Sea Donkey Fish - Beasts of the Reef

September 10, 2020
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A sea donkey fish or reef donkey is a stubborn and heavy-duty animal that can cause damage to fishing gear. They can be difficult to catch and can be the hardest fighting fish in a given area. The name "sea donkey" comes from their reputation for carrying heavy loads and their tendency to break lines.

What is a sea donkey fish or a reef donkey? Have you ever been fishing a wreck, a reef or some type of oil platform and gotten spooled? I know I have. There have been times when something takes your bait at full speed and no matter what you do you cannot stop it from breaking you off. That is the so named sea donkey fish. In some cases, rods and reels have been yanked out right out of anglers hands. You may even find yourself so exhausted that you have no choice but to give the rod up to another angler or let it go into the sea. Better to let the outfit go than to get pulled overboard.

Why the name sea donkey? It probably has to do with the reputation of an actual donkey. This lovable animal can be very stubborn and is expected to carry heavy loads. Somewhere along the way, a fishermen had a run in with a fish so powerful and unrelenting that they ended up with either a broken line and perhaps a drag system that was destroyed. You can hear them now saying, “holy shit, what a donkey”!

Let's circle back around to the primary question of what fish is a sea donkey or reef donkey. The answers depend on where in the world you are fishing. It is also a relative term. What may overpower one angler may not another. There are however a few fish that are widely recognized as donkeys.

Before we get into which fish qualify as a sea donkey, let's examine the characteristics that go into that qualification. They will pull like freight trains. Their temperament is on the bad side. Fishermen would say they are the hardest fighting fish in a given area. You will have a damn difficult time putting the breaks on their run. Upon hookup, the fishes singular motivation is to get into the structure and thus breaking you off.

The biggest reef donkeys will test the angling skills of even the very best anglers. Fishermen with ample experience battling these hogs will find it tough at times to boat the big ones. You are going to need strong rods and reels with beefier drag systems. The leaders are going to need to be up to the challenge, as are your hooks. I have seen many a hook straightened out by giant sea donkeys.

In the Atlantic Ocean fish like the greater amberjack are revered for their bull like strength. This is a fish that will slam your bait and descend to the depths pulling as much line as it wants, seemingly. You better be ready when this fish comes knocking. Other fish like the cubera snapper and cobia can also cause problems for anglers. Big cubera hit like dump trucks. The bite is ferocious and can snatch the rod right our of your hands. The thing with cubera is that if you can withstand the first few minutes of the battle, it is over for the fish. While cobia can put up a pretty good fight, they are not going to wreck your outfit or drag you over the side.

There are a few Indo-Pacific species that are on a magnitude order higher that their sea donkey counterparts in the Atlantic. These fish can put fear in you. I have caught sizable amber amberjacks, cubera snapper and cobia and from first hand experience, they pale in comparison to the reef donkeys of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. If you have not gone to battle with these fish, you have absolutely zero perspective. Giant Trevally or GT's and dogtooth tuna are scary. When these reef fish get big, there is no stopping them. From the point of first contact the amount of pressure you feel in your hands, arms, shoulders, back and legs is shocking. There is no let up. The experience is literally like casting a lure to a speeding locomotive goin away, hooking it and hanging on for dear life. I have never had a fish where I was concerned about going over the side until I hooked into a big GT.

Giant trevally and dogtooth tuna are the enforcers of the reef. There is no bully more ominous. These fish slam lures, often times crushing them in their grasp. Stout hooks get bent. If the lures you are using are not purpose built, leave them at home. You will need to grit of something like a 30000 series Shimano Stella and even that, at times, is not enough for the beeeg fish.

I my opinion, until you have fished the realm of the GeeT and the doggie, you have no room to talk. These fish are the standard by which all sea donkeys are measured. Of course, everything is relative and there are no GT's or dogtooth tuna in the Atlantic. So, if you are relegated to fishing exclusively in the Atlantic basin, the AJ is king. If you ever get a chance, do yourself a favor and head to the south Pacific and do battle with the baddest sea donkey you can find. You will be forever in awe.

Check out some of our Reef Fishing Videos and learn more about Giant Trevally.

Seth Horne


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