THERE ARE FISHTHAT RATCHET THE IDEA OF TOUGHNESS up to a rarefied level–a toughness that leaves amateurs and expert fishermen alike in physical and mental shock. These fish, once you are joined to them, and despite even the best of muscle tackle, will pummel you with a ferocity that will rubberize your legs, brutalize yourbelly, reduce your arms to trembling twigs. Your synapses will malfunction and every muscle you own will screech “enough,” but you’ll be too stubbornto give up. And just when you think you have them licked, they’ll remind you that the fight has only just begun.
Ask a group of anglers to name the one toughest fish of all, and you’ll get a batch of conflicting answers. My picks are predicated on size, aggression, likelihood of a spectacular fight, the environment in which you’ll find them and a generous helping of subjectivity. Some fish of each species will be meaner than others, but as long as they’ve got size, none of them will give you an inch.
TOUGH SCALE 8.9
THERE ARE AT LEAST 25 TREVALLY SPECIES and all of them are tough fighters, but the giant is the tribe’s true bad boy, and not just because of its size. Divers report watching huge GTs heedlessly crash their blunt heads into a reef while pursuing small fish. Nothing fazes them. They’ll repeatedly blow up on asurface lure, never quitting until they’ve devoured it. You can also jig them or use natural baits, but 20-pound-test casting tackle is necessary when fishing for them near rocky outcroppings, atolls and reefs, and you’ll still get broken off. You’ll find them year-round in Hawaii, where they’re known as ulua; near the atolls and islands of the South Pacific; in Australia; and throughout the Philippines. You’ll be happy with 50-pounders, believe me, but the things grow to more than 100.
TOUGH SCALE 9.3
NEXT TO BLUEFIN TUNA, greater amberjacks are, pound for pound, as hard fighting a fish as you’ll meet. Like tuna, they don’t jump, but when one slams your bait there is no question as to what’s happening.
Immediately, it will bore for the wreck, reef or rocky outcropping where it lives, and you must stop it right then, or all will be lost. You need a tight drag that only begrudgingly gives out line. You need to use continual short pumps with a stout stand-up rod. You need to forget the pulled muscles in your forearms and concentrate on lifting with your legs. Even when turned, an amberjack will continue to dig and run as you lift it. Amberjacks are ideal for illustrating to newcomers just how tough a fish can be. The hope is to hook a fish of 20 or 30 pounds. Woe to the newbie who connects with a 60-pounder.
TOUGH SCALE 9.0
The scales of the pirarucu are so abrasive, they’re sold as nail files in the curio shops of Manaus, Brazil. That gives you some idea about this prehistoricfish, known as arapaima in Guyana. Without the head or tail, its body resembles a tarpon’s. Reattach those missing parts and you’ve got something that looks more like an attack sub.
The fish favors deep lagoons and sluggish backwaters, where it has the disconcerting habit of rising ghostlike near your boat to gulp air through its primitive lung. Normally the pirarucu is quite wary, but when it’s guarding a spawning site, it might leap clear of the water and too close to your boat for comfort. It will do the same once it attacks a big jerkbait, crankbait or slab spoon, though more typically it rolls wildly on top and then heads for flooded jungle trees. If you’re trophy hunting, a live or dead baitfish beneath a float is often most productive.
The key to finding this fish is to search for air bubbles. Air breathing has been the fish’s undoing. Specimens to 600 pounds reportedly have been taken in the past, but spearing has reduced their numbers. Today 200-pounders are trophies; a 100-pound fish is a good-size catch and will put up a good fight to boot. Their awesome ferocity and the sheer adventure of a deep jungle hunt for the critters make them that much more worthwhile.
TOUGH SCALE 9.0
Okay, the piraiba may be “just” a catfish, but it’s the largest South American catfish and, at nearly 300 pounds, among the largest in the world.
Natives of the Amazon and its tributaries routinely fish for the beast using a baited hook and rope tied to the bows of their dugout canoes. When they hook up, they’re dragged for miles. Some fishermen have lost fingers in their ropes; others have been slammed overboard and drowned. The piraiba’s streamlined shape and huge tail enable it to swim up rapids during seasonal migrations of many hundreds of miles. And once it has inhaled the dead baitfish you’ve dangled, that sames hape and tail enable it to yank you clear across a boat, before hanging up in the densest nearby cover. There’s an old story about one of these brutes being gutted at a market to reveal the skeletal remains of an adult male human.
TOUGH SCALE 9.5
MY UNDYING LOVE FOR THESE THINGS is no secret. They remind me of the finale in a Fourth of July fireworks display. There are times when they feel your hookup and come straight at you, gills audibly rattling, mouth as big around as a Dutch oven, saucer-size eyes glaring with a wild-stallion craziness. Those are the good ones. The bad ones sulk and run.
You can toss plugs to tarpon on glorified bass tackle (with reels that have sufficient line capacity and splendid drags), soak live mullet, tempt them with chunks of dead bait, troll for them or throw flies on their noses. The finest sport is sight-fishing in shallow water, leading them like a wingshooter, firing home a cast and watching a mouth open.
Record seekers go to places like Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau in western Africa for goodn umbers of tarpon topping 200 pounds. You needn’t travel that far, though. Slip down to Central America or target them along the Gulf Coast. There the firecrackers range from 65 to 100 pounds; some will push 200.
The silver pigs have been known to fall from the sky into your boat, thrashing about and causing serious damage and injuries. But most of the time, the only medicine you’ll need is a rum runner to ease the rod-butt aches across your belly.
