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Merwin: What Fish Pulls the Hardest?

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November 16, 2009

Merwin: What Fish Pulls the Hardest?

By John Merwin

One of our readers last week had a good question: How hard can a fish pull? Or, as a corollary, what’s the hardest pulling fish for its size?

The short answer is that ... I don’t know. That’s just because like most anglers I usually use a reel’s drag to slow a fighting fish rather than stopping it cold, which would potentially result in a broken line.

A charter-captain friend routinely uses 28 pounds of drag in fishing for bluefin tuna with heavy, offshore spinning tackle. A freshly-hooked 100- to 150-pound bluefin will readily pull line against that much drag, although it will also quickly tire out. But that’s as much or more drag than most anglers can easily handle, so the fisherman in this case dictates the upper limit of usable force and not the fish.

When I occasionally hook a big largemouth--say 7 or 8 pounds--while bass fishing, I’d guess that fish’s initial force in diving for cover to be around 5 or 6 pounds. That’s just from recollection, not something I’ve measured, although that is a case in which I’m trying to stop the fish entirely before it can surge into a weed bed.

I think fish with lunate tail fins (meaning crescent or sickle-shaped) such as tuna, various jacks, and marlin can exert more proportionately more force than those with broad tails such as bass or trout. That’s because lunate fins evolved as a means for attaining high speeds while broad tails are generally for maneuverability.

That said, I also know that a hot steelhead when newly hooked and off on a blistering run pulls with amazing force. So maybe there’s more to it than just tail shape.

And maybe your favorite fish--whatever that might be--has more pulling power than any other. Any ideas?

Comments (31)

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from grantystyle wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

pound for pound, the pompano is the hardest fighting fish ive ever caught. I thought I had a world class trout or redfish on the other end of my line but it turned out to be just a mediocre sized pompano

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bigjake wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

freshwater- river smallmouthbass
saltwater- bluefin tuna

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from minigunner111 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

pike dont pull the hardest but they FIGHT and the do pull hard

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Koldkut wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Wiper!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Big O wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

"Smallies" and "Wipers" are both tops in the "fresh-water" for me.
As for "salt-water" I'd say marlin's and some spiecies of sharks.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Douglas wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

For freshwater, I would vote for a bowfin.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian W. Thair wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Maybe my better question would be: How to measure the pull? Winter+blizzards here. Somebody help here and hook their weigh-scale to the rod tip guide +rope to something solid (boat/tree/log), just for a bit to get an idea of the force of the pull, weight the fish. Tell us all.
I hooked a sturgeon (saw it). Maybe 4' long? Like tying my line to a bus.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from shane wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I'm glad someone said pompano, those little buggers really do put on a fight.

I think Chinook salmon are pretty serious pullers. A 15 pounder feels like 30 and a 30 feels like a jeep. I don't even want to know what the really big ones are like.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from johnmerwin wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Brian.....since this was your question in the first place....one suggestion I've made around here earlier (as regards drag-setting) is to tie your line to a plastic bag holding a common 5-pound bag of sugar or flour and lift the weight with your rod. That's just so you can have some feel and sense of what that specific weight/pull feels like. Five pounds will feel amazingly heavy on almost any common, midweight freshwater tackle. Can you imagine pulling 28 pounds (or more) against a tuna? Actual fish-pulling power has never been measured that I'm aware of. If it has, I hope someone lets me know...

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Alex Pernice th... wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

you are gonna laugh at this but, Bluegill. when those things turn on there sides its like reeling in a dinner plate. If Gills grew to 20 pounds no one would fish for bass.

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

This is a tough one. Pound for pound I'd have to say the bluegill but they just don't get that big. For jumps and aerial display it's a toss up between the smallmouth and rainbow trout. I think a 12in brown on 5x tippet pulls much harder than a 12in brown on 3x tippet and nothing compares to a 40+ in northern the first time he sees the boat but the fish that has shown me the most backing, by far, is the steelhead.

