The ruffe (also known as the pope or Tommy ruffe) is one of the smallest fish native to England, with an average length of 10cm (4in). It is a member of the perch family, its spiny first fin and soft second dorsal fin revealing its family origins. These two fins form a continuous line on the ruffe – something they don’t do on the perch. The ruffe raises its prickly first dorsal fin to show aggression towards rivals and predators, and uses the second for steering.
You can also distinguish the ruffe by its large, scaleless head. On the underside are big, slime-filled cavities used as sensory devices.
With its subtle colouring, the ruffe blends in easily with the murky river bed. Its body is light olive green with rows of small dark brown speckles on its back, sides, tail and dorsal fins.
Keeping its mouth shut
Despite its lack of size, the ruffe is an important fish for the match angler. Oddly enough, whereas most fish, when caught, gladly open their mouths to enable you to get the hook out, the ruffe makes this job very difficult by keeping its small (but strong) mouth firmly shut.
Lower reaches of slow-flowing rivers, canals and fen drains are home to the ruffe, but it is less common in still waters. It thrives in clean water of reasonable depth and with a sandy or gravelly bed.
The ruffe’s natural habitat is in the rivers of eastern England. Populations of ruffe outside this area are generally the result of introductions. However, no-one deliberately establishes ruffe in a water; they just slip through in fish deliveries to waters that are being restocked with other species.
Follow the feeding
Active during the day, the ruffe lives in small shoals, which slowly work their way along the bottom in search of small insects, crustaceans and bloodworms. Larger specimens also eat tiny fish. The ruffe has been blamed for eating the eggs of a rare fish -the powan – when it was accidentally intro- duced into Loch Lomond which, along with Loch Eck, are the powan’s only two natural homes.
The ruffe reaches maturity when two to three years old. It spawns in April or May when the water temperature is between 10 and 15°C (50-59°F). The female moves to shallow water where she lays up to 100,000 eggs which stick to plants and stones. After hatching out eight to twelve days later, the young fish remains in shallow water at first. Growth is slow, with most ruffe only reaching about 8cm (3in) after two years.
Many fish species prey on the ruffe, with the zander eating large numbers. If it doesn’t get eaten, the ruffe can live for up to nine years. The shield-shaped bone protecting the gills bears concentric rings, which indicate the ruffe’s age, rather like the rings on a tree.