Wrasse fishing on Alderney

The breakwater that protects the harbour and provides excellent, easy-to-get-to rock fishing.

Alderney wrasse

Alderney wrasse. He has quite a list of big fish to his name: ballans to 8lb 5oz 10dm (3.8kg), plaice to 6lb 9oz (3kg), 54lb (24kg) shore conger, mullet to 6lb 6oz (2.9kg) and many more. But he hasn’t had a double-figure bass, despite having six of 9lb 15oz (4.5kg)!

Replace the stones when crab collecting or you destroy the habitat which produces the bait. Don’t take females with eggs and return unused crabs to safeguard stocks.

simple one hook paternoster

This simple one hook paternoster allows the crab to move attractively with the tide and waves. The hook hangs above the lead and the blood loop acts a bit like a boom.

Wrasse fishing on AlderneyAlderney waters are so rich because they are deep and fairly warm all year round. The strong tides and rough ground also make them hard to exploit commercially. Many British shore records have come from Alderney, including both black and red bream, golden grey mullet, blonde ray, cuckoo wrasse and an amazing sole of 6lb 1oz 14dm (2.773kg), almost twice the boat record from off the Isle of Wight!

How to get to Alderney

By air Aurigny Air provide the only scheduled service to Alderney. There are flights daily from Southampton, Guernsey and Jersey, and Friday-Monday flights from Bournemouth in the summer. Ask your travel agent or phone 0481 822886 for details.

By car The breakwater is on the north side – about 15 minutes drive from the airport.

ballan wrasse caught off AlderneyAnother variety of ballan wrasse, looking more like a green goldsinny. Goldsinny do live around Alderney, as do cuckoo wrasse. All three grow to specimen size (though a specimen goldsinny is only 3oz/85g). landing a ballan wrasseRob bends down to net a decent ballan wrasse while Nigel holds the rod. Rob could swing in most of the fish, but the biggest needed steering round the corner to the steps for landing. The steps come in very handy for this.

Rob holds up the ballan before gently returning it to the sea (and not just tossing it back). The 4lb 9oz (2.1kg) fish was the day’s biggest, though on a really good day that’s an average fish.

float-caught mackerelRob brings in a float-caught mackerel – sport and fresh bait in one! For mackerel and gars set the bait to work the top metre (3ft) of water, while for pollack you should set it deeper and experiment until you find the fish.

pollack caught off Alderneybait for big ballans - a hardback crabThe best bait for big ballans – a hardback crab hooked at the side of its tail. Hard crabs stay on the hook far better than peelers when attacked by small wrasse. gathering bait on AlderneyThere are plenty of places around the Alderney coastline to look for bait at low tide, as well as hundreds of fishing marks. breakwater on the Channel Island of Alderney

wrasse are beautifully marked All the wrasse are beautifully marked in an incredible array of colours. Add to that their hard fighting nature, and their huge size round Alderney (big enough to smash the British record if someone could only land one!) and it’s easy to see why Rob loves the island and its fish. All change! Another of the seemingly endless variety of fabulous sex-changing ballan wrasse that fell for hard crab.

The breakwater isn’t the mark for the biggest lumps, though six-pounders (2.7kg) are taken, but for varied and exciting fishing with the easiest of access, you can’t beat it.

wrasse fishing off the Alderney breakwater As wrasse battle to regain the depths, or you wind them up quickly, a small part of their intestine may be pushed out of the vent. It isn’t too serious, so just push it back in gently with a finger.

When things get hard, try changing from leger to float fishing. It can be effective, but only if you get the bait right on the bottom. You can also try pinching the edge of the crab’s shell to produce a stronger scent trail.

Rob drops a bait into a low tide wrasse hole for an instant reward. But the fish he swings in is not the specimen he’d really like to end with

Rob dumps his kit gratefully at the end of the breakwater. It may be accessible but it’s a hot walk under the glare of the June sun. He sets up a couple of well-used rods and reels. They may look battered but the important bits work – reels don’t grate and rod rings are clean and ungrooved.