(I don't get to the salty water much so maybe I'm biased)

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian W. Thair wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Good plan, John. Thanks. I'll do that with several different weights. No, I can't imagine 28 lbs pull.
2-3lbs on my flyrod should be quite a bend. A 20kg/44lb international flight-type suitcase is a big load. However, a leaping, plunging excited Chesapeake puppy at 6 months (on a leash) can't be too far off!
Back in the 1960's, I heard stories that the wire line, lake trout guys on Athapapascow, near Flin Flon, Manitoba,used a scale on the rod. They claimed 20% of the laker's weight.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from BamaCreekBum wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I agree with alex on that one. For their size bream (bluegill) pull the hardest. Smallmouth are close too. Both are fun for fly fishing.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from salmonquest wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I've got a buddy that goes 230+ and is considered a pretty tough guy. I took him fishing for Coho. A 15lber gave him all he wanted but I've caught smaller steelies that seem to be more lively while Kings are more solid.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from salmonquest wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

For those that say bass...I pulled in a 22" smallie when I was 8 or 9 I don't remember much about the fight. I don't know I would say the same thing for a King.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from elkhunt79 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

For me the hardest pulling freshwater fish would be a steelhead. but have not had the chance for offshore fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from coho310 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Salmon are the hardest fighters I've ever caught,but relative to size,the bluegill,when they get into those tight little circles,the are kind of hard to turn on ultra-light tackle.BamaCreekBum,Buckhunter,and Alex,I agree with all of ya'.

-coho310

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from tmack9200 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Ok, let start by taking Freshwater fish off the list as tough fighters, yes some put up a fight, but thats only if you have never caught salt water fish. A 10 pound largemouth bass fights about as good as a 2 pound bluefish.

Some of the hardest pulling fish I have experienced is the bluefin tuna, mako shark, thresher shark, but hands down the strongest fish....The Tarpon....

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from KJ wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I've not fished saltwater, so I can't comment there. But for freshwater, I don't think anything fights as hard, pound for pound, as a plain jane garden variety carp caught out of a river. If they had teeth you'd probably never land one.

Let me qualify this, too, by saying that my favorite fishing is in a small lake or large pond, using nothing but ultralight tackle and manuevering around in my belly boat. Everything fights hard and feels really big fishing this way.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckslayer911 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

i think blue gill puts up a great fight for its size but i also think sturgeon are fun to i caught a 4 and a half footer and it took me 45 min just to get it to the dock

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from vtbluegrass wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

The toughest fish fights I have experienced were against tarpon. They may not pull for as long but definitely as hard as a tuna. A tuna to me is a one trick pony in the fight department it just pulls down. Tarpon in deep water do it all you get jumps, long runs, deep hard runs, and laps around the boat. I haven't caught a Marlin yet but suspect it would win. I imagine a halibut would be pretty stiff too.

Not many freshwater fish can match the power of stuff coming from saltwater its just tougher living. Yeah some freshwater fish can pull hard but duration is lacking. A big bluefin or bigeye will fight you for an hour and let you get him to the boat then pull out 300 yards of line just to mess with you.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from rabbitpolice88 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

stripers pull pretty good

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Fischerman69 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

i have to say the hardest fighting fish i have ever caught are big channel cats they fight hard they pull line like theres no tommarow and you cant fight them quick you tire out before the fish

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from MLH wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Freshwater ... kings on the open water. Have lots of line and expect a few runs from the big ones. On the smaller side ... gills.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Teodoro wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

In terms of absolute force that I have personally experienced, I'd have to say smallmouth. It's worth noting (for those that don't know this) that largemouth and smallmouth bass are at about opposite ends of the spectrum for fight.

But the smallies and the bluegill bring up an interesting point. A lot of the fight they provide isn't pull, it's resistance. They fight by turning their boddies sideways and, when possible, into the current. They aren't really pulling (particularly where there's no current); the angler's pressure is creating resistance.

All that said, I was tremendously impressed by the fight, on a per-pound basis, a puppy drum put up on my last trip to the beach.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from country road wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I have to vote for most any member of the jack family in salt water (crevalle, amberjack, pompano, etc.). I've seen medium size amberjacks make a big man say "uncle" many times.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from thomas howard wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

blue cats pull like hell.they have to be the strongest pound for pound fish,they never give up,kind of like a pittbull.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Jim in Mo wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Pound for pound Alex and Big O make a good argument. Freshwater 'gills and smallies are tough.
I wish I could comment on saltwater fish.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Cgull wrote 4 years 21 weeks ago

MY favorite fighting fish is the redfish. Getting into a school of hungry redfish will wear you out. Yea there are fish that fight harded and pull faster.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Len Harris wrote 4 years 21 weeks ago

Wisconsin steel head rant right up there with the best drag screamers.

http://lenharris.blogspot.com/2009/11/teds-little-one-from-today.html

This massive male male steelie is one of the biggest i have ever seen.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from crm3006 wrote 4 years 21 weeks ago

