rigs. Bottom fishing is best with hooks which are around size 1/0 or thereabouts. Wrasse do not have large mouths but they can attack baits aggressively and if hooks are too small wrasse can take them all of the way down into their body where they will be difficult (or impossible) to remove. When fishing from deep water rock marks wrasse will be found close in and so long casting and complicated rigs are not needed – many anglers simply use one hook or two hook flapping rigs. However, due to the snags which are inevitably present in the areas where wrasse are present it is a good idea to incorporate weak link releases or rotten bottoms into rigs or use other techniques such as using spark plugs instead of weights to save money on lost tackle.

Wrasse Mouth
All wrasse have relatively small mouths, but they have powerful jaws and strong teeth.

All wrasse feed on shellfish and crustaceans and have thick lips to pull shellfish from rocks and powerful teeth and jaws to crunch through the shells of these creatures. Despite shellfish making up the bulk of the diet of the wrasse they will take a wide range of baits. Worms work well with ragworm seeming to have a higher success rate than lugworm. Shellfish of all types will be taken, as well as fish baits such as mackerel strip. Wrasse will take peeler crab, with cuckoos in particular being caught to a small section of peeler. Ballan wrasse are one of the few species which will take hardback crab, but it is usually best to add a little piece of mackerel to this bait to add some scent.

Float Fishing

Unhooking Wrasse
An angler unhooks a wrasse caught on a float rig.

Wrasse will swim in mid-water and will look for shellfish and other sources of food which are attached to rocks which makes float fishing an excellent method to catch wrasse. The adjustable float rig is all that is needed to successfully catch this species, and anglers can buy individual floats or ready-made float kits from Sea Angling Shop by clicking here. It is not necessary to cast out far with a float rig, indeed the best results are often achieved by presenting a float fished bait along a pier wall or rock structure, as wrasse will be swimming along the wall looking for shellfish and other small creatures to feed on. It is worth varying the depth at which the bait is presented, with a shallower depth being selected if a deep-fished bait is not getting any interest. Using an adjustable float rig allows anglers to change the depth at which their rig is presented quickly which is the major advantage of using this type of rig.

Wrasse Rock
Float fishing very close to rocks or a pier wall can be effective as wrasse will naturally come close to structures to look for food.

Many anglers are surprised that good-sized wrasse can be caught very close in, but this is indeed the case. When it comes to bait a lively, wriggling ragworm is a great bait to float fish for wrasse, but peeler crab and mackerel strip can also produce results.

Lures and Plastics

Despite the fact that wrasse are not hunters and seldom feed on other fish they can be taken on lures, especially soft jelly worms. There are several theories for this. One is that wrasse mistake these lures for species they do feed on such as prawns. Another theory is that wrasse are actually defending their territory when they attack lures, especially when they have eggs in the water, and bite at other fish (and lures) to chase them away from their area, rather than to feed. However, wrasse will still be caught on lures outside of the breeding season, which casts some doubt on this theory. Whatever the reason there is no doubt that wrasse do indeed take soft plastics, and many anglers catch wrasse using these type of lures.

Curl Tail Worms
Jelly worms are a top lure for catching wrasse.

Most anglers using soft lures to catch wrasse step down to light rods and reels, with many anglers fishing for wrasse using LRF (Light Rock Fishing) or HRF (Hard Rock Fishing) methods and techniques. Jelly worms and lures of various sizes can be used, and most a set up in the Texas or weedless style as this allows lures to be dragged through heavy weed cover without becoming snagged. Jig heads or other weights can be added to provide weight for casting, and anglers usually carry a range of differently coloured jelly lures so they can find out which colour is producing the bites on a particular day. As with float fishing, finding a fish holding area which has natural food sources for wrasse is more important than casting distance, with anglers jigging lures up and down along a rock face to attract the attention of wrasse, or casting short distances and drawing lures through the water to get a wrasse to attack. Many anglers remark on the ferocity with which wrasse hit soft plastic lures, and the fight they put up when fought on light tackle.

Landing Wrasse

As wrasse are fish that live in rocky areas anglers should give some thought as to how fish will be landed once they have taken a bait – a landing net can be useful when fishing many wrasse marks to ensure that any wrasse which are hooked is successfully landed.

Wrasse Landing Net
Landing nets can be particularly helpful when landing species such as wrasse.

Anglers should be careful when handling wrasse as the dorsal fin can consist of large spines which can pierce and cut the hands of unwary anglers. Wrasse are not popular eating fish at all, and it makes sense to return them to the sea, although wrasse that have been pumped up from deep water can die on the surface as this species is extremely sensitive to changes in water pressure.