The largest and most common wrasse is the ballan, Labrus bergylta. It looks something like a freshwater carp, having one long dorsal fin set above a thick, muscled body. The fin has 19 or 20 spiny rays at the head end and 9-11 flexible rays towards the tail. The jaws are powerful with lips designed for tearing limpets and other shellfish from rock faces. The teeth on the jaws are strong but there are no teeth on the palate. Instead, the wrasse has pharyngeal teeth for grinding.
Ballan wrasse occur in many col-ours related to those predominating in their environment. Newcomers to shore fishing often make the mistake of identifying a number of different ‘ballan’ species because the fish vary so much. Generally, they are a greenish brown, often with a reddish belly dotted with white spots. The pectoral and pelvic fins are frequently red and spotted.
The species favours a habitat where there is at least three or four fathoms of water at low water spring tides – probably because strong, lengthy kelps need a reasonable depth of water to grow in. These weeds provide ideal cover both for the wrasse and for the smaller creatures, such as crabs, lobsters, other crustaceans, and molluscs, on which the species feeds. Further-more, during storms, areas of shallow water are much disturbed by strong surface movement, which drives these animals out from the security of the weeds into deeper, clean ground areas where they can be more easily caught by the predatory wrasse laying in wait.
Smaller ballan tend to remain very close inshore for most of the year. Larger fish keep to deeper water, either below cliffs, where the water is often ten or more fathoms deep, or farther out to sea on offshore reefs rising clear of the seabed. In reefs, the fish live in the higher areas at depths of about ten fathoms. They are seldom found in shallow inshore areas as they need more food than such areas can generally provide.
Ballan wrasse do not form shoals, although there may well be an enormous population on a single reef. They have definite territorial behaviour, each patrolling a small area. This may be related to their breeding habits, for wrasse are one of the few fish to build nests. They spawn in late May-July in shallow water, making the nest from pieces of seaweed and debris which they jam into crevices between rocks. The eggs are then dispersed throughout the strands of weed in the nest and stay sheltered and hidden.
Ballan wrasse eggs are quite large, about a millimetre in diameter, with a distinct yellow colour. The fry measure about 2in in the first winter of life. With average feeding, they grow to 7in in two years.
Occasionally, the angler will hook a brightly coloured, smaller wrasse when fishing from the rocks. This may be any one of a number of lesser wrasse species, but the commonest is the cuckoo wrasse, Labrus mix-tus. This fish is more likely to be hooked in deeper water than the ballan, but does occasionally come near the cliffs. As with the ballan, beginners often wrongly identify more than one species of cuckoo.
This is because the sexes are completely different in colour. Males are a striking blue with an orange-red hue to the top of the head and shoulders. Females are orange-red, with three dark spots under the end of the dorsal fin.
The cuckoo wrasse rarely exceeds 14in in length, with males always slightly larger than females of the same age. Both sexes are poor fighters, but add colour to any fisherman’s catch.
The last British wrasse is the rain-bow, Coris julis. This is brilliantly coloured and is commonly found in the Bay of Biscay down towards the Tropics, but is only a rare migrant to Britain and then only to south-western shores.
The rainbow wrasse is small – about 6in long – and has no scales on the head. It is alone among wrasse species in having elongated and pointed pectoral fins. The dorsal fin is set low on the body, with a raised 9ins and also varies greatly in col-our, although the variation is not related to sex. One identification feature that is fairly reliable is the single dark spot in the centre of the tail wrist. In addition, the cheeks and underside of the jaws are streaked with lines of bright blue or green. The females have a protuberance just behind the vent which is part of the egg-laying mechanism, although little has so far been discovered of its precise function.
The corkwing can be easily confused with another little wrasse, the goldsinny, Ctenolabrus rupestris, as both the size and shape of the two fish are similar. But while the cork-wing is fairly brightly coloured, the goldsinny is a drab overall brownish-yellow. Nevertheless, it too has a single spot on the tail area, although this is on the upper rather than the lower part of the wrist.
The goldsinny is fond of much deeper water than most wrasses, preferring depths of around 30 fathoms. It is small, averaging only 6in long, and is common only in the west of the British Isles.
The small-mouthed wrasse, or rock cook, Centrolabrus exoletus, is a small wrasse occasionally caught around Britain’s coast. Apart from its extremely small mouth, identify-ing features are its dorsal fin in which the soft rear part is slightly raised above the hard-rayed fore-part, and the five spines at the pointed leading edge to the hard-rayed section. Colour varies, although the predominant hue on male fish is purple, to which is added bright silver blotches and a lateral silver band. Females are less bright but have the same basic coloration.
The only wrasse of interest to anglers is the ballan. They are not large fish – adults reach about 20in – but they can be powerful fighters on light tackle. The fight, like the fish’s colour, is largely conditioned by its environment. Strong tides, currents that sweep around rocky headlands and crashing wave patterns that surge into gullies and channels, all add power to the run of a hooked ballan.
Light tackle is also important in protecting the fish from hurried pressure changes. The swimbladder is not connected to the gullet, so that the fish cannot quickly equalize pressure as it is winched to the sur-face. This unfortunately means that a lot of splendid fish are released only to die.
A protracted fight can also bring about the death of a wrasse. It seems that they sometimes just give up life after being brought ashore. No amount of gentleness when unhooking and handling them can revive the will to live.
Wrasse can be caught throughout the year, although fishing is best between May and November, as in winter fish move into deeper, warmer water. Nor is there any par-ticular time of day to fish, for wrasse can be caught throughout the entire period of daylight. This makes the species popular with anglers, for the hottest of summer days and slackest tide will produce wrasse.
Two times when wrasse do cease to co-operate, however, are at night and during hard weather, when breakers surge far up the cliff faces. Wrasse disappear into a safe hole in bad weather. Likewise, the sensible angler stays away from cliffs and ledges that are a hazard when the wind howls and the sea is up.