Anything Fly Fishing

Ranking Fish

3 Mins read

I’m about to open a metaphorical can of worms, which as a fly fisherman, I’m somewhat reluctant to do. But given the topic, it seems as good a place to start as any.

Over many years of reading outdoor literature, I have come to realize that we rank fish and fishing experiences. With the onslaught of social media, this ranking exercise has hit overdrive.

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Post a photo of yourself posing with a large fish that ranks near the top of the totem. In minutes, you will have thirty people wanting to know where you caught it. Now, post a photo of yourself with a fish from the bottom of the totem. You will be lucky to get two “likes” and one of those will be from your mother.

This leads to the next question, namely, how are fish ranked? I will suggest there are a few scales (pun intended).

First, freshwater and saltwater fish are ranked separately. Near the top of the freshwater ranking you will find salmon and steelhead. Some distance below these you will find trout and other fish like bass (largemouth and smallmouth), stripers, and a few more fish. Down near the bottom, you find panfish with suckers about as close to the bottom as you can get.

Suckers always rank near the bottom.

I will add that we always rank wild fish far above stocked fish regardless of how long these stocked fish have been swimming around.

On the saltwater ranking, the top fish tend to be billfish, followed by permit, tarpon, and bonefish. A number of others fall close behind, such as redfish, king mackerel, and the like.

Saltwater fish have their own ranking.

Then, we have to consider how the fish was caught. Obviously, any of these fish caught on a fly rod will boost its ranking. There’s something about light tackle that moves the experience higher even though it probably wears out the fish a bit worse. So, I guess a marlin on a Tenkara rod would be the peak fishing experience.

Even within the fly-fishing community, you will hear that some forms of fly fishing are more elevated than others. In particular, bamboo rods take a step up from graphite and dry flies rate above nymphs if you believe the social discourse.

Spinning and casting gear tend to be the norm for many fish, and as a result, falls somewhere in the middle of fishing experiences if you believe what you see in the comments on social media. Gear disciples always try to get converts to their style of fishing, so the best gear to use tends to be the favorite of the commenter.

I do find it remarkable that some fish have been improving their status in recent years, probably by hiring public relations firms and rebranding themselves. Carp are a prime example. Now, these pucker-mouthed fish are being promoted as freshwater bonefish and fly fishers across the world are chasing them as if slow-moving downtown streams are the next tropical paradise. For the record, I’m fine with this as it keeps people off my trout waters.

The main problem I have with letting other people rank my fishing experiences is that I don’t have the opportunity to fish for these top-ranked fish very often. I don’t live near salmon and don’t have the money to Tenkara-fish for marlin.

So, by social media standards, I spend my days in pursuit of mediocre fish.

Apparently, I’ve been mostly catching mediocre fish.

I’ve come to realize that over the years I’ve developed my own ranking of fish independent of what others might think. At the top is the fish I most want to catch at the moment. This could be a popper-eating bluegill in May or a hopper-eating brown trout in July. Or give me a good-sized flounder on an inshore trip or a blue cat with a sneer on Santee Cooper.

Fish shouldn’t have to compete on social media, just on the end of your line. And that’s enough.

A youngster on one end of the line puts it at the top of my scale.

Before I put the lid back on this metaphorical can of worms, I will add that sometimes even fishing with worms can be a lot of fun. Especially when the angler on the other end of the line squeals as the bobber goes under.


Jim Mize has caught all kinds of fish and none of them seemed mediocre at the time. You can purchase Jim’s new book, The Jon Boat Years, at or buy autographed copies at You may also purchase Jim’s books at .

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