Toughest Nearshore Game Fish

Some of the world's most brutal fish species any angler will ever hook in inshore waters.
toughest game fish inshore - maori wrasse
This maori wrasse, from New Guinea, is one incredibly tough fish to turn. Large males develop the characteristic hump on their foreheads. Al McGlashan

When it comes to game fish of inshore waters and shallow reefs, these eight brawlers have probably broken more hearts — and rods — than other species. Sure, it’s subjective and, sure, there are other species that might have been included. But no angler who knows his game fish will dispute that these are very tough on rod and reel. Most don’t fight fancy, leaping and cavorting like tarpon, but battling hard, down and very, very dirty. Keep in mind, by the way, that this list is limited to inshore and shallow-reef waters. (So species such as amberjack, that tend to be on somewhat deeper reefs, aren’t included.)

GIANT TREVALLY (Caranx ignobilis)

toughest game fish inshore - giant trevally
Giant trevally always seem to have that “You wanna fight?” expression. This GT was caught in Oman. courtesy John Cahill / No Boundaries Oman

GT are actually as tough as they look, which is saying something. One of the largest of the jacks (family Carangidae), GT are one of the ultimate, bucket-list game fish for anglers fishing areas such as Australia, New Caledonia, Oman, the Andaman Islands, and even Hawaii. A favorite method for the big boys is throwing large poppers and stickbaits over reef and channel edges — and then trying, often fruitlessly, to power them away from structure, even with 80- to 100-pound braided line. The IGFA world record is an amazing 160 pounds, 7 ounces caught in Japanese waters in 2006.

ROOSTERFISH (Nematistius pectoralis)

toughest game fish inshore - roosterfish
Roosterfish sport a unique comb-like dorsal fin, such as this one from Papagayo, Costa Rica. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Roosters are arguably the most exotic of all nearshore eastern Pacific game fishes, with their distinctive coloration and, particularly, the unique high, comb-like dorsal fin. But, as anyone who’s caught them will tell you, their very tough combatants when hooked. Though not jacks, roosterfish take a page from the playbook of that stubborn family of fishes. Unlike jacks, roosters jump and may clear the water in spectacular fashion. They’re found in the tropical waters of Mexico south into the waters off Peru. The IGFA all-tackle record, caught off La Paz, Mexico, in 1960, is 114 pounds.


MAORI WRASSE (Cheilinus undulatus)

toughest game fish inshore - maori wrasse
A giant maori wrasse caught from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Courtesy Damon Olsen / Nomad Sportfishing

By and large, wrasses tend to be active little colorful fishes of tropical reefs. But the humphead Maori (aka Napoleon wrasse) is a big powerhouse of a fish that can reach 400 pounds or so, dwarfing a man. Seldom are specimens more than a fraction of that landed. Once these fish take a lure, there is truly no stopping them from swimming right back into or around coral. Amazingly strong, they pretty much go wherever they want, whenever they want to go there. Found throughout the Indo-Pacific, the IGFA world record is, surprisingly, just 43 pound, 10 ounces.

PAPUAN BLACK SNAPPER (Lutjanus goldiei)

toughest game fish inshore - Papuan black snapper
A Papuan black snapper from the lower rivers of New Guinea. Arnout Terlouw

Widely called a “black bass,” these powerful snapper in fact live in the lower rivers of southern Papua, New Guinea. Heavy currents in muddy waters swirling around omnipresent snags (sunken trees) make for a great challenge; many more of these fish are lost than are landed. But anglers from developed countries make the long trip for the bragging rights of releasing one. The biggest brag goes to the angler with the world record of 47 ½ pounds, taken in December 2015.

PACIFIC CUBERA SNAPPER (Lutjanus novemfasciatus)

toughest game fish inshore - Pacific cubera snapper
A Pacific cubera snapper landed from a kayak in Panama. Jason Arnold /

There are other species of cubera snapper; the Atlantic and the African versions both get a bit larger. However, unlike those, the Pacific cubera loves to prowl rocky headlands and shallow reefs, and as such is a prime target in the clear waters for anglers throwing large poppers and stickbaits, as well as for those slow-trolling live blue runners. That habitat also means stopping these cubera is critical — and very hard to do. The world record of 81 pounds, 3 ounces was caught in Isla Senora, Archipielago De Las Perlas, Panama in 2022.


RED STEENBRAS (DenItex ruprestris)

toughest game fish inshore - red steenbras
A massive red steenbras caught off of South Africa. John Rance

Anyone who’s ever fished for porgies — rather small but tasty tropical/temperate fishes — might have trouble accepting the fact that the thick, aggressive steenbras of South Africa’s coastal and estuarial waters is a porgy. In fact, it’s the largest porgy of that family and sports big canine teeth. The slow-growing predators are prized and tightly regulated. The world record is a whopping 124-pound, 12-ounce fish from the Eastern Cape area of South Africa, taken in 1994.


toughest game fish inshore - California yellowtail
A California yellowtail swimming in the blue waters off Southern California. Richard Herrmann

Although similar in morphology, appearance and down-and-dirty fight to the amberjack, California yellowtail (caught primarily from Southern California south along Baja and the Sea of Cortez) often frequent waters quite near shore and around kelp beds and rocks — where many big yellowtail are hooked and lost. Unless found offshore around floating kelp, light tackle for yellowtail often ends in sorrow (for the angler). Most IGFA yellowtail records come from the California or Baja regions, but some anglers in Japan are also making noise in the record books.

GOLDEN TREVALLY (Gnathanodon speciosus)

toughest game fish inshore - golden trevally
A golden trevally caught in Australia. George Large

In true trevally fashion, goldens are fighters to the end. While they don’t get nearly as large as the giant trevally, goldens fight as hard pound for pound. They also offer anglers a particularly striking appearance with their yellow coloration, and their very widespread availability — throughout the Indo-Pacific all the way to the eastern Pacific, from Baja south to Ecuador. They are caught in near-coastal waters as well as clear flats where, in Australia, they are prime sight-casting targets.