There are few feelings in angling more exciting than the tug of a fish at the end of the line. This can be registered in many different ways; the constant tapping of a shoal of small fish trying to peck bits from a larger bait, the wrap-around pull of a good tench heading for cover, the sharp tug of a trout hitting a wet fly as it is stripped back, the solid run of a tope picking up a bait and taking it away from its competing pack mates and many more, too numerous to mention here. One take that commands a special mention is that of the ballan wrasse – an aggressive tug that can result in the unwary angler losing rod, line and all, such is the ferocity of most takes. A tug that when felt will probably develop into a rod-bendingly powerful surge back towards the cover that it had ventured out from. A take so powerful and, at times, violent that it often belies the size of the culprit.
Returning to the east from the west for the summer meant that I was going to have much less choice as to what I could target from the kayak. Admittedly, and foolishly, I developed tunnel vision and could see nothing ahead aside from tope. I spent a lot of time searching for them and did not fare very well at the expense of not catching other species. I wasted too much time fishing for fish that, in hindsight, just were not in the areas that I was looking for them at the time of looking. Whether the lower numbers of mackerel were keeping them away or they had found another food source to exploit away from the regular, dependable marks is a mystery. What I have learned, again through hindsight, is that I wasted a lot of time on them when I should have been concentrating on other species. Never regret and always learn from your mistakes; lesson learned and I now know better for next summer.
It was after yet another unfruitful search for tope that I decided to try for something else. I figured on a bit of light entertainment with lighter gear that fishing for wrasse from the kayak along the Dublin shoreline would provide. Armed with a tub of locally sourced ragworm and some appropriate gear, I would easily be able to get a short session in and I would not need to travel more than ten miles for the pleasure. I selected a small harbour that would facilitate easy parking and launching, somewhere that I knew a couple of fish would be caught. After a fishless streak I was just looking for some handy sport, a nice confidence booster. My short session resulted in over fifteen ballan wrasse to the side of the kayak. All the fish were small with nothing getting close to the 2lb mark. Good fun but nothing to be taken too seriously. A conversation I had back at the car changed that outlook…..
As I was packing up, a couple of divers who were just getting ready to enter the water enquired as to whether I had had any luck. We chatted for a couple of minutes and when I asked them if they had ever seen any good fish in the area they shook their head to signal ‘No’.
“Unless you are interested in wrasse. Some huge ones down there but they hide right in the weed, you’d never get them out”, they said. That sounded like a challenge to me! When I quizzed them further they gestured with hand movements to there being wrasse present that would be well in excess of the specimen size which stands at 4.75lbs. I had to have one before returning to Galway!
Ballan wrasse are a curious creature. Their colouration varies hugely from fish to fish is usually between brown and olive but the can be spotted or marbled with vivid oranges and reds. Their habitat is usually rough, weedy, snaggy ground found around the coastline. Areas like these can have big swells and fizzing, powerful currents. The wrasse are built to cope with these hazards; their deep, powerful body is fringed with large, powerful fins and a big, paddle-like tail. One look at these fish should tell you that they are built for power and possess the strength required inhabit turbulent waters. Their mouth contains a set of dentures that are similar to those of a human, an asset that helps them chomp through shellfish as a staple part of their diet.
Kit and Bait
Due to the strength of the wrasse and their propensity for living in such rough areas, appropriate gear is needed to coax them out. My favoured kit to try and prise them from their watery world is a jerkbait rod intended for pike, matched with a baby multiplier reel loaded with 30lb braid. This may seem excessive but a 3lb fish has no problem bending a pike rod into a ‘U’ shape. Mono for tying up your rigs should be at least 20lb breaking strain due to the snags that will undoubtedly be encountered. I prefer 25lb. Hooks should be forged wire in 1/0 or 2/0 sizes. Forged hooks are essential; ballan wrasse will straighten out the ‘match’ style hooks without even trying. Hook brands are not important, use whatever you feel confident with but make sure that they are strong. I favour Cox & Rawle.