Barely an hour after stepping off the plane from Southampton, we’re walking along the breakwater on the Channel Island of Alderney with Channel Island big fish specialist Rob Larbalestier. He has already collected hardback crabs ancksand rag from the harbour rocks — crabs for wrasse, and worms for flatties. He has picked up a few sandeels from the tackle shop for the mackerel and pollack.

Rob comes from Jersey, but though the fishing there is excellent, he likes Alderney because there are so many big fish. Especially wrasse, and Rob loves wrasse. That’s the target today, and though it’s not the best mark on the island, he’s decided to fish the breakwater to show that even the most accessible venues are bulging with fish.

As he walks the half mile long sea wall Rob sets the scene. ‘There’s everything a sea angler could want here. In summer there are wrasse, pollack, bass, plaice, sole, mackerel, garfish, along with some mullet and conger. But winter’s really the best time for mullet and conger; perhaps they migrate south for the cold months. ‘I go diving round the island and I’ve seen wrasse that are definitely doubles.’ (An unusual form of water craft, Rob). ‘I’ve had at least one of them on,’ he continues, ‘but a wrasse like that can bite through even heavy line. You need a little luck.’ thing to do with their being deflected off the Cherbourg Peninsula. For a start there’s a six hour ebb and a two hour flood—usually— it’s not even the same from day to day. Slack water is also a bit tricky – it shuttles back and forth instead of staying still.

But with the help of local tide tables and a fair bit of experience, Rob’s able to state quite confidently, ‘It’s just about dead high water. Not the best time to go wrassing, but we’ll save the best till last.’

His wrasse rig is simple but businesslike — a one hook blood loop paternoster. The hook is wide of gape, short of shank and forged of very thick wire. ‘I got them in Madeira [holiday name-dropper!]. They’re really tough, and they need to be for wrasse. Bronzed O’Shaugnessies will do, though you need to sharpen them every other cast, but these are the best. You’ve got to use bronzed hooks in shallow water, the glinting of stainless steel hooks puts the fish off. ‘Another thing to watch for is line. Mine’s brown. If you use blue line it stands out like a sore thumb against the brown kelp. I’ve seen it when I’ve been diving. Brown line outfishes any other colour or even colourless line every time.’

The other set-up is a 12ft (3.7m) carp rod with a sliding float set at 3m (10ft) (to fish in the top l/4m/5ft of water with the tide) for mackerel and gars. ‘It’s a small tide which means we probably won’t be bothered by lots of pollack. Last week, there were so many about we tried to ignore them. If someone asked how many fish you had, you’d count everything except the pollack!’

With both rods set up, Rob cuts a sliver of sandeel and puts it on a size 4 hook on the float rig. With him is Nigel Loving, who has made up some shirvy – a kind of sea ground-bait made of minced offal, blood and rusk. It’s especially useful for attracting mullet, mackerel and gars. ‘At this time of year it’s a bit hit and miss with the mullet,’ says Nigel. ‘There aren’t that many around. But if you keep the shirvy going in, it helps pull the mackerel and garfish closer to us.’ ‘If the bait is in the right place, you often get a bite as the crab is dropping down after the sinker.’ As he speaks he winds down to the fish. Actually, it’s probably a submerged lorry – to bend the rod quite so alarmingly. But Rob proves the master as he prises the wrasse out of its desperate dive and brings it to the surface.

What a small fish. It’s only about Valb (0.7kg) but it pulled that old stick round all right. No wonder those double figure fish are hard to get out. Rob hooks up another crab and away he goes again.

The ebb has started and is streaming out of the harbour. This is very handy – it lets Rob trot a floatfished bait a long way out. With any luck there’s a mackerel or two out there; a strip of fresh mackerel belly makes a much more appealing bait than thawed out frozen sandeels.

In the meantime he hooks a small hardback crab and pulls off the claws. This stops them grabbing the line and turning, masking the hook. He looks into the clear blue water below him. There’s a good 40ft (12m) at his feet, and he’s looking for areas of darker blue water, which means a hole in the sea bed and a good place to put a bait for wrasse on the rock-strewn, kelpy bottom.

He finds a suitable hole and down goes the paternostered crab. He leaves a little slack line to let the crab sink slowly after the weight (if you tighten up it sinks unnaturally under tension) and to give it some movement in the tide.

