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North America’s Toughest Fish to Catch & How You Can Reel One In

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

There are a lot of reasons a fish may be considered a difficult catch. It could be their sheer power. It could be how hard it is to fool them into biting. It could even be the fact that they are just plain hard to find. All these factors contribute to making them the coveted prize catches that they are. Let’s explore some of North America’s toughest fish to hook, and how to optimize your chances of reeling one in yourself.

1. Wahoo

Thanks to its blistering speed and the wild fight they put up once hooked, it’s no wonder you're likely to exclaim the Wahoo’s namesake when you have one on your line. Found in the temperate waters of Northeast Florida and Louisiana, the Wahoo is no easy catch to make. These slender fish are ultra-fast swimmers, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. They are extremely strong fish as well and seem quite happy to demonstrate this on the inexperienced or unprepared angler by snapping lines, fracturing rods, and in some cases, even throwing fishermen from their boats.

Fisherman holds up prize Wahoo fish, also know as Barracuda, Kingfish, Malta Kingfish, Pacific King-Fish, and Queenfish  in different parts of the world.

The first step in successfully catching one of these “bullets of the sea” is to not underestimate their power and spirit. Keep your wits about you, and be sure to bring your resolve, strength, and sea legs aboard with you, because these fish will put up an incredible fight until the very end.

You also want to be sure to use the proper technique and equipment. While not the only method, one of the most popular and effective ways to fish for Wahoo is high speed trolling. Ideally, you’ll want to travel at about 15 knots, but depending on how they’re biting, you may have more success catching these fish as fast as 22 knots.

For this reason, it’s important to use large reels and heavy braided lines to withstand both your trolling speeds and the power of your catch. While chumming with live bait and chunking can be effective in some locations, wahoo favor fast-trolled lures and baits, particularly those provided as part of a spread that comprises five or more baits at varied distances and depths, supported by downriggers, planers, and wire lines.

2. Tarpon

Thanks to fossil research, we have come to learn that tarpon have existed for approximately 120 million years, which is just about the time you could find creatures like tyrannosaurus rex roaming the earth. That proved to be plenty of time for them to develop into the acrobatic game fish we know today. This prize fish, which can be found in the seas of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic's southern coast, is known to create quite a splash when hooked, leaping up to 10 feet in the air. They also have great eyesight, which means that they are much less likely to bite than other fish species.

A large Tarpon fish leaps out of the water in pursuit of baitfish.

There are several strategies for capturing tarpon, the most efficient of which is dependent on your fishing location. Many experienced tarpon fishermen like to anchor in the passes and fish live baits beneath floats. Anchor lines are rigged with floats and quick-release loops to allow the boat to be rapidly freed from the anchor and the tarpon to be pursued immediately after hook-up.

However, anchoring is not required in all instances. Tarpon will often move out into deeper waters on the bay side of the passes when the bite slows down in the middle of the tide. In such a case, drifting may be a preferable option to cover more distance and possibly inspire an attack once you cease spotting them in the passes themselves. Either way, your best bet is to fish for Tarpon at night, when their vision is hindered.

Bring live mullet or crab for bait and a chum bucket to entice them to approach closer. These fish may weigh up to 100 pounds, occasionally even 200 pounds, so bring a fishing rod and reel with ample line capacity for these big boys.

3. Permit

While Permit are not difficult to spot, particularly in Florida’s shallow coastal waters, they are certainly not as easy to hook. When solitary, they tend to patrol those shallow flats in search of crabs and crustaceans. In such situations, Permit are moody, ultra-suspicious, spooky, and will bolt at the slightest noise, movement, or vibration. They’re famous for ignoring lures and flies, even if you cast practically in their mouths. When they are traveling in schools, they can also be found in surfs and deeper waters.

A fishermen shows off his massive Perch fish catch, reeled in from the shallow flats which they frequently hunt for crustaceans.

Although you will need to use a different technique and use different gear according to where you are targeting these elusive fish, you will want to use live crab as your bait, regardless. Permit can’t get enough of them, especially blue crab, which are sometimes referred to as “permit candy.” Offshore Permit fishing entails tightlining over wrecks, rock piles, grass beds, or anywhere you'd expect to find their snack of choice. To rig for live crabs, use a 7′ medium action rod, a light bait-casting or spinning reel, and 20-pound test braided line.

