With their stocky bodies, rows of thick, protective scales and wide tails, wrasse are perfectly suited to their rocky environment. Colouring varies considerably. Some wrasse have bright orange bellies with pale white flecks, reddish-brown flanks and black backs. Others can be just as spectacular with white undersides and blackish-green tinges to their flanks, dappled with crimson rings.
Many inexperienced anglers can testify to the wrasses’ sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Their lips are thick- an unmistakable feature – and their eyes are large.
Wrasse feed primarily by sight and are affected by the tide movement like most sea fish – they usually feed when the water is high. But if you toss a juicy lugworm in among a group of wrasse, you can tempt them to feed at any time during the day.
Wrasse usually stay in one area, preferring not to move too far out when the tide drops. Only when the weather is extremely cold in mid-winter do they move out to deeper, warmer water. Extreme cold for long periods of time can drastically reduce wrasse populations.
Wrasse have powerful pharyngeal teeth which enable them to eat peeler and hardback crabs, mussels, shrimps and molluscs. They also feed on razorfish, barnacles, small worms and fry.
Fishing for them at night is futile – a peculiar feature of the fish is that they sleep at night between rock crevices or in kelp forests. Divers have actually picked up sleeping wrasse at night!
Rough and rocky
Wrasse are commonly found along the rocky (granite) coastlines of western Britain and Ireland – in water up to a maximum depth of 20m (66ft). Anglers beware -wrasse are renowned for making tremendous first runs, retreating into the safety of their crevices and more than likely breaking your line. You must not be bullied by the hooked fish; otherwise, you’ll lose it. Reefs and gullies also provide suitable habitat, but shallow surf and silty beaches don’t.
Another feature of ballan wrasse is that they are one of the few fish which build nests before they spawn. Using kelp, oar-weeds and other seaweeds, wrasse build small nests in rock crevices. The nest is then coated with a thin mucus lining.
When wrasse are about six years old, they become sexually mature. In June or July the females deposit numerous eggs in their nests. When the eggs hatch, the fry -which are all female – swim to shallow waters where they feed on plankton.
After several seasons of producing eggs, some of the female wrasse (aged five to seven years) change sex and become functioning males – though there always seems to be more females in a shoal than males. The exact reason for this change is not known but it is thought that having more females in a population means that more offspring are produced.