Pound for pound, I'd have to go with the bluegill. If they got to 5-6 pounds, they would be un-landable. Two posters above got close to what I have experienced, with the blue and channel cats, but a sizable flathead, say 10 to 15 pounds, is like hooking a sunken log. They just go down and out until they decide to turn around and come back, but they may decide to go down and out again, and they are just as hard to turn the second go-round. No flashy runs or aerobatics, but I vote for the flathead as the hardest pulling freshwater fish.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from XxradadxX wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I have hooked several good tugs in my day, but the BIGGEST one was from a fish I never saw. We believe it was a Lake Sturgeon in the Detroit River, while fishing for Walleye. The fish pulled the 16ft. boat with three men in it, upstream. There was NO STOPPING this fish. Finally cut my 18# test line.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from Alex Pernice th... wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

you are gonna laugh at this but, Bluegill. when those things turn on there sides its like reeling in a dinner plate. If Gills grew to 20 pounds no one would fish for bass.

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from bigjake wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

freshwater- river smallmouthbass
saltwater- bluefin tuna

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

This is a tough one. Pound for pound I'd have to say the bluegill but they just don't get that big. For jumps and aerial display it's a toss up between the smallmouth and rainbow trout. I think a 12in brown on 5x tippet pulls much harder than a 12in brown on 3x tippet and nothing compares to a 40+ in northern the first time he sees the boat but the fish that has shown me the most backing, by far, is the steelhead.

(I don't get to the salty water much so maybe I'm biased)

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from elkhunt79 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

For me the hardest pulling freshwater fish would be a steelhead. but have not had the chance for offshore fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Fischerman69 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

i have to say the hardest fighting fish i have ever caught are big channel cats they fight hard they pull line like theres no tommarow and you cant fight them quick you tire out before the fish

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from grantystyle wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

pound for pound, the pompano is the hardest fighting fish ive ever caught. I thought I had a world class trout or redfish on the other end of my line but it turned out to be just a mediocre sized pompano

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from minigunner111 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

pike dont pull the hardest but they FIGHT and the do pull hard

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Koldkut wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Wiper!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Big O wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

"Smallies" and "Wipers" are both tops in the "fresh-water" for me.
As for "salt-water" I'd say marlin's and some spiecies of sharks.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Douglas wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

For freshwater, I would vote for a bowfin.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian W. Thair wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Maybe my better question would be: How to measure the pull? Winter+blizzards here. Somebody help here and hook their weigh-scale to the rod tip guide +rope to something solid (boat/tree/log), just for a bit to get an idea of the force of the pull, weight the fish. Tell us all.
I hooked a sturgeon (saw it). Maybe 4' long? Like tying my line to a bus.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from shane wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I'm glad someone said pompano, those little buggers really do put on a fight.

I think Chinook salmon are pretty serious pullers. A 15 pounder feels like 30 and a 30 feels like a jeep. I don't even want to know what the really big ones are like.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from johnmerwin wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Brian.....since this was your question in the first place....one suggestion I've made around here earlier (as regards drag-setting) is to tie your line to a plastic bag holding a common 5-pound bag of sugar or flour and lift the weight with your rod. That's just so you can have some feel and sense of what that specific weight/pull feels like. Five pounds will feel amazingly heavy on almost any common, midweight freshwater tackle. Can you imagine pulling 28 pounds (or more) against a tuna? Actual fish-pulling power has never been measured that I'm aware of. If it has, I hope someone lets me know...

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian W. Thair wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Good plan, John. Thanks. I'll do that with several different weights. No, I can't imagine 28 lbs pull.
2-3lbs on my flyrod should be quite a bend. A 20kg/44lb international flight-type suitcase is a big load. However, a leaping, plunging excited Chesapeake puppy at 6 months (on a leash) can't be too far off!
Back in the 1960's, I heard stories that the wire line, lake trout guys on Athapapascow, near Flin Flon, Manitoba,used a scale on the rod. They claimed 20% of the laker's weight.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from BamaCreekBum wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I agree with alex on that one. For their size bream (bluegill) pull the hardest. Smallmouth are close too. Both are fun for fly fishing.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from salmonquest wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I've got a buddy that goes 230+ and is considered a pretty tough guy. I took him fishing for Coho. A 15lber gave him all he wanted but I've caught smaller steelies that seem to be more lively while Kings are more solid.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from coho310 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Salmon are the hardest fighters I've ever caught,but relative to size,the bluegill,when they get into those tight little circles,the are kind of hard to turn on ultra-light tackle.BamaCreekBum,Buckhunter,and Alex,I agree with all of ya'.

