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How to Set a Hook to Ensure a Firm Hook-Up

Setting a hook firmly is a key to increasing your catch numbers

It had been going on all damn morning. A touch would transmit itself up the rod, I would rear back, and nothing. Actually not always nothing. Sometimes a brief run, then nothing.

I went down in hook-size to the point where it was nonsensical relative to the bait size. There were some good snapper down there, some of the hits were very solid indeed, and my fishing companion that day was landing fish - good fish. But I could not get a firm hook-set.

Time for a change in plan. My mates plan. He and I had the same rig. Main line through a ball sinker to a swivel, a meter length of 15kg trace down to the hook. Simple no nonsense stuff.

Up till this point I had been fishing with the reel in gear, and the line reasonably tight to the sinker.

Now I decided to fish, like my companion, with the reel out of gear using my thumb on the shoulder of the line spool as a 'brake'. With my free hand I pulled some line off the reel and held it at a slight angle to the stripper guide. (Settle Bruce, its the first guide on the rod above the reel).

On the next touch I let the 'slack' formed by the line in my free hand go, and waited till the reel spool began to move under my thumb. With my free hand now poised over the free spool lever I waited till the line moving under my thumb built speed.

Then I pushed the spool lever into the engaged position and at the same time pulled up on the rod.

Hook-up. A solid, firm hook-up. Change of plan, change of luck, change from grumpy to happy chappy.

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Riddle me this. How far do you have to move a hook to sink it into a fish to cover the barb? It is no riddle really, you can measure it for yourself.

On a standard 'suicide' pattern, regularly used for snapper fishing, the distance to successfully bury the hook beyond the barb of a 8/0 hook is less than 10mm.

On a 6/0 hook the distance is less than 18mm.

Using a size 10 wet fly hook the distance is about 3mm.

So how come you see so many people rearing back on rods, heaving the rod tip up towards the stratosphere at the merest hint of a touch on the lure, fly or bait?

There are some anglers I fish with who surprise me with the fact that they do not regularly land a fish jawbone, complete with teeth and hook, but no head and body.

The fish bites and they rear back on the rod, throwing a full discus roll into their body, then they slash the rod tip back and forth in the air.

Here is something you need to try. There is no way what will follow can be believed without trial. (This demo should not be tried with low-stretch, woven lines.)

Tie a hook onto the end of your mono line, on your favourite rod, surf or boat, it does not matter. Place a heavy piece of softwood on the ground, and just prick the hook point into the wood so it will stay in the wood without falling out.

Walk backwards for about 25 metres, letting out line as you go. Once 25 metres away from the wood, with the line still lying on the ground, rear back on the rod as hard as you can, and then put the rod down on the ground, and walk back to the piece of wood. Observe how deeply, or more accurately how little the hook has penetrated the wood.

Pull out the hook, and prick it into the wood again. Walk back to the rod and this time wind the line in so it is tight from the rod tip to the wood. Now pull sharply back on the rod. Only move the tip a metre or so.

Back to the wood and observe. Remove the hook again, it will be much more difficult this time, and re-prick the hook back into the wood, and return to the rod.

This time, wind the line up tight as before, but this time, when the line is tight, take two steps backward as you 'strike'.

Now back to the wood and observe. This time use your pliers to remove the hook.

The demonstration above is designed to show the futility of premature striking.

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In any fishing system, except when using woven polyethylene lines ('Braid'), there is a large element of slack in the system.

The first area of slack is the inherent stretch in the line. Mono line stretches in the order of eight to 20 percent. Most come out somewhere around fifteen percent. So for the mathematically inclined, 50 metres of line will stretch 7.5 metres before all stretch is removed. But let's be generous and allow only 3.5 metres.

The average surf rod is around 3.5 metres long, a boat rod half that.

Unless you are fishing straight down to a heavy sinker, there is usually around a third of the line out, which is not tight to the hook. The current pulls a 'bow' in the line. In fifty metres of line this means the bow could be 5m of slack line.

So in total with 50m of line out there could be up to 8 to 12 metres of slack in the system. There is not a rod long enough to pull out this slack, and then have enough movement to set the hook.

The reason for the 'two steps backward' in the demonstration above was to simulate the movement of the fish moving away from you as you strike.

I have some difficulty explaining the next bit.

Many fish, and especially snapper, often seem to bite in two distinct stages. The first stage is the first tentative pick up and 'taste' of the bait. The fish seems to mouth the bait and slowly move off. Very often the bait is only in the outside lips of the fish. So is the hook.

Once the fish satisfies itself that the bait is good to eat, it engulfs it, and it then appears to change down into second gear and take off. This process can take a second or less, or sometimes with big fish and big baits, many seconds.

It is during this second phase - second gear - phase that I wind down on the line and as the line comes up tight, swing the rod in an arc to set the hook. The essential point is that the 'strike' is not attempted until everything has come up tight.

If you attempt to strike the fish before the bait is fully engulfed you run the risk of lightly hooking the lip. This softer flesh is easily torn during the fight.

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It is about here where the 'barb problem' can into play.

In order to penetrate, a barb must push through flesh and in some cases bone. The bigger the hook the more force that is required to set the hook by pulling the barb into flesh.

The surest way of achieving the maximum hook-setting and barb burying power is to ensure that at the time the rod is swung back for the 'strike' everything in the system is tight to the hook. This type of strike will help to ensure that the barb is buried deeply with the minimum of cutting as it penetrates.

In a good hook-set the point and barb penetrates with the minimum of cutting. A poor hook-set results in too much cutting around the point of entry.

This is not necessarily a problem in a deep hook-set into firm flesh or bone, but it can be a real problem if the hook-set is into softer flesh.

It is a bit like tearing a piece of material to make cleaning rags. It can be hard to start the tear, but if a small 'starter' cut is made, the material tears easily.

There could be a tendency to think that going into this detail about getting a good hook-set is delving into the more