Hardest Fish to Catch: Meet The Bucket Listers!

Oct 11, 2023 | 7 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 7 minutes

You often hear anglers boast about how hard they fought their catch. And it’s true, there are plenty of species out there that will make you work your tail off to bring them in. But when it comes to the hardest fish to catch, only a handful of species can fill that bracket.

A photo of two anglers holding a large Swordfish while standing on a charter boat on a bright day

We’re talking creatures that will strain every bit of your line, test your will to the last drop, and make your back as stiff as a board! Today, we’re giving these fish some well-deserved props.

To create our list, we decided to go with a mix of freshwater and saltwater species. Some of these fish owe their elusive status to their sheer strength. Others use their wits to get away from you. And some are just very hard to find. Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Tarpon

As one of the most desirable fish to catch out there, Tarpon are a “right-of-passage” species for countless inshore anglers. Affectionately known as the Silver King, these shimmering brutes have been tearing through anglers’ lines for ages. 

There are a few things that make Tarpon a special catch. For one, they’re notoriously hard to hook. Hooking a Tarpon requires patience and skill, so losing the first few (or dozen) shouldn’t really put you off. When you do hook one, however, don’t think for a second that the job is done. 

A photo of a lucky angler posing with a big Tarpon in the shallows on a bright and sunny summer day

As soon as they take your bait, Tarpon will start putting on an acrobatic show like you’ve never seen before. Gills rattling, jumping out of the water, twisting and turning – these guys will do everything they can to throw your hook. When you see a Tarpon getting ready to jump, the best thing to do is “bow to the king.” Just lower your rod to decrease tension on the line, and enjoy the show.

Outmuscling a Tarpon is a bad idea. Most attempts result in lost gear and a bruised ego. The only way to catch these guys is to tire them out. When a Tarpon gets exhausted, it’ll roll over to its side. That’s when you start pulling them in.

In most places, Tarpon are a strictly catch-and-release species, so make sure you handle them with care. If you want your piece of the Silver King, head for the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or the south Atlantic coast. As you’d imagine, the best place to hook into a Tarpon is Florida.

Muskellunge

Shifting focus to freshwater, the next rod bender on our list is bound to give you a run for your money. Known as the fish of ten thousand casts, Muskellunge are as elusive and unpredictable as it gets. These fish are native to many lakes and rivers in the Northeast, and are a favorite catch for countless anglers.

A photo of a female angler standing on a charter boat during cold but sunny fall day and holding a Muskellunge

Muskies can range anywhere between “small” 28-inchers to huge 50-inch monsters. And while catching a smaller Muskie isn’t the hardest thing in the world, catching a trophy-sized adult will leave you as a different angler. That being said, you’ll have a much easier time catching a 30″ Pike than a 30″ Muskie.

That’s because it’s not just the size of these fish that makes them so hard to land. It’s how painstakingly clever they are. Moody and curious, these fish will follow your hooks many times over before deciding to strike. And when they do, don’t be surprised if their toothy jaws take your bait home.

Fighting a large Muskie is often a long and arduous affair. Catch one, however, and you’ll earn some serious bragging rights. If you want to catch the largest Muskies out there, look no further than the big lakes of Wisconsin. This fighter has earned the title of the official fish of the Badger State for a reason.

Permit

If catching a Tarpon is a right of passage, catching a Permit gets you a lifetime membership in the “badass angler” club. Be warned though: this fish will break your heart. Many times over.

A photo of an angler sitting on a charter boat and posing with Permit, one of the hardest fighting fish in the world

It’s not that Permit are difficult to find. In fact, they are pretty abundant – you can spot a Permit anywhere from Massachusetts down to Brazil. The thing is, Permit are hard fish to catch. They’re some of the most stubborn, unpredictable, and downright frustrating fish there are. And that’s precisely why catching one is so rewarding.

Permit spend most of their time near offshore wrecks, but that’s not where most fishermen catch them. As any Permit angler will tell you, these fish come to show face when they feed, and that happens on shallow flats. 

As luck would have it, Permit know that they’re out of their depth here (pun intended), and that makes them extra spooky. On top of that, these hard-nosed fish boast incredible eyesight, so to get close to them, you literally need to walk on water. And here’s the kicker: even if you manage to hook one, they’ll try to throw the hook with nose dives into the seabed, cut your line on rocks, and just be a downright pain.

If you want a piece of this silver devil, make sure you read our detailed guide.

