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As targeting wrasse is growing in popularity in the U.K. I thought I'd put together a little guide containing some information about this beautiful group of fish as well as a guide to identifying the five main species and also three additional species that are rarely caught but have been found in U.K. waters.

Wrasse themselves are relatively easy to identify and identifying the different species is also fairly straightforward too. Colouration can vary though especially in ballan wrasse which is one of the main reasons I personally enjoy catching them so much. In putting together this guide I myself have been learning more about wrasse and some of the information in this guide has been taken from the following excellent sources.

The Marine Life Information Network
"Fish of Britain and Europe" by Peter J Miller & Michael J Loates.

Whilst I have used many of my own photographs I have also used a selection of superb photos by other photographers and anglers. I have credited each and have also added the web address to the source. I would wholeheartedly recommend you take the time to have a look at these links as they contain many other breathtaking photographs that are well worth viewing and those photos taken by anglers also contain some excellent catch reports and other useful angling information.

I'll start with some general information about wrasse. As a group of fish they have some peculiar characteristics and habits that you may find interesting.

Normally found over rocky ground and in weed beds wrasse are territorial. Often found in the same spot repeatedly by divers they are also very inquisitive. In coastal areas they will move up and down the shoreline with the tide feeding. Wrasse are a very slow growing fish. A large ballan wrasse can be almost 30 years old.

Wrasse have one long dorsal fin which is comprised of two fins joined together. The first at the front is made up of hard membrane bound spines whilst the second part at the rear is a lobe made up of softer fin rays. They have an anal fin that is similarly made up of hard spines in the front section and softer ones towards the tail. Powerful pectoral fins along with a large tail mean that wrasse can move at great speed when hunting or to evade predators. Wrasse have fairly large well defined scales, have tough rubbery lips and as well as teeth in there jaws some wrasse have teeth in their throats too. This means they can eat a wide variety of food but their main food source is normally shellfish and crustaceans which they can easily grind and crush up.

Wrasse are cleaner fish, eating parasites like sea lice, from other fish. As a result they are now caught and farmed commercially to clean farmed fish and their cages providing an environmentally friendly alternative to the use of chemicals.

Wrasse are active during the day and sleep at night. They have been seen doing so on their sides by divers. They also darken their colouration when doing so. They can also do this when they feel threatened and will often do it when they are caught.

Wrasse build nests when breeding. Normally built by the males and guarded by the females although sometimes the male will guard the nest. Nests are made from a variety of materials including weed, algae, shells fragments and gravel. Smaller wrasse species often make their nests in crevices. The often brighter colours of male wrasse may intensify during their breeding season. Some wrasse species live in a harem with one male breeding with several females whilst in other species the fish form breeding pairs. Some species of wrasse are hermaphroditic. This means the females can change into males. In some species, ballan and cuckoo are examples, all are born females and change into males later in their development. Other species are born male or female but the females can still change into males.

I shall now take a look at how to identify the five main U.K. wrasse species.

Ballan Wrasse.

Ballan wrasse can grow to over 60 cm making them by far the biggest of the wrasse species found in U.K. They have a very stout appearance and a large head, snout and lips. They are an example of a hermaphroditic fish with all ballan wrasse being born female and changing into males at a later stage in their life. They are the most common and also the most varied in terms of their colouration as is shown below. Some are normally two or more colours. Some are solidly coloured like the 1st below, whilst others are mottled like the 2nd fish or spotted like the 3rd. Some also have a lighter row of scales along the lateral line like the 4th fish below. This doesn't mean identifying them becomes problematic however because all other wrasse species have there own markings which can vary slightly but are all very distinct as you will also see below.

Ballan come in a multitude of colours as the examples above illustrate.

Corkwing Wrasse.

Corkwing are just one of the smaller species that are common in U.K. waters growing to about 28cm. The corkwing wrasse has a much shorter, deeper body than the ballan wrasse, a much smaller more pointed head and a smaller mouth. The preopercular bone (the one behind the eye on the gill plate) has a rough edge. The corkwing is the only wrasse of the five common species to have this feature, evident in the middle image below. Males are normally brown in colour with light blue highlights on their backs and also on their fins. Very vivid lime green, yellow, orange and blue stripes on the face and gill plates make the males unmistakable. The females whilst similar in shape lack the bright colours of the males and by comparison are quite bland. An example of a female corkwing is shown in the third image of the group below. A dark spot behind the eye and just below the centre of the tail root is another reliable means of positively identifying corkwing wrasse. This is not always distinct though and the fact the fish can darken its colouration when caught is a possible reason for this.

