Hooked fish of different species fight differently. Some tend to burst completely out of the water and launch into wild, splashy somersaults. For example, tarpon, ladyfish and mako sharks are all renowned for their aerial antics. Fish of other species sometimes jump but often come only half out of the water and do side-to-side head shakes. Largemouth bass and snook both do a lot of this, particularly the larger specimens.
Other species almost never jump but are known for blistering runs, especially when hooked on light tackle. Bonefish and some of the sharks are good examples of this in shallow water, while bonita, mackerel and kings are famously drag-burning in deeper water.
Some non-jumping species offer a powerful fight that’s more bulldog than greyhound. Jack crevalle, amberjack and pompano usually fight this way. Still others immediately head for the nearest cover as soon as they’re hooked; grouper are the best local example of this type of fight.
Fishermen argue about just about everything involving our sport: Which is the best boat, best motor, best lure, best live bait, best tide, best moon phase, best weather, best eating fish, etc. So of course we endlessly debate which fish fights the best. Attempts to rate the fighting qualities of fish are made more or less impossible by the many different ways that fish fight — and also by the fact that some fish get much bigger than others.
Snook get a lot of votes for being the best fighters. They’re not the strongest-pulling, the fastest-running, the highest-leaping or the most stubborn. But they do rate pretty high in all these categories, making them a contender for the best fighters overall.
Snook are also notorious for racing into cover when hooked and thereby cutting off angler’s lines on mangrove roots, dock pilings or whatever else is handy. I have heard many anglers talking about how “smart” snook are, since they are so proficient at escaping capture this way.
I think that such a characterization is giving too much credit to the fish. If a snook really understood that the tugging on his jaw was due to a hook that was connected by a thin line to a nearby angler, and that he (the snook) could escape by dragging that line across sharp barnacles to cut the line, then I doubt he would have ever eaten the bait or lure in the first place.
But snook certainly do have an instinctive response to head for cover when they are in danger. And that strategy often works well to save the snook from marauding dolphin or hopeful anglers. But I believe it’s more of an automatic response than a well-considered escape plan.
But back to the debate about which fish fight the best. This discussion is further complicated by the fact that different fish of the same species can fight very differently. One of the largest snook that I’ve ever landed was a fish of over 20 pounds. It was quickly released without being measured or weighed, so all we have is my estimate of its weight. But it was a seriously big fish.
I hooked it under an old wooden dock on 10-pound spinning tackle while fishing for mangrove snapper. Landing that fish in that location on that tackle is a long shot. However, this snook ate the bait, swam out from under the dock, did one sloppy head shake in open water next to the boat, slogged around a little bit, then rolled up on its side. Done.
It never pulled more than 10 feet of line against the drag, and the total fight time could not have been two minutes. No, it was not gut-hooked; it was hooked right in the corner of the mouth which explains why the light 20-pound leader wasn’t even frayed at all. If a rookie snook angler had caught that snook as his first, his opinion of the fighting qualities of snook would not be very high. As an aside, this situation confirms the value of that old fishing saying: “It’s better to be lucky than to be good.”
Tarpon also get high marks for being hard fighters. Of course, they have a couple advantages in this debate. One is that most hooked tarpon are frantic high-jumpers. Another is that they get very large — a 100-pound tarpon is just an average fish. No matter their size, they are strong fish and they generally don’t tire easily.
But there are exceptions. One night many years ago, I was on an evening tarpon fishing trip in Boca Grande Pass. This is not a light-tackle spot. We were fishing traditional style: Heavy boat rods, 80-pound line, and live bait suspended directly beneath the boat some 45 feet down in the turbid waters of the big inlet.
One of our crabs got eaten, as evidenced by a bob of that angler’s rod tip, followed by the rod bowing down towards the water. I quickly pushed our vessel ahead by about a boat length to keep the line taut as the fish rose to the surface to jump. As the boat slowed to a stop, I turned my attention back to the cockpit and my angler to see where the fish was and to manage the boat and the fight.
Except that there was a complication: The tarpon, a smaller-than-average fish for Boca Grande Pass at 50 or 60 pounds, was lying on its side at the surface right behind the transom. The angler had wound the leader swivel right to the tip of the rod and could go no further. While I was moving the boat, the angler had cranked the fish directly to the boat. No jumps, no drag-blistering runs. Total fight time was probably 30 seconds.
I waited for a while for that fish to duck down and take off running, but it never happened. It was all over, so I left the helm and released the fish. That angler could not have been very impressed by the fight of that tarpon. I don’t recall for sure, but I hope we hooked other, more spunky, fish that night.
So I’m not sure what to answer when I’m asked which fish fights the best. If there was some way to do the comparison on a pound-for-pound basis, I just might vote for bluegill. What’s your vote?
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.