Blue Marlin

A photo of a Blue Marlin in the water beside a boat caught during the Bisbee Black and Blue

Watching a small fish leap out of the water is exciting, but seeing a 1000 lb Billfish do it is enough to make your heart stop. That’s exactly what you get from a Blue Marlin, one of the most iconic game fish on the planet. What’s not to like about this fish?

Between dashing looks, impressive size, and its awe-inspiring physical ability, Blue Marlin has everything an angler could want. On top of that, it’s got a fighting spirit to rival any marine creature on the planet. No wonder the IGFA has it on their logo.

A photo of a Blue Marlin, one of the hardest fish to catch, caught leaping out of the water

Setting a hook in the hard mouth of a Blue Marlin requires skill and patience. Bringing one to the boat requires that, plus some good ol’ muscle on top. Heck, some people have battled these fish for five hours only to lose them on the line. That’s not to say that you need to be an Olympic athlete to catch these Billfish. But rest assured, catch or lose one, you’re gonna be sore the next day.

Brown Trout

There’s no “hardest fish to catch” list without Brown Trout. Revered by fly fishing enthusiasts, Browns are arguably responsible for more angling obsessions than any other fish out there. Not to be outdone by the larger Rainbow Trout, these fish are pound-for-pound kings of freshwater.

What is it that makes these particular Trout so special? Simply put, Brown Trout are smarter than other fish. In fact, Browns learn and remember things better than any other species of Trout. For a fisherman looking for a challenge, that means a lot.

A photo of an angler standing in the shallow water and posing with Trout in one hand caught after wading in the river

That also means that, ironically, the hardest Browns you can catch are the ones anglers fish for the most. These particular fish see more lures and flies compared to other Browns, making them more experienced and less likely to fall for “your favorite fly”. 

But that’s not all. Once hooked, Brown Trout will put up a fight that would put many saltwater species to shame. They’ll use every inch of their thick bodies to throw your hook, so you’ll need to bring your A-game if you want to land them.

Roosterfish

Native to the fish-filled waters of the Eastern Pacific, Roosterfish is a stand-out fish if there ever was one. Seriously, if there was an award for “coolest looking game fish”, we’re pretty sure this guy would win it in a landslide. But its flamboyant looks aren’t what earned it a spot on our list.

Much like Permit, Roosterfish like to hunt on shallow flats. The difference is, Roosters come so close that you can readily spot them from the shore. That still doesn’t mean that you can easily catch them, mind you. 

A photo of an angler wearing a cap and a pair of sunglasses while posing with big Roosterfish, one of the most difficult fish to catch

Roosterfish are common in the 30–45 pound range, so if you’re pulling one from the shore, you’re going to have your hands full. On top of that, these guys don’t muck about when it comes to hunting. They come in aggressively, attacking their prey without hesitation.

As soon as it takes the hook, a Rooster will start a frantic pull, changing directions as if possessed by an unknown force. It might seem like a Shark just came in and decided to take your catch away, but don’t be fooled: it’s just the Rooster taking you for a ride. Be careful if you’re wading for this fish, though, you can end up neck-deep in water!

Swordfish

A photo of three anglers standing on a charter boat and posing with Swordfish, one of the hardest fish to land

Swordfish aren’t fish you see every day, and for good reason. Unlike other Billfish, these fearsome creatures prefer to spend most of their time in the deep, dark waters of the ocean. If you were wondering, that means anywhere from 1800 to 5000 feet!

One of the rare occasions when Swordfish come close to the surface is during their nighttime feeding runs. This is why most traditional Swordfishing expeditions happen at night. But in recent years, more and more anglers choose to hunt Swordfish during the day. Whichever way you choose to do it, catching one of these monsters will require some serious gear.

An underwater view of a Swordfish, one of the most challenging fish to reel in, swimming in the water closer to the surface

And when we say serious, we don’t just mean first-class, super-heavy tackle. We mean you’ll need top-notch electronics, as well as some oddball items, too. Cue the 10-pound concrete sinker!

But that’s the easy part. Using their broad bills, Swordfish will try to rip your bait to shreds before attempting to eat it. If you’re dropping bait into deep waters, you might not even feel this on your rod. Another challenge is that these deep-dwelling monsters are unbelievably strong. Their stocky bodies and fixed dorsal fins make them even harder to deal with than Marlin!