TOUGH SCALE 9.7
BLACK, WHITE AND STRIPED MARLIN are all worthy adversaries for sure, but my vote for toughest of the marlin is the mighty blue. It is often coaxed by natural sewn baits or lures dragged via outriggers on 16- and 20-pound tackle, but to me, that’s definitely on the light side. Blues in the 800-pound class and 1,000-pound blacks have been caught that way, but only because these fish are of open water, and the boat handlers and anglers were supremely skilled and aggressive. It’s the 50-, 80- and 130-pound-class tackle that seems right to meet the challenge of the true monsters.
Their rapier billis no nose ornament, either–many of my guide friends sport puncture scars. Just last July a blue marlin estimated at 800 pounds flew across the width of aboat, impaling Bermudan mate Ian Card below his collarbone and taking him 15 feet below the surface as his father watched in horror. The 260-pound Card wrestled free, with a fist-size hole in his chest, and somehow managed to survive the ordeal.
If a marlin in the air doesn’t bring a shout of primal joy from you, there’s something wrong withyour wiring. Or perhaps it’s just that your throat’s dried up from fighting thebeast.
TOUGH SCALE 9.5
A native of North America, the white sturgeon is hardly as monstrous as the 3,000-pound beluga found in the Caspian Sea. But I’ll tell you what: When a 9-or 10-foot-long white sucks your cut-herring bait off the bottom of a river, turns and takes off, you’re going to know it. You won’t believe that what looks like the prehistoric, armor-plated, sucky-mouthed result of a catfish-carp liaison can leap, but leap it does. During a typical fight, a white sturgeon will repeatedly jump high into the air, slamming back down to the water’s surface without grace.
Its huge tail and pectoral fins ensure drag-melting runs, followed by bottom-hugging tactics that’ll force you to grunt him up. You’ll need a quick-release snap and float to leave your anchor and begin the chase. At boatside the fish will continue to thrash violently, so stay ready. Today the Columbia and Idaho’s Snake River produce fish in the 200- to 500-pound range, while fish up to 600 pounds have come from British Columbia’s Fraser River. Eighty-pound-test line, heavy-dutyr evolving-spool reels, boat rods and three-way swivel bait rigs get the job done.
TOUGH SCALE 9.2
AT FIRST GLANCE THEY LOOK LIKE LARGEMOUTH BASS ON STEROIDS, but they sport the teeth of a junkyard dog and maintain the disposition of a wounded Cape buffalo.These days Niugini bass (a kind of snapper, actually) max out near 40 pounds, though there are reports of 70-pounders that have been dynamited from the drowned trees in the brackish jungle rivers of New Guinea, where they live. What you cast to them isn’t important; they’ll eat anything that swims–other fish, little crocodiles, small mammals. It’s just that your muskie or saltwaterbait ought to have its hooks replaced with 5X stouts. You need an 80-pound-test wire leader, 40- or 50-pound-test line and a drag that has been tightened down with pliers.
Cast tight to the logjams, and when the greenish-grayish creature streaks out and chomps your plug, yell “hit it” to the guy running the outboard. Maybe you’ll drag the fish out. More likely it will pull you to the gunwale, crack your knees against the side of the boat, maybe pop some guides off the rod and snap the line.
TOUGH SCALE 10
Bigeye, dogtooth, longtail, even the blackfin and little tunny are no-quit fighters, but it’s the top-tier yellowfin and king-of-them-all bluefin tuna that can, quite literally, break your heart. One look at the torpedo-headed, quick-tapering body or the lunate, always-beating tail, and you understand why they’re among the planet’s fastest-swimming creatures.
Hooking up with a tuna is like being connected to a runaway semi–one that makes depth-bomb plummets. All you can do is ready your whole body for the job of cranking and lifting without a second’s rest. I’ve seen NFL linemen quit midfight. Anglers who battle giant bluefin often end up with back problems. Fish in the 300- to 1,000-pound range (the record is 1,496) call for 80- to 130-pound tackle. Truly, these warm-blooded creatures are the raging bulls of the sea.
THE SCALE: WHEREOTHER GAME FISH WOULD RANK
1 1.6 Smallmouth Bass
5.9 Striped Bass
7.4 King Salmon
THE WORLD’S MOST DEADLY FISH
The worst of the scorpion fishes, the stonefish bears a toxin comparable to that of a cobra. This small but horribly ugly creature lives in coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian oceans and is camouflaged to resemble a coral lump. If you are “spined,” the pain is instantaneous. In 10 minutes you’ll likely collapse, thrashing and raving maniacally. If you survive six hours you’ll probably live, though flesh near the wound will have sloughed away, your joints will ache and it will take a year to regain good health.
GREAT WHITE SHARK
Based on its size, strength, fearlessness and preference for feeding on marine mammals–as well as divers, swimmers and even kayak hulls–the great white is the deadliest shark. These prehistoric survivors grow to thousands of pounds.
Many shark species can do you in, but the bull makes this list because of its abundance, vile disposition and common occurrence near shore in turbid water, where the fish is rarely seen until it attacks. Bulls also adapt to fresh water and roam far up major rivers.
Otherwise known as the box jellyfish, this member of the Cubozoa clan (not a true jellyfish) is about as big as a basketball, with 60 nearly invisible tentacles trailing up to 15 feet behind it. It calls the Indio-Pacific region home. Not everyone who comes into contact with those tentacles dies, but the excruciating venomous sting causes vomiting and breathing and heart problems.
This translucent, yellow-eyed, eel-like parasitic catfish grows to a maximum length of one inch. It cannot kill you outright, but if you experience the wrath of one, you might wish it had. A native of the Amazon, the fish has a penchant for swimming into urethral openings of unprotected bathers–men and women alike. Once inside it pops open its spinygill covers, which prevent it from being pulled out. The ensuing shock and infection have caused death, as has hemorrhaging resulting from attempts to remove it. Delicate surgery might be required. Also, the juice of two native fruits high in citric acid, both drunk and used externally where possible, can dissolve the gill spines and kill the fish.