5 American Fish You Need to Catch in Your Lifetime

5 American Fish You Need to Catch in Your Lifetime

In 2004, Chris Santella’s book, “Fifty Places to FlyFish Before You Die,” hit shelves. I loved the stories, but I also loved the premise. I don’t think Santella intended the work to serve as an actual checklist of course, but it was hard not to imagine it that way. If you did, what you’d quickly realize is that to fish those 50 places before you were in the dirt, you’d need to have hit some very serious pay dirt while you were living.

Likewise, telling anglers they just haven’t lived until they’ve cranked on a marlin is dumb unless you’re addressing a room full of executives with boats docked in Kona. I’ve cranked on a marlin. It was awesome, but it doesn’t even rank in my list of top five most memorable catches. All I did was get on a boat I could never afford, sit there watching trolling lines someone else set, and have a rod passed to me when one of those lines got bit.

When I was concocting a list of five species I truly think every American angler should catch at least once, attainability was a key factor. Just like that marlin you can live without, you don’t need to go to Vanuatu for giant trevally or Mongolia for taimen to feel like you’ve done something special or memorable. All of my picks live right here in the U.S., and while a boat—be it yours or a guide’s—comes in handy, there’s nothing here you can’t catch from a kayak or on foot. Furthermore, all of these targets offer a strong chance of success on your first try. They’re not all glam species—some might even get slandered as trash fish—but I firmly believe it’s often the underdogs that offer the most unique and surprising experiences.

White Sturgeon
Offshore bros often look down on inland anglers because they don’t catch fish that can “hurt you.” First, guys with that attitude should move offshore permanently. Second, there is one sweetwater fish in the U.S. that can “hurt you.” I know because I’ve had my ass straight whupped by a white sturgeon.

The first one I ever hooked was on the mighty Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, and it weighed an estimated 300 pounds. After it hoovered a shad chunk secured to the riverbed by a 1-pound sinker, the bottom-dweller did the most surprising thing: it blasted straight up from 50 feet down and completely aired out behind the boat. I hooted with joy and awe at the acrobatics, and then immediately after splashdown, the fish sucked a couple hundred yards of line off the tuna-caliber reel in a steady, unbroken stream for what felt like five minutes. My joy turned to angst. As if this were a bachelor party fishing event, someone on the boat even lofted the obligatory, “Oh shit, dude, you’re gonna be here for a while! We’ll be over here drinking beer. Let us know if you get tired!”

I got exhausted, but I stuck it out for an hour and change and finished what I started. Holding that sturgeon boat side was as rewarding as every tuna I’ve ever landed, and within hours of the battle, I was calling all my East Coast offshore buds to say, “Yo, man, you need to come West and check out this sturgeon deal.”

Aside from the Columbia, you can check it in other West Coast rivers like the Snake and the Fraser, and giants are frequently wrangled from the bank at places like Bonneville Dam.

Peacock Bass
I’ve chased peacock bass in the Amazon. The experience was the culmination of a four-year obsession with these fiery green machines. But that obsession didn’t start by watching videos or reading articles about “peas.” My infatuation was born with boots on the ground right here in the U.S.

Peacock bass have been stocked in the vast inland waterways of South Florida for many years. What you’re not likely to do is smack a 15 pounder stateside, because it’s only the smallest member of the family, the butterfly peacock, that thrives in the Sunshine State. Thing is, if I never made it back to Brazil, my peacock addiction could be easily satiated on American soil. It’s just that frickin’ good. A 10-pounder might be a trophy here, but 5- to 8-pounders are common, and they’ll help you figure out how tough your bass tackle is in a hurry.

Florida Peacock Bass
This peacock ate a Clouser Minnow on the outskirts of Miami, Florida

I’ve always dug urban angling, so I’m all about peacock fishing in the heart of Miami. Yeah, I’ve been to boat ramps in shady areas where you keep an eye over your shoulder. I’ve pulled peacocks off submerged shopping carts while crackheads cheered me on from the bank. But for all the sketchiness, there’s a lot of vibrance, beauty, and life in the labyrinth of canals that run behind homes in the Cuban neighborhoods where barbacoa is grilling, backyard gardens full of tropical flowers bloom, and Latin music wafts in the air. If that all sounds too noisy for you, jog west toward the Everglades and you’ll find plenty of peacocks in the canals outside the urban sprawl.

Regardless of the aesthetics, peacocks will put a hurting on your gear, lures and flies especially. Clouser Minnows kill, but bring dozens, because it’ll only take one our two fish to mangle your bug. Hard jerkbaits in gold, silver, and orange destroy, too, but hooks will bend, lips will get out of whack, and paint jobs will suffer. Come armed with a healthy stock.

Alligator Gar
The scene was my favorite Johnny Cash line come to life: “Kickin’ and a’gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer.” Come to think of it, there was no beer, but there was plenty of carp blood dripping from the cooler and the mud I’ll never forget. Every square inch of my person, every surface of my friend Dawson Hefner’s boat, every rod and reel, was coated in a layer of ultra-fine Trinity River grit. For Hefner, a gar guide running multiple trips a week, cleaning daily made little sense. Dirt came with the Texan’s job.