Male corwings are very pretty fish indeed. Females can be mistaken for ballans. If in doubt and the two spots are faint then rely on the rough preopercular bone to decide.

Goldsinny Wrasse.

The smallest of the common U.K. wrasse species growing to only 14cm. Goldsinny wrasse are quite slender too and are normally light, dark or reddish brown in colouration sometimes with a very subtle blue tinge to their undersides. They have a dark spot at the leading edge of their dorsal fin and also at the top of their tail root which makes them easy to identify.

Small teeth used to grind barnacles and any unfortunate crustacean that is unlucky enough to become a meal for this small wrasse species.

Rock Cook Wrasse.

With a maximum size of about 18cm the rock cook is another small wrasse species and is also the rarest of the five U.K. wrasse species. It can normally be found alongside goldsinny wrasse. Similar in shape to the corkwing wrasse except it has a much smaller head and mouth. They have a brown back with a paler underside, blue/violet flecks on the back and fins and overall a nice golden tinge. Along with the blue/violet stripes on the face below their eye and two darker vertical bands on the tail root and at the edge of the tail the colouration of the rock cook makes this species unmistakable.

Another stunning wrasse. Well worth the effort tracking one down!

Cuckoo Wrasse.

Cuckoo wrasse can grow to 35cm making them the second biggest U.K. species behind the ballan wrasse. A long slender fish they are the most easily recognisable wrasse species despite the males and females looking as if they are two separate species! Females (top) are light pink or orange with light blue edges to fins and three dark spots on back with pale halos at the rear or the dorsal fin. Males (middle and bottom) are also orange but their heads can be greenish in colour and they have pronounced bright electric blue markings over their heads and flanks and a bright blue end to their tail. These markings can be quite vivid as is brilliantly shown in the bottom photo.

Male cuckoo wrasse are my favourite due to their absolutely stunning colours.

That concludes my look at the five most common wrasse species found in U.K. waters. There are three other species that are are also found in U.K. waters however, mainly off the south coast of England. Out of interest I have decided to include them, although the chances of ever catching them are very remote even if you decide to deliberately target them.

Baillon's Wrasse.

Predominantly found in the Mediterranean and a fairly small wrasse growing to just 22cm, the Baillon's wrasse is similar in shape to a corkwing wrasse but it has a longer snout and a larger mouth. The colouration is also quite distinct. They have a very distinct pink/red mouth and edges to their fins and tail which is a key feature in identifying them. In addition a dark spot two thirds of the way back on dorsal fin and a second just below the middle of the tail root is present and is also a unique spot combination that can be used to identify the species. They are pale yellow in colour with three dark brown bands running the length of the flank and back. When stressed they can become darker with a much more mottled colouration. They have violet patches on their gill plates and small orange spots under their eyes and theis colouration can also be seen slightly on the underside of their flanks.

Another beautiful wrasse. Note the lovely facial markings.

Scale Rayed Wrasse.

An elongated wrasse similar to the cuckoo wrasse. Growing up to 25cm this species also has very distinct markings. Reddish or orange brown in colour with a lighter underside. Distinctive darker line running along the back which has a kink in it towards the tail. Above this line and below the dorsal fin is a row of lighter spots ending with a few dark blotches towards the tail. Yellow highlights on the tips of the dorsal fin and a light grey area over the top of the head also make this wrasse very distinct indeed.

Found off the southern coast of England it is also found as far north as the Atlantic off the coast of Norway.

Rainbow Wrasse.

A very long slender wrasse that can reach a length of 30cm. Whilst mainly found in the Mediterranean and possibly the least likely to be found in U.K. water this fish has been seen on rare occasions off the Cornish coast. Another example of a hermaphroditic species with all being born female. Females again are less colourful than males having a dark brown upper half and a pale underside that can vary in shade with some being light brown whilst others almost white as in the first image below. Females fins are reddish brown in colour and the tail is normally a pale green/yellow colour. When females change into males they change their colouration quite drastically as is shown in the third image below. Dull shades of brown are replaced with a bright turquoise upper back, a vivid orange midsection and a jet black stripe behind the pectoral fin.

A great example of the sex change process in action. Female top. Male bottom. The wrasse in the middle is making the transition from female to male and its colouration is in an intermediate state.

That concludes my idiot's guide to U.K. wrasse species. I hope that you have found this brief look at wrasse as interesting as I found doing the research for it and writing it and perhaps this guide may even be of practical use to you!

Happy wrassing, Scott.
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