Meet Our Top 10, Pound-for-Pound, Hardest Fighting Inshore Fish
Anglers love to debate, banter and oftentimes engage in some plain old fashion bragging – usually, good-naturedly, I might add – when it comes to fishing. It’s always been that way and I imagine that kind of friendly discourse between anglers will always be a part of fishing, as it should be!
In keeping with that long-standing tradition of sportfishing, I wanted to tackle (yes, pun intended) one of those friendly, though sometimes passionately debated fishing topics – namely, what are the hardest-fighting inshore fish around. With a couple of caveats, of course, to help narrow the field.
There are many tough and thrilling fish all along our coasts here in the U.S. as well as in Canada, the Caribbean and many other parts of the world, but for the sake of this article, our candidates were confined to the East Coast, or Atlantic Ocean regions of the United States.
We also wanted to limit the 10 species to those that are true inshore fish – those frequently caught in waters up to about 99 feet (30 meters) or so and not the normally deep-water species that may from time to time stray inshore such as, say, mahi-mahi or kingfish, for example. We have also omitted sharks from our rankings – they are another ballgame
To be clear, this article does not aim to highlight inshore fish that are the most cunning, the strongest or may possess the keenest senses, though those qualities can certainly make catching and landing the fish more challenging. No, what we are after is sheer doggedness and an unconquerable fighting spirit. We are more concerned with what the fish does after-hookup than anything else.
To help decide this running debate (though I’m under no illusion that this or any other article will really ever accomplish that!), I reached out to some good fishing friends with experience targeting various inshore species as well as a few of the top guides and charter captains up and down the eastern coastline, from Maine to Florida.
The following are the results in reverse order from number 10 to first place, based on the survey of a handful of sport fishing pros and some everyday anglers who are as passionate about the debate as they are about fishing.
So, without further ado here is our list of the 10 hardest fighting Atlantic coast inshore fish (regardless of size) ranked in descending order.
Also called red drum and channel bass, the redfish is one of the most popular inshore species along the Eastern Seaboard as well as on the Gulf Coast. Reds won’t awe you with spectacular jumps like tarpon, but they will surely impress you with their strength, stamina, and ruggedness.
There are few things sweeter to an inshore angler than spotting them tailing in the grassy shallows or along a mangrove shoreline.
When hooked, they will generally put up a good fight, with short but powerful runs, vigorous headshakes and plenty of tenacity. No wonder North Carolina made the redfish its official state saltwater fish!
Reverently referred to by seasoned flats anglers as the “gray ghost” for its extreme stealthiness, the bonefish is as tenacious as it gets and, pound-for-pound will put up a fierce fight when hooked. Though just 3 – 5 pounds on average, don’t let the bonefish’s lack of size fool you. There’s a reason they are so coveted by shallow-water fishermen from the Florida Keys to the Caribbean.
Targeted on fly or light spinning tackle, you can expect long, powerful runs. In fact, so impressed was he with the fish’s fighting prowess, that Yvon Chouinard, avid fisherman and founder of the iconic outdoor brand Patagonia, had this to say during one bonefish outing, ” There’s no other fish I know of that can go so fast and so far”.
Add to that a no-quit attitude right up to the very end of the fight, one could easily argue that the bonefish should place even a spot or two higher on our list.
Cobia are just as much an inshore species as they are offshore denizens; they are as comfortable cruising along coastal waters as they are prowling deep wrecks. Targeted inshore from New England to South Florida from long piers and sandy beaches to shallow flats, the cobia is a top 10 fighter in every respect.
The cobia is a relatively big, powerful fish commonly taken in the 25 – 50 lb range (though they can certainly push the 70 lb mark and higher). But size and strength alone are not what make this shark-like (in appearance) gamefish the equivalent of an old-school bare-knuckle brawler.
If you want to catch cobia you better come prepared. We’re talking 30 lb test braid, stout tackle, and strong back type of preparedness. That is because you are going to be in for an extended battle with a fish that is as much known for its unpredictability as it is for its unrelenting fighting spirit.
Cobia are as individualistic as you’ll get in a gamefish and with that said, do not expect any two to fight in the exact same way. That is a big part of this species’ unpredictability – you’re not sure what you’re in for until you hook into one. I’ve caught cobia that have fought to the bitter end and I’ve also caught a few that have not lived up to expectations – hence the lower rating on the list.
However, hook up with an angry cobia and you are in for the fight of your life. They will make your reel sing as they peel off several long and furious runs, and even when boated they do not give up, thrashing wildly about as if to say, “this ain’t over yet”. As an aside, it could also be argued that as table fare the cobia is the best on this list.
7. Atlantic Striped Bass
There are few things as exciting and awesome as watching a school of stripers in a frenzied blitz (often with bluefish in the mix) along the surf attacking baitfish. Cast out a bucktail, metal spoon or just about anything else and in very short order, you will find yourself in the fray. What a sensation!