Permit can also be caught in the surf during the summertime as they cruise the surf-line in schools on their way out to deeper breeding areas for the fall. A 10–12-foot light surf rod, a bait-casting or spinning reel, and 12–20-pound line is recommended. Rig a live crab or shrimp with no weight or only enough to throw. Cast the bait into the water. If you spot a school, drop the bait in front of it rather than directly into it, since lining a fish will almost always result in scaring it away.

Finally, if you want to try your hand at one of the ultimate fishing challenges, then you’ll want to try fishing for Permit in shallow flats. Permit fishing in the flats necessitates sight-fishing. This means you must spot the Permit before it detects you, which is easier said than done in only a few feet of perfectly clear water. As a result, kayak fishing is the surest approach to success. These boats are sleek, swift, and extremely quiet. You can build up momentum and then drift up to the Permit's vicinity without making any noise. Because you are low in the water, all the fish will see is a rather large fish-shaped object that is not automatically perceived as a threat.

4. Muskellunge

Smaller muskies are not difficult to capture, especially in the Great Lakes and surrounding rivers. But a trophy-size one is a once-in-a-lifetime catch. These bad boys, often referred to as "fish of 10,000 casts," are cunning, unpredictable, and difficult to hook. Just when you think you’ve successfully snagged one, they’ll use their incredibly powerful jaws to steal your bait or throw your hook. They are not gluttons either and are much less likely to bite if they have already fed. So if they do manage to make off with your bait, there’s a good chance you won’t see that fish again.

A fishermen holds up his prize Muskellunge, or Muskie fish.

To catch a prize muskie, you must first master large bait cast gear, become acquainted with local waters, and invest in a GPS sonar system. Begin your hunt around structures, drop-offs, rocks, sand bars, weed borders, or shady spots along the coastline. The optimum time to catch a super-sized muskie is during the Fall season, namely September and October.

Musky fishing tackle typically consists of a medium-heavy action rod, a sturdy braided fishing line weighing 50 to 80 pounds, and a range of lure spinnerbaits, bucktails, jerk baits, crankbaits, topwater plugs, and huge spoons. Anglers can also catch fish using live bait, with large suckers being the most common. Because of the razor teeth on this fish, fishermen must use a wire leader. When casting, bucktails and jerk baits work well, whereas diving plugs are the most widely used lure when trolling. Whatever you decide to use, keep in mind that muskies tend to be more attracted to bait that display a great deal of activity, so keep your lures moving.

5. Blue Marlin

Blue Marlin is widely considered to be the holy grail of catches among the sport fishing community. While these fish can most commonly be found along the American East Coast, they are exceedingly rare, nonetheless. If you are lucky enough to end up with one on your line, brace yourself. Capable of reaching weights of over 1,800 pounds and lengths of more than 16 feet, these goliaths will put up spectacular resistance, accented with acrobatic leaps and sharp deep dives. Even the most experienced of sport anglers have battled for the better half of a day to reel in one of these creatures, only for them to escape.

A Blue Marlin leaps out of the ocean as it fights the fishermen reeling it in.

To have a fighting chance of catching one of these monsters, the first major key is to have patience. Getting a Blue Marlin on your hook requires impeccable timing, and opportunity may take its sweet, sweet time to strike. And fighting to reel one in can last hours on end.

As far as gear goes, don’t even think about trying to wrangle a Blue Marlin with your casual rod and reel. If you use anything less than industrial strength equipment, it’s more than likely you’ll snap a rod or lose it completely. You’ll also want to get that fighting chair ready. Remember, these fish reach upwards of a ton in weight. You may be able to go toe-to-toe with a 100 or 200 pounder using a belt alone, but anything more and you’ll be tossed in with the bait.

And speaking of bait, these apex predators don’t bite at just anything. Blue Marlins respond well to large, whole bait. Anglers should opt for bonito, dolphin, mullet, mackerel, bonefish, ballyhoo, flying fish, and squid. Rubber skirted trolling lures work well for catching these legendary fish as well.

With all of that said, it doesn’t pay to wing it with these warriors; they will not go down easy, even when you are fully prepared. So don’t expect one to simply fall into your lap. It’s crucial that you use the appropriate technique, gear, and bait to reel a prize fish in. Otherwise, you can consider it a lost cause. However, with the necessary tools and a bit of luck, any angler can capture one of these tough catches, and the bragging rights that go along with it.


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