The Hardest Fighting Freshwater Fish: Our Top 10

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As anglers, we love hard-fighting fish. Some species are known for their aggressive fights when hooked, and in this post, we are going to look at some of the toughest freshwater fish around.

1. Muskie

The Muskie has a legendary status of being arguably the hardest fighting fish in freshwater. They can grow to large sizes, have razor-sharp teeth, and as anyone who has been musky fishing knows, they can be extremely challenging to catch.

Size

The average size of a muskie depends on the body of water, but fish over 4 feet in length are not uncommon today on many bodies of water.

In the fall muskies stack on a ton of weight in preparation for winter and can surpass 40 pounds in weight for large specimens.

The world record musky is disputed, as it was caught in the 50s and the record-keeping on the fish wasn’t great, it is also argued by photos that it is not as big as claimed.

With that being said this record stands at 69 pounds 11 ounces and this massive fish had a length of 5′ 3.5″ and was caught in the famous Chippewa Flowage in Northwestern Wisconsin.

Power

The power of the fish obviously depends on its size, and moderate-sized fish are known for being very scrappy and can put on quite the acrobatics show too.

Large fish over 4 feet – considered a trophy musky – can also put on some acrobatics, but they can also choose to dive deep if they are hooked in deep water, and sometimes it may feel like you hooked a log until the massive headshakes start.

Dirty tricks

Muskies will attempt a number of things to unhook themselves, and with 90% of all muskies being released after being caught, most fish will know the game, and the older fish in particular has probably been caught and released several times in its life.

They will try everything from diving deep into the weed bed and tangling you in the weeds, rushing the boat and creating slackline, heading for heavy timber or current, or simply repeatedly jumping into the air in an attempt to throw the lure.

2.Steelhead

Steelhead are just another name for rainbow trout. The difference in the name is due to the steelhead being anadromous, which means they migrate from saltwater to freshwater.

Rainbow trout are the same as steelhead, but live the majority or all of their lives in freshwater depending on their location.

Steelhead are typically caught from rivers and are one of the hardest fighting fish with a reputation for using the current as a weapon against anglers.

Size

The all-tackle IGFA record for the largest steelhead caught comes in at 36 pounds and was caught in British Columbia, Canada.

Fish in the 30-inch range are not uncommon, but the average size depends on location and habitat. For example, the average size of steelhead in the Great Lakes is 6-7 pounds, but specimens in the Great Lakes can be caught weighing 20 pounds and 36 inches in length.

Power

Like many large trout, steelhead can put up a serious fight, especially when hooked using a fly rod.

It can take quick thinking and a dash of luck in many situations when fighting a steelhead.

Dirty tricks

One of the biggest challenges when fighting fish like steelhead in a river is the current, and steelhead will take advantage of the fast and strong current when hooked.

Fighting steelhead in heavy current can put a serious strain on a fly rod and line, so your drag adjustment game needs to be top-notch.

Other issues arise if there are log jams, root systems along banks, and logs and timber.

Steelhead will attempt reaching these areas as a way to seek shelter out of instinct, which means you will have to do everything you can to keep them away from these areas and the tangling and snapping of line that would likely ensue.

3. King Salmon

King salmon – also known as chinook salmon – have a reputation for being one of the hardest fighting fish out there.

If you’re trolling for them they will wear your arms out, if you’re fishing for them in a river setting they can really test your fish fighting skills.

Size

Like most fish, size depends on the habitat they live in, but most king salmon live in big bodies of both saltwater and freshwater full of forage and have the ability to grow to large sizes.

Adult fish typically range from 26 to 36 inches but can be caught far over that length.

King salmon can reach anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds in weight as well, with large adults in the 20 to 30-pound range not uncommon.

Power

King salmon have some serious endurance and can fight relentlessly for long periods of time.

This endurance only compounds strain in your arms when winching them in while trolling, and in a river fishing situation with the addition of current, and potential snags, it can be akin to hand-to-hand combat.