It is this kind of aggressiveness that has endeared the striped bass to so many anglers up and down the Atlantic coast. Couple that aggressive nature with good size (anywhere from 5 to 25 lbs inshore; 40 – 50 lb specimen are not uncommon) and what you have is a predator gamefish that will ambush surface lures with abandonment and give you a fight every step of the way.
A rod with plenty of backbone and a saltwater/surf reel with a smooth, powerful drag is in order here because you’re going to need it.
When hooked, striped bass will do everything they can to prevent you from landing them. They will pull like a freight truck, particularly on the first run, they will shake their head frantically side to side in an attempt to throw the hook, and they will dive for structure and try to cut you off. It is these fighting characteristics that have made striper fishing an angler favorite from Maine to northern Florida.
The Pompano, also known as Florida Pompano and Carolina Pompano, does not get enough credit for its fighting abilities. This is most likely because they are a smaller fish, enjoy a shorter season and have a smaller distribution range than most of the other species on this list (the Carolinas to Florida).
But it should come as little surprise that they landed on this list considering they are part of the jack family that features such outstanding battlers as the Crevalle Jack (Jack) and the Permit. In fact, the Pompano is sometimes mistaken for juvenile Permit fish and is often referred to as the Permit’s little cousin.
Should you ever have the opportunity to fish for Pompano you will quickly understand why these diminutive (can get up to 8 lbs though most are in the 2 – 3 lb range) members of the Jack Family deserve just as much respect as their larger counterparts.
Pompano are prized just as much for their tenacious spirit as they are for their food value (and they are delicious!). Fighting prowess wise, there are even some anglers who feel they are better than Jacks. On light spinning, baitcasting or even fly fishing tackle, they provide a thrill-a-second experience as they take off on spectacular, fast and long runs after taking your bait. They are also deceptively strong and, during the fight, will feel as if they are twice the actual size.
When fishing for Pompano in season, they can readily be caught along the surf from beaches as well as from fishing piers and inlets. A piece of advice: these fish are masters at taking your bait while going undetected with their soft, often imperceptible strikes, so use braided line for more hook-ups.
The Snook, or Common Snook as it is officially known, is probably Florida’s most popular inshore fish – and for good reason. They are a species that can be caught year-round (though they are strictly catch and release in the off-season).
Anyone who has ever fished Snook will attest to their first-rate fighting ability. With their size (20 – 30 pounders are common), dogged determination and impressive strength, Snook are not an easy catch. Add to that the fact that they are often found around or near some structure – pilings, docks, and rocks – the odds of successfully landing a big, trophy-size Snook can quickly diminish.
But what a thrill they are on the line once hooked! The first run of an angry 20-plus pounder will be a challenge to any seasoned angler as the fish will do everything it can shake off your hook, foul your line or break you off on the nearest structure or with its sharp gill plate.
However, should you be lucky or skillful enough to survive this first onslaught, you will most likely be treated to a spectacular display that often includes repeated powerful runs with changes in direction, some aerial acrobatics, frantic head shakes and the like. No wonder so many anglers become giddy with anticipation of the open of Snook season.
The Bluefish is a game fish that does not get enough respect, it just doesn’t have that glam factor that many other species enjoy. Maybe it’s because of their unspectacular size or perhaps because many people consider them inferior as table fare (I happen to know, however, they can be quite tasty in the right hands). But for whatever reasons they just are not taken seriously enough for their game qualities.
But having fished many different types of fish in many different locations and environments, I can tell you that as gamefish the Bluefish is, pound-for-pound, top-notch quality. From Maine to South Florida, you’d be hard-pressed to find another fish that is as tough or fights as hard as the Bluefish.
Recently when I asked Frank Crescitelli (Capt. Frank) of Fin Chaser Charters of Staten Island, NY what he thought was the hardest fighting inshore fish, he told me, without any hesitation, that it was the Bluefish.
This is a guy who knows fishing. Captain Frank has fished just about every type of species in his long career, has clients the likes of MLB Hall of Famer (and IGFA record holder) Wade Boggs and was named one of the “50 Top Charter Captains” in the world by Saltwater Sportsman Magazine. He is also the star of “the Fin Chasers”, in its 3rd season on the Discovery Channel.
He had this to say about the Bluefish when I asked him for his pound-for-pound pick:
“Let me answer this way. If I told you that I found a fish that lives in this remote river in the Amazon or a flat in a remote lagoon somewhere and that these fish behaved this way would you do whatever it takes to fish for them?
They eat poppers on the surface, both fly and spin. They’ll eat live bait right on the surface macerating them with their razor teeth.
They jump, scream line off the reel at blazing speed and can dog you by digging in and going deep and never give up fighting.
Even out of the water they can see as good as in the water and will bite you given the chance. This eyesight can also make this usually voracious feeder quite finicky so sometimes they are in fact hard to catch. And to top it off they are hands down the best pound for pound fighter in the northeast inshore.