The Game Changers

It’s pretty clear that catching any of the fish we just mentioned is a bucket list achievement. Heck, anglers will call just seeing some of these a success! From fierce fighters to illusory brainiacs, these critters will leave you scratching your head in disbelief almost any time you try to catch them. But that’s why it’s called fishing, not catching. Practice makes perfect, so find a guide near you and start trying!

That was our pick of the hardest fish to catch, but what are your favorite targets? Have you ever caught one of these fish yourself? Let us know in the comment below!

Author profile picture

Sean is an optometrist who left his day job to write about fishing. He calls himself a lucky angler because his favorite fish, Mahi Mahi, can be found almost anywhere – even though he’s lost more of them than he’s willing to admit. Obsessed by all forms of water sports, you’ll find him carrying one of three things: a ball, a surf board, or his fishing rod.

Comments (27)

Gage

Apr 21, 2023

I am a teen and during the Forth of July, I am going deep-sea fishing in texas what is the best fish to catch?

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    Tanya

    Apr 21, 2023

    Hi Gage,

    Thanks for reading our blog and reaching out.

    We’re stoked you’ll be exploring the offshore waters of Texas soon. Deep sea fishing in Texas offers endless opportunities for battling the world’s most wanted game fish. You can warm up with bottom dwellers such as Snappers and Groupers and continue your adventure by pursuing speedsters like Mahi Mahi and Wahoo. Once you feel confident enough you can even try your luck at overpowering Tuna and Billfish varieties. Sailfish and Marlin are quite high on the deep sea fishing list of every angler, but there isn’t a single ultimate catch. It comes down to what fish makes you tick. All in all, deep sea fishing in Texas guarantees an action-packed experience.

    If this is your first time deep sea fishing and going against the giants, we recommend pairing up with seasoned anglers and/or certified captains to ensure safety measures are followed and license, bag, size, and season regulations are respected.

    Hope this helped.
    Let us know how it went.

    Tight lines!

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Freddie B

Dec 18, 2022

Can’t speak to the others but can testify to the Roosterfish and
Tigerfish…every word is true…and more…looking now at a 72 lb Rooster and 2 Zambezi River Tigers.
All hardcore bully’s.
Spike

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    Marko

    Dec 19, 2022

    Hi Spike,

    Thanks for pitching in, fighting a 72 lb Rooster sounds epic!

    I hope you enjoyed the article and that you’ll have the time to tackle some of the other fish on the list as well 🙂

    Tight lines,

    Marko

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Nathan

Aug 26, 2022

I am just getting back from Maui and my family and I on a whim decided to go on a four hour fishing trip. We were lucky enough to hook into a 473 pound blue marlin. I’ve fought many fish including a few on this list, and I’ll say without a doubt the blue marlin was the hardest fish to land ever.

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    Lisa

    Aug 29, 2022

    Hi Nathan,

    Thank you for reaching out and sharing your story with us. Fishing in Maui is on my bucket list! I must say I’m more than impressed that you managed to hook into such a massive Marlin. Would you like to share some pictures with us, if you took any?

    Lisa

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Donnie Wilcox

Feb 26, 2022

I was in Hawaii on 2/18/2022 and hooked into a blue marlin measuring 8 1/2’ long and weighed in at 190#! Being disabled put me at a bit of an advantage, but I landed it! The funny thing is that before we went out on the boat, I told the captain that I wanted to hook into a blue marlin.

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    Rhys

    Feb 28, 2022

    Hi Donnie,

    Thanks for reading and for sharing your story with us! That certainly sounds like a bucket list catch! It’s also great to hear of the captain giving you that great service to land exactly what you wanted!

    Tight lines,

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Dayna Hohmann

Dec 19, 2021

I was fortunate enough to make it to Lake Jozini in South Africa this year and marked one off my bucket list, caught 2 Tiger Fish!

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    Katie Higgins

    Dec 20, 2021

    Hi Dayna,

    Thanks for sharing your experience! We’re really happy you got to tick something so special off your fishing bucket list.

    Tight lines,

    Katie

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Nate Dillard

Nov 11, 2021

I am just a teen, but my bucket list fish are musky, alligator gars, sawfish, and a channel catfish, and some foreigners from way out of the US, the arapaima, and the goliath tigerfish. But the two biggest fish I have ever caught were on the same day, I caught a 23-inch snapper. But my first cast that day was 5 times that size. A 10 foot long Shortfin Mako Shark

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    Andrijana Maletic

    Nov 11, 2021

    Hi Nate,

    Wow, both your bucket list and your catches are impressive! Pretty much every one of the fish you mentioned is fun to catch, though none of them will make it easy for you, and that’s the point! Since your fishing winning streak has just started, I have no doubt you’ll catch them all. Keep us in the loop of how the hunt’s going, Nate.