Hefner was doing his job extremely well. Within a few minutes in our first spot, one of the big stick floats bobbing in the eddy started slowly moving upriver. Four feet below it, a gator gar was chomping away at a carp steak the size of a cowboy ribeye. The anticipation was killing me, but Hefner insisted the fish needed time to work the bait to the back of its throat, where the hooks could find softer meat. After an agonizing two minutes of watching that 10-inch cork make a V wake against the current, Hefner finally said, “OK. Reel down and hit ’em.”

When you connect, you know what you’ve got is powerful. It’s a vertical battle of wills more than a horizontal drag screamer, as the fish will do everything it can to stay glued to the bottom or pull you into a pile of wood. You know what you’ve got is big, but the northern Trinity is so impenetrably muddy that you don’t know exactly how big until the fish breaches like a submarine. It doesn’t do this because you’ve exhausted it; it does this, I’m convinced, to size you up, get a breath of air, and hope to catch you with a loosened grip on the rod. My first gar measured 6 feet, and as I gawked at the seemingly vanquished beast, it made one flick of its massive broom tail, soaked everyone on the boat, and raced back to the bottom to begin round two.

Many anglers who live in gar territory are either ambivalent about them or downright hate them. They’re accused of everything from decimating gamefish populations to attacking humans. Both of those accusations are wrong and/or unproven, but the undeniable truth is that they’re living dinosaurs that were here long before us and all of our favorite gamefish species. That, to me, makes the gator gar more American than the largemouth bass. It should be the duty of every American to go play in the dirt with them.

I’m a devout snakehead fanboy. There are many others like me. There are also legions of people that despise this invasive species. I’m not going to debate how devastating or harmless they are to an ecosystem here, because it has absolutely nothing to do with their inclusion on my list. The bottom line is that neither love nor hate for the species will change the fact that they are not going away. They’ve gotten their green cards, people. So, my view is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And if you join them, you might actually like them, because from an angling perspective, there’s a lot to like about these foreign predators.

There’s no other gamefish in the country I’m aware of that mandates the use of a topwater lure for maximum effectiveness 95% of the time. Granted, much of that has to do with snakehead habitat. In many cases, you’re not getting much besides a frog or buzzbait through the pad fields or over the weed mats snakes prefer. They also tend to love shallow vegetation, which makes snakeheading a highly visual game.

South Jersey Snakehead
The author with a snakehead that smashed a frog in southern New Jersey

There are two kinds of snake hits and they both kick ass. There’s the surprise; you had no idea the fish was there and it blows up violently out of nowhere. You’ll botch the connection on this one often. Then there’s the stalk; first you see a boil well behind or off to the side of the lure. You keep working that frog and there’s another boil closer. Now you see the wake. Maybe you even see the fish pulsing its tail, inching up on the bait until its nose is right under the target. You pause, give one final tap, and a hole opens up as the fish violently sucks Kermit under.

I’ll admit that the fight of snakehead leaves a bit to be desired, but much (in my opinion) like muskies, what’s addicting is the follow, the take, and that quick eruption after you swing. The battle to the boat isn’t the magic. When you first tie into a snake, it goes bonkers for a few seconds, but the silver lining to its lack of stamina is that it increases the odds of putting it in the net. That’s good, because I’d put a piece of deep-fried snakehead up against any white, flakey saltwater fish any day of the week.

As a Northeasterner, striped bass are in my blood. I’ll never pass up a trip for bull redfish, either. I’ve also tangled with some heavy-hitter snook. They’re all outstanding in their own ways, but none of these popular inshore targets can hold a candle to the raw power and stamina of a tarpon.

One of the best things about silver kings is that you get the whole package regardless of size and circumstance. If you want to throw flies at 15 pounders in the mangroves all day, those little guys will provide the same stunning air shows as a 50-pounder that smacks a popper a quarter mile off the beach. That 50-pounder will make you work for every inch of line just like the 150-pounder you might hook floating a live shrimp under a bridge over a deep channel. The difference is that gaining back all the line on that 150 can take hours instead of maybe a half an hour. Tarpon fishing essentially lets you choose your level of pain.

To date, my biggest ’poon weighed 200 pounds. It very well may remain my biggest ever, because after a nearly 3-hour battle with that 7-and-a-half-foot fish, I learned something: My favorite tarpon are 40 to 60 pounders. That size range gives you best of both worlds, because you’re going to work to win, but not so long that your morning session becomes a one-fish session, which can be equally tough on your buddy who’s not on the rod. You also won’t get beat down so badly that you’re not in the mood to jab another shortly after, which is a plus because tarpon of all sizes have rock-hard mouths that hooks just don’t like to stay in. Fighting a 100-plus-pounder for over an hour, getting within a few cranks of the leader only to have the hook pop, is soul crushing. I’ve been there, man.

Naturally, this list will have detractors. There are some who will just refuse to be pulled away from their beloved bass or trout or stripers to try something different. Don’t be that guy. It’s not just about catching a new species. It’s about how targeting that new species can give you an edge for chasing your favorite fish. Feeding frogs to snakeheads subsequently made my hook-up ratio better when feeding them to largemouths. Watching how Hefner let the current naturally carry bait chunks to slack spots in the river—which would be the same spots a gar would hold in—was a trick I carried over to local catfishing. I’m convinced I’ve lost fewer big smallmouths since sparring with hard-driving peacocks that fight dirty. The sturgeon and tarpon? They just taught me that I’m incredibly out of shape.

Featured image by Joe Cermele.

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