Now would you take that long plane ride or boat ride to catch these mystery fish? Sure you would, but here’s the catch. You don’t have to, because the Bluefish is right here and are usually (barring this year) plentiful. Often looked at with disdain because they don’t taste great I’ll argue they are one of the best Sportfish in the Northeast. Caught from a pier, a dock, a beach or from the boat. It seems as though it was bred to be a Sportfish.“
How do you argue against that! Thank you, Captain Frank.
3. Crevalle Jack
Simply referred to as Jack by anglers, this fish’s game qualities could essentially be summed up in two words – ultimate brawler. Belonging to the same family that gave us the Pompano and the Permit, the Jack looks mean and certainly has a bad disposition when hooked.
But what makes this fish a top, pound-for-pound fighter strength, stamina, and stubbornness. When hooked, expect the Jack to pull hard and long. Though they can reach 50-plus lbs as adults, even small juveniles can put up a fight worthy of admiration.
First runs are long and powerful, followed by shorter but equally strong runs. Like their cousin the Permit, they are also adept at using their physical attributes, namely their muscular, wide bodies, to slow down the retrieve and tire the angler. Battling a 20 lb Jack will leave you exhausted and reaching for a cold one.
In my opinion, Jacks fall into the same underrated category as the Bluefish. Sure, they don’t make for tasty dishes and many anglers dismiss them as a nuisance when targeting other more “desirable” catches. But if we are purely judging the fish on its fighting ability, Crevalle Jack is a bonafide pound-for-pounder contender.
Almost unanimously, anglers agree that the Permit is one of the best shallow water game fish in the world. With their large and powerful sickle-shaped tails, deep muscular bodies and overall bullish appearance, Permit fish look like they were built specifically for a good fight. They may be one of the most skittish species on earth and just getting one on the hook is a challenge, but once you get one on the line you’d better hold on!
That because these fish can get big (commonly 20 lbs and up, with some specimen pushing 60 lbs) and possess world-class speed. You’d better be prepared and be packing some stout tackle when hitting the water in search of the big ones.
They will easily tear off 100 or 200 yards of line from your reel in the blink of an eye, change direction in the middle of the fight and run toward you, angle their wide bodies in water in an effort to put the brakes on you as are reeling them in, and so on. They are cunning, as stubborn as they get, and they don’t know the meaning of quit. For those reasons alone the Permit earns the number 2 spot on our list, and some would argue it should be in the top spot.
1. Atlantic Tarpon
Ok, some of you might be saying, “here we go again with the Tarpon”. It seems that just about every publication or survey on inshore fishing has the Tarpon at number one for fighting ability. Well, that’s because it’s a fact – the Atlantic Tarpon is the hardest fighting fish, pound-for-pound inshore.
All of the species we’ve listed are prized for their tenacity and fighting spirit, but no inshore species is as tough to land as the Tarpon (also known as the Silver King and Sabalo). That’s because no other inshore fish combines size (75 – 80 lbs on average, with many in the 100 to 150 lb range and the occasional behemoth pushing 300 lbs), speed, stamina, and aerial acrobatics quite the way the Tarpon does.
A little more on the Tarpon’s stamina. One of the great advantages Tarpon have over other fish is a uniquely formed air bladder that allows them to intake oxygen from the surface, giving them great endurance for those hard and long battles. This is one of the reasons for their ability to make multiple long runs and repeated spectacular jumps.
Add in the fact that they also possess color vision that is about 10,000 times greater than ours and gives them an edge in detecting your line in the water and boney mouths that make hooking them a challenge, to begin with, and you begin to get the picture – getting one of these inshore bruisers on your line and then actually landing one, is going to take everything you have as an angler!
The degree of difficulty in landing Tarpon was further highlighted by a study conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In their Catch-and-Release Mortality Study on Tarpon (2002 -2004; revised and updated in 2013), FWC researchers/anglers were only able to successfully land 37% of the 230 Tarpon hooked on breakaway jigs and live bait.
However, should you ever have the opportunity to hook one of these big fish you are in for a thrill that will involve a screaming drag, violent head shakes, several strong runs and an aerial show like nothing you’ve ever seen from anything in the water.
A seasoned angler can land a 100 lb Tarpon in about 30 minutes or so. For the novice Tarpon angler, that same fish could take as long as an hour if everything goes right. Regardless, exhaustion and sore muscles should be proof enough that you’ve tangled with the meanest, most stubborn and hardest fighting inshore fish on the Atlantic side, if not in the world.
What Do You Think of Our Picks… Maybe Have a Different Top Ten List?
Well, that’s it for our little top ten list. What do you think? Is the Tarpon the hardest fighting inshore fish… how about the placing of the other 9 contenders. Perhaps you have a different pound-for-pound top pick, or maybe a different order or even another Atlantic coast species that didn’t make it onto our list.
Leave your thoughts in the comment box, and tight lines!