Dirty tricks

When it comes to trolling situations it’s pretty much just a battle of endurance and strength, but in rivers, the dangers are the same as will any other large river fish.

Snags and current are your major enemies when fishing for King Salmon from a river.

4. Sturgeon

If you know anything about these ancient fish it’s that they can grow to huge sizes, with species like the white sturgeon and lake sturgeon being several feet in length.

Their size is what makes them one of the hardest fighting fish, combined with a ton of swimming power.

Size

Size depends on the species, but the white sturgeon can reach 10 to 15 feet in length, with the longest recorded fish reaching 20 feet in length and the largest weight recorded being 1,799 pounds.

Lake sturgeon are not anadromous like their white sturgeon cousins, and as a result, don’t grow quite as large.

They can grow to nearly 10 feet in length and weigh as much as 250 pounds.

Power

Due to their size, the weight of these fish is where most of their power comes from, but large tails and the ability to swim easily in heavy current means that fighting these fish is akin to a tug of war match.

Dirty tricks

Since you will almost always fight these fish in the river, the current and other snags like roots, logs, and timber are serious obstacles you have to contend with.

Sturgeon will attempt to jump at times when hooked, but their massive size means that they won’t do much more than get half of their bodies out of the water.

In many cases, when you hook a sturgeon you might think it’s a snag like a log and not a fish, it’s only when your line slow starts heading upstream that you realize you hooked one.

5. Lake Trout

The lake trout is similar to the king salmon when it comes to the fight it can put up, and is thus one the hardest fighting fish in North America in the freshwater environment.

Size

The average length of the lake trout is anywhere from 24-36 inches, with an average weight of 15-40 pounds.

The largest recorded lake trout was 59 inches and 72 pounds and was caught in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Power

Lake trout are typically caught casting in deep water, trolling on large bodies of deep water, or caught through the ice while ice fishing.

Typically they are caught in deep water due to being coldwater fish, and this means there is typically a good amount of line to crank in to catch them.

Lake trout are similar to other fish that have high levels of endurance and do not quit fighting until their energy is spent, or they run “out of breath” so to speak. This makes them a great fighting fish.

Dirty tricks

Since they are typically caught in deep open water you don’t really have to worry about obstacles to get snagged on.

Lake trout really only have one trick they will use to come unhooked, and that is to make repeated head shakes in an attempt to unlodge the hook.

6. Catfish

Catfish are without a doubt one of the hardest fighting fish on this list, they surpass muskies in the sheer power category, and are only rivaled by sturgeon.

While they will chase down and eat prey, catfish typically hunt at the bottoms of the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that they inhabit.

Size

Size depends on the species of catfish, we can’t really give an overall size for all species, so let’s take a look at the largest species in North America, the blue catfish.

The blue catfish has an average length of 24-46 inches, but they do have the potential of reaching 65 inches in length and 150 pounds in weight.

Power

Catfish have long tail fin and anal fin, this gives them a ton of power when swimming and one of the best fighting fish. They will take you for a serious ride, and if the fish is big enough you will struggle to gain line on them early in the fight.

Dirty tricks

Due to being hooked near the bottom and typically being fished around heavy cover or deep river holes, there is always a risk of getting snagged on submerged trees, logs, and roots.

Due to the potential for snagging being high, it’s important to keep pressure on the fish if possible, though due to their power and size you will typically have to let them peel some line and loosen your drag.

7. Largemouth bass

Most anglers in North America will have caught a largemouth bass in their lives, they are very common, are found in every state in the Continental United States, Mexico, and Southern Canada.

The largemouth bass is a member of the panfish family, and while they are one of the smallest fish on this list, they are on the list due to their fighting spirit.

Size

In the southern reaches of their range largemouth bass grow up to 10 pounds and catching them this size in some bodies of water isn’t that uncommon.

