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Eight Toughest Game Fish

Eight of the world's most brutal species of fish any angler will ever hook in inshore waters and shallow reefs

January 10, 2017
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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)

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.

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toughest game fish inshore - giant trevally
Giant Trevally – Oman courtesy John Cahill / No Boundaries Oman
toughest game fish inshore - giant trevally
Giant trevally always seem to have that “You wanna fight?” expression. This GT caught on a Sebile Stick Shadd in Australia. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

ROOSTERFISH (Nematistius pectoralis)

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

toughest game fish inshore - roosterfish
Trophy roosterfish — Papagayo, Costa Rica Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
toughest game fish inshore - roosterfish
Roosterfish sport a unique “comb-like” dorsal fin Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

MAORI WRASSE (Cheilinus undulatus)

By and large, wrasses tend to be active little colorful fishes of tropical reefs. But the 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, for 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.

toughest game fish inshore - maori wrasse
Maori wrasse — Great Barrier Reef, Australia Courtesy Damon Olsen / Nomad Sportfishing
toughest game fish inshore - maori wrasse
Maori wrasse — New Guinea.
Large males develop the characteristic hump on their foreheads.
Al McGlashan

PAPUAN BLACK SNAPPER (Lutjanus goldiei)

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 who as of this writing claims the world record of 47 ½ pounds, taken in December 2015.

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toughest game fish inshore - Papuan black snapper
Papuan black snapper — New Guinea Arnout Terlouw
toughest game fish inshore - Papuan black snapper
Give an inch, lose a fish: Hang a big Papuan black “bass” in its snag-filled river home and find out why they’re often unstoppable. Arnout Terlouw

PACIFIC CUBERA SNAPPER (Lutjanus novemfasciatus)

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 78 pounds, 12 ounces has held since 1988 when it was aught off Costa Rica.

toughest game fish inshore - Pacific cubera snapper
Pacific cubera snapper — Panama Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

RED STEENBRAS (DenItex ruprestris)

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, largest of that family and sporting 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 - red steenbras
Red Steenbras — South Africa John Rance

CALIFORNIA YELLOWTAIL (Seriola lalandi)

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). Ironically, only one IGFA California yellowtail record of many (including line-class and fly-rod records) came not from California/Baja but from Japan: a 109-pound, 2-ounce monster taken in 2009.

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toughest game fish inshore - California yellowtail
California Yellowtail — Southern California Richard Herrmann

GOLDEN TREVALLY (Gnathanodon speciosus)

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. The IGFA all-tackle world record came from Western Australia in 2002, weighing 32 ½ pounds.

toughest game fish inshore - golden trevally
Golden trevally — Australia George Large
toughest game fish inshore - golden trevally
Golden trevally — Pending new IGFA all-tackle world record at the time of this writing, 38 pounds, 8 ounces caught off Queensland, Australia. courtesy International Game Fish Association
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