    Tight lines!

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Santi

Oct 6, 2021

Pound for pound the Mangrove Jack is one of the toughest, dirtiest fighting fish around

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    Andriana

    Oct 6, 2021

    Hi Santi,

    Thanks for reading. You’re absolutely right, Mangrove Jack are a real challenge to reel in, they’re smart, strong, and don’t give in easily, which is what makes them so appealing to anglers.

    All the best!

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Rick

Aug 31, 2021

Pound for pound the common bonito puts up a great fight. Speed power and endurance.

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    Katie

    Aug 31, 2021

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for your comment. We agree! The Bonito may get overlooked for other more famous fish, but it’s a pretty formidable opponent. Do you have any favorite ways of targeting this fish?

    Tight lines,

    Katie

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    Daniel Aldrich

    Sep 26, 2023

    A was an avid bonito fisherman until I moved from Southern California to Las Vegas. The two most effective ways I knew for catching bonito were a bubble and feather rig or a diamond jig and medium weight saltwater spinning tackle. 15#-20# test line.

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Mark

Nov 27, 2020

Steelhead are much more difficult to hook and land than brown trout. Steelheading has got to be the most bitter/sweet fishing in freshwater. So sweet when you land one, of any size, and it’s such a bitter taste when you go time after time to the river without even a bite. I’ve caught just about every sportfish in Michigan and there’s no doubt that steelhead are hands down the most difficult fish to land.

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    Sean

    Dec 1, 2020

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for sharing.

    We certainly won’t argue with that – Steelhead can put up one heck of a fight, and are definitely in the conversation for the hardest fighting fish out there. We wanted to keep our list as varied as possible, which is why we only went with a single species of Trout. It goes without saying that both species will give any angler a run for their money.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    Tight lines!

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    GRANT A KEGLEY

    May 28, 2021

    But you listed 2 billfish.

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    Sean

    May 31, 2021

    Hi Grant,

    Thanks for reading.

    True, there are two billfish on our list, which does go against the whole “variety” argument.

    However, Marlin and Swordfish occupy very different depths, and are typically caught using different techniques. In that sense, the two species are less similar than, say Marlin and Sailfish.

    At the end of the day, it’s really not possible to give props to all the hard-fighting fish in a short article. But tell us, which species do you think should be on the list?

    Thanks again for reading, and have a great day!

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    sid costello

    Nov 16, 2021

    Swordfish and blue marlin are not related at all. Swordfish are actually alone in their breed designation Xiphias gladius. They have no relatives.

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    matthew J hollenbeck

    Aug 3, 2021

    PNW steelheading on the fly is even harder 😎

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Joe

Oct 20, 2020

I’ve caught a 34 in tiger musky before… is that good?

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    Albert

    Oct 21, 2020

    Hi Joe,

    Landing a Musky of any size is something to be proud of! A 34-incher is a good catch for sure.

    Tight lines!

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Terry

Aug 6, 2020

Two of my bucket List target fish were accomplished fishing the beautiful pacific waters of Costa Rica. Blue Marlin and Roosterfish. I have photos but I can’t figure out how to attach to this. The marlin was 400 lb. and took a little over 2 hrs and the rooster was about 25lb. And took a full 30 min. Not on your list but deserving to be was a 12ft. Long Mako Shark that was over an hour to the boat then cut loose. That was while marlin fishing in the Caribbean off of Cancun Mexico. I’m still in search of a few more specific fish like a Bluefin Tuna and an Alaskan Halibut. Having all this time in lockdown makes me yearn even more for that next challenge. Thanks and tight——lines.

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    Sean

    Aug 7, 2020

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks for sharing.

    Way to go, those are some really impressive catches! Costa Rica seems to be the ultimate location for filling up an angler’s bucket list, doesn’t it?

    I’m sure that the photos look awesome, but I’m afraid that there’s no way to attach them in the comments.

    Truth be told, the Shortfin Mako is one of our favorite fish, and is well deserving of a spot on the list.

    Do you have a location set for that Bluefin Tuna hunt?

    Hope you get to go on an angling adventure soon! Tight lines!

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