The maximum unofficial length weight of largemouth bass is 29.5 inches and 25 pounds.

The farther north you travel in the Largemouth bass’ range the smaller the fish get due to habitat and climate conditions.

Power

Bass is known for having a serious power to size ratio, and they have the ability to jump very far out of the water in an attempt to throw the lure from its’ mouth.

They will make sudden bursts of speed in an attempt to escape you when hooked, but while they are a hard fighting fish, they don’t have the endurance like that of other fish.

Dirty tricks

Bass are usually caught around heavy cover like weeds, docks, pier pylons, brush, stumps, and roots.

Like many other species, the main dirty trick of the largemouth bass is to bury into the weeds or head into dangerous areas where your line can tangle and break off.

Their ability to jump can also cause single hook lures like spinnerbaits to fly out of their mouths and this is a common occurrence.

8. Common Carp

Anglers in Europe know all about the fight that the common carp can put out.

While the carp aren’t as popular in the states, many fly anglers have decided to target them due to their large size and fighting power.

Size

Carp can grow pretty large, and it’s not uncommon at all to hook into a carp in the U.S. that weighs twenty pounds on many bodies of water. Don’t be fooled by their docile appearance – can are one of the hardest fighting freshwater fish pound for pound. These feisty fish are dubbed suburban bonefish by fly fishers making do between trips to the Caribbean.

They can grow to a maximum of 88 pounds and be as long as 47 inches.

Power

Carp have torpedo-shaped bodies and are built like hogs, their very large tail fin means they can put out some serious power.

Dirty tricks

Carp will come to the surface during a fight but rarely will they put on aerial acrobatics.

Typically carp will dive and head to cover and peel line off your drag while doing so, and they love to head directly for heavy vegetation, roots, and branches.

The main dirty tricks of this fish typically consist of snapping your line from sheer power or breaking it off using roots or branches.

9. Peacock Bass

The peacock bass actually isn’t a bass at all but a cichlid and is one of the largest cichlid species in the world.

Peacock bass are known for being very powerful and will try everything in the book to come unhooked, including shooting into the air like a missile, making them one of the hardest fighting fish around pound for pound.

Size

The peacock bass can reach 29 pounds and 3.5 feet in length, and their wide bodies can make for some serious resistance when anglers try to drag them in.

Power

Due to their anatomy, the peacock bass is capable of putting up a serious fight, and by swimming sideways while fighting an angler it’s like fighting the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of a largemouth bass.

Dirty tricks

Peacock bass live in mangroves and jungle rivers in South America, and as you might guess, getting snagged is your ultimate concern.

On top of getting snagged, peacock bass will jump out of the water and do massive head shakes in an attempt to rid themselves of your lure.

Their tenacity towards getting themselves unhooked makes them one of the hardest fighting freshwater fish.

10. Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass grip thumb jig held

Smallmouth bass is similar to largemouth bass when it comes to fighting, but smallmouth bass also commonly live in areas with heavy river currents which adds to the battle.

Size

Smallmouth bass in the 5 to 6-pound range are common in bodies of water like the Great Lakes, and they can grow even larger than that in key areas of these lakes.

5 pounds is a respectably sized smallmouth anywhere really, but don’t let the low weight fool you in terms of fighting spirit – they are one of the hardest fighting fish pound for pound.

Power

Smallmouth bass will make hard kicking bursts of speed throughout the battle, and if they are in current the fight can be a great one.

Dirty tricks

Dirty tricks for smallmouth bass consists of jumping and jumping often in an attempt to toss your lure, they will also try to head for roots, branches, and other obstacles to snag and break your fishing line.

Final Thoughts on the Hardest Fighting Freshwater Fish

There you have it, our top 10 hardest-fighting freshwater fish. If you haven’t fished for the fish on this list, you need to try it. Or contact us if you think there is a freshwater fish that we’ve left off our list of the hardest fighting species.

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AUTHOR
Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water.