He isn’t waiting long. Perhaps 30 seconds later there’s a rattle at the rod tip. (It’s something of a shock when the tip moves at all, given that Rob’s not using the softest of rods. It’s an old Abu beach rod apparently away on the inside of the breakwater.

Rob’s still at it, prowling the edge of the breakwater like a hungry vulture, looking for new holes in the sea bed to try. He drops a crab-baited rig into one. Three minutes later the tip hasn’t moved. ‘Time for a new crab, I think. If you leave them too long the scent washes out and they’re less lively.’

As he speaks the rod tip dips sharply, pauses and then heads on down towards the sea bed. Rob grins as he winds down and raises the rod to keep the wrasse out of the kelp. ‘That’s a proper bite from a hungry fish, and a good one too.’

Rob struggles to persuade the fish up as it bores towards its rocky home. Once, twice, three times it dives, but each time Rob gains a foot of line. Then suddenly it’s all

Rob relaxes in the, well frankly, boiling heat (gloating intended) and waits for the next bite. There’s a rattle, and another, Rob winds down and… nothing. That’s how it is sometimes. But you can always tell yourself a big fish would have swallowed the bait instead of mucking about.

And that’s the pattern for a while. A fish, a missed fish and the occasional snag (or wrasse doing the snagging). Then Rob’s other rod (handily wedged in a convenient hole) starts dancing to the same tune. The float is about 60m (66yd) away on the tide, so it’s going to take him a while to bring in whatever has taken the bait.

Returning to him a few hard fighting minutes later, a mackerel is flashing and darting under the surface. Rob swings it in and now there’s some fresh bait.

A succession of small and medium-sized wrasse have kept Rob busy, but sport has slowed just a little. Another mackerel joins the first in the bait box, and Nigel lands a couple of small plaice and a brace of odd blotchy ballans from the sand 30m (33yd) over. The ballan gives up and a pair of blue lips emerges from the deeps. ‘The sign of a good wrasse, that, blue lips.’ Rob steers it round the corner to the steps – too big to swing in, this one – and into the landing net. He checks its weight (just over 4/4lb/2kg) and carefully returns it. A couple of lazy flaps on the surface, and it dives to the bottom with a flick of its tail.

Rob deepens off the sliding float to fish about 5m (16½ft) under the surface for pollack. He casts to the edge of the tidal flow. It circles lazily in the eddy, then dives under as a small pollack grabs the mackerel strip.

After another similar fish, he hooks something bigger. The 2lb (0.9kg) fish puts up a spirited fight on float tackle. ‘It’s fun while the wrasse sport is slow – and it always does slow up after a couple of hours. The wrasse must get disturbed by the weight repeatedly dropping into their holes,’ Rob explains. But after this short interlude he’s back at it. ‘When it gets hard, there’s one trick you can try. Hook up a small crab, then a slightly bigger one on top – belly to back. That way it looks like a female peeler being protected by a male hardback before mating. Crush the little one a bit to release the juices, and it’s irresistible.’

Just a couple of minutes after dropping this tasty morsel into a hole, he’s rewarded with another rod wrencher. ‘See?’ he says, only a little smugly, and guides the three-pounder (1.4kg) into the net.

A blank half hour later he looks round in anticipation. ‘Coming up to the best time. Of course, it’s better if you actually start fishing at this time, so the holes are undisturbed.’ From his scuba diving Rob has pieced together a typical wrasse’s day.

They forage for food on the flooding tide then gradually move back to their holes as the tide ebbs. There they wait for the flood tide to start again. If you can get a bait in one of these holes during the last hour or two of the ebb, few fish can refuse it, and there’s a chance of a real whopper — if you’re lucky enough to pick the right hole.

It’s time. Rob drops a bait in a hole, and sure enough the rod tip pulls seaward. But the resistance is over all too quickly, and Rob unhooks the small wrasse and rebaits. Again a good bite, and again a small fish. The pattern repeats itself a couple more times and Rob senses that there isn’t going to be a fairytale ending this time. ‘Wrong hole,’ he says ruefully as the tide slackens, ‘or maybe the big ones are just too cautious by now.’ But however you look at it, a fish-filled session in the sun can’t be bad, especially when we were in London just this morning. You should try it.