-coho310

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from crm3006 wrote 4 years 21 weeks ago

Pound for pound, I'd have to go with the bluegill. If they got to 5-6 pounds, they would be un-landable. Two posters above got close to what I have experienced, with the blue and channel cats, but a sizable flathead, say 10 to 15 pounds, is like hooking a sunken log. They just go down and out until they decide to turn around and come back, but they may decide to go down and out again, and they are just as hard to turn the second go-round. No flashy runs or aerobatics, but I vote for the flathead as the hardest pulling freshwater fish.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from salmonquest wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

For those that say bass...I pulled in a 22" smallie when I was 8 or 9 I don't remember much about the fight. I don't know I would say the same thing for a King.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from tmack9200 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Ok, let start by taking Freshwater fish off the list as tough fighters, yes some put up a fight, but thats only if you have never caught salt water fish. A 10 pound largemouth bass fights about as good as a 2 pound bluefish.

Some of the hardest pulling fish I have experienced is the bluefin tuna, mako shark, thresher shark, but hands down the strongest fish....The Tarpon....

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from KJ wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I've not fished saltwater, so I can't comment there. But for freshwater, I don't think anything fights as hard, pound for pound, as a plain jane garden variety carp caught out of a river. If they had teeth you'd probably never land one.

Let me qualify this, too, by saying that my favorite fishing is in a small lake or large pond, using nothing but ultralight tackle and manuevering around in my belly boat. Everything fights hard and feels really big fishing this way.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckslayer911 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

i think blue gill puts up a great fight for its size but i also think sturgeon are fun to i caught a 4 and a half footer and it took me 45 min just to get it to the dock

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from vtbluegrass wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

The toughest fish fights I have experienced were against tarpon. They may not pull for as long but definitely as hard as a tuna. A tuna to me is a one trick pony in the fight department it just pulls down. Tarpon in deep water do it all you get jumps, long runs, deep hard runs, and laps around the boat. I haven't caught a Marlin yet but suspect it would win. I imagine a halibut would be pretty stiff too.

Not many freshwater fish can match the power of stuff coming from saltwater its just tougher living. Yeah some freshwater fish can pull hard but duration is lacking. A big bluefin or bigeye will fight you for an hour and let you get him to the boat then pull out 300 yards of line just to mess with you.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from rabbitpolice88 wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

stripers pull pretty good

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from MLH wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Freshwater ... kings on the open water. Have lots of line and expect a few runs from the big ones. On the smaller side ... gills.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Teodoro wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

In terms of absolute force that I have personally experienced, I'd have to say smallmouth. It's worth noting (for those that don't know this) that largemouth and smallmouth bass are at about opposite ends of the spectrum for fight.

But the smallies and the bluegill bring up an interesting point. A lot of the fight they provide isn't pull, it's resistance. They fight by turning their boddies sideways and, when possible, into the current. They aren't really pulling (particularly where there's no current); the angler's pressure is creating resistance.

All that said, I was tremendously impressed by the fight, on a per-pound basis, a puppy drum put up on my last trip to the beach.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from country road wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

I have to vote for most any member of the jack family in salt water (crevalle, amberjack, pompano, etc.). I've seen medium size amberjacks make a big man say "uncle" many times.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from thomas howard wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

blue cats pull like hell.they have to be the strongest pound for pound fish,they never give up,kind of like a pittbull.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Jim in Mo wrote 4 years 22 weeks ago

Pound for pound Alex and Big O make a good argument. Freshwater 'gills and smallies are tough.
I wish I could comment on saltwater fish.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Cgull wrote 4 years 21 weeks ago

MY favorite fighting fish is the redfish. Getting into a school of hungry redfish will wear you out. Yea there are fish that fight harded and pull faster.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Len Harris wrote 4 years 21 weeks ago

Wisconsin steel head rant right up there with the best drag screamers.

http://lenharris.blogspot.com/2009/11/teds-little-one-from-today.html

This massive male male steelie is one of the biggest i have ever seen.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from XxradadxX wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I have hooked several good tugs in my day, but the BIGGEST one was from a fish I never saw. We believe it was a Lake Sturgeon in the Detroit River, while fishing for Walleye. The fish pulled the 16ft. boat with three men in it, upstream. There was NO STOPPING this fish. Finally cut my 18# test line.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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