The rig I tie up for wrasse fishing is nothing complex. It consists of a piece of stout mono, three to four feet long. At one end goes a paper clip, a swivel at the other. The paper clip is to hold a lead weight, fished on the bottom and working as a ‘rotten bottom’ link. The swivel is attached to the mainline. The snood is made of the same stout mono, attached to the rig with a four turn water knot. The snood should be no more than a few inches long and tied onto the rig so that the hook will sit approximately two to three feet off the seabed. I use single hook traces only. I used to use two hook traces and fish with two baits but I have found over time that two hook rigs seem to make the bigger fish shy away. There are plenty of fish under the 2lb mark that will willingly hit a two hook trace but I find using just the one is more effective for bigger fish.
Soft plastic worms and sandeels on jigheads are becoming a popular way of targeting ballan wrasse but I have found that in the last couple of years that I have only hooked small fish with this style of fishing. Far better options are whole, live hardback crabs and ragworm. I have found out west that the crabs usually work better at finding larger fish, in the east it seems that ragworm reigns supreme. The trick with the ragworm is to hook it in such a way that most of the worm hangs below the hook when presented, allowing the worm to turn and twist in the current. I believe that it is not the scent of the worm that triggers an attack, more the sight of it pulsating and kicking in the tide that the fish find irresistible. With the rig described earlier, the worm is allowed to fish a couple of feet up off the bottom where the wrasse will see it. The theory is that it will race up from the bottom to grab the worm and dive back down to nestle back into the snags they had been lying in. Hang on tight!
Where to Find Them
As mentioned earlier, wrasse love rough ground. Most kayakers do not like anchoring up over rough ground. That’s fine, drifting will cover more water and increase your chance of hitting better fish. As you drift, it pays to raise and lower the rod tip, keeping in contact with your lead. Keep an eye on your echo sounder and this will help you see some of the subsurface snags. With practice, you will be able to drift and lift your rig over any seabed snags, resulting in minimal tackle losses. That said, fishing on the drift over rough ground will result in at least some tackle casualties. If you are precious about losing a couple of leads then wrasse fishing on the drift is probably not for you. I find that the most effective time to fish these types of areas are times when there is minimal tidal flow – your bait stays in taking zones for longer and you have less chance of being pulled into snags by a fast moving current.
When you do start to locate better fish, you will be left in no doubt of their presence by their power. Reel drags should be set tightly. The first thing a wrasse will do is dive for cover. If they manage to reach it, it is unlikely that you will get them out. Stout gear and a tightly set drag can reduce this risk. Failing that, one trick that sometimes works after all else fails is to slacken the line. This trick has saved me on more than a couple of occasions with tench that have buried themselves in the reeds. If steady pressure will not coax them out, sometimes slackening the line for a few seconds encourages them to bolt from the snags. Don’t ask me how it works but it certainly does at times! Your best option is to not allow the fish reach the snags in the first place but that can be easier said than done when you are connected to a few pounds of angry wrasse.
Taking all the above information into account, I hit the water to go afloat after these dogged fighters. I had tried on four occasions in the previous two weeks but could not seem to hit anything over three pounds. I did connect with a couple of good fish that pulled me into the weeds and then managed a very convincing Houdini impression. Buoyed by what the divers had told me, I knew it was a matter of time before I started connecting with some proper wrasse. And then it happened, I hit two on almost consecutive drops. Big east coast wrasse are like buses – you wait ages for one and then two come along at once!
Mission accomplished! I unhooked both fish and slipped them back after a quick picture with each. Which brings me to my final point on the ballan wrasse; be very careful handling them. Their fins are tipped with sharp spines, sharp enough to puncture skin and produce blood. My lacerated hands bear testament to this!
Catching big fish like tope is great fun but it is not the ‘be all and end all’ of fishing. Sometimes the smaller, more common species like the humble ballan wrasse can be just as rewarding. If not more so……
I have still been getting into the water and experimenting with the camera whenever I have had the opportunity. I am pleased with how the results are coming along. I have been frequenting the canals and when I return to Galway I think a bit more marine exploration is in order.
I started a web project and the aim of it is to promote all things related to kayak fishing in Ireland. It can be viewed at www.kayakfishermanireland.com and it will include regular catch reports, details of rigging projects, underwater photography, media articles, tackle and kit advice and much more. Please feel free to look, bookmark, follow and support the page, it would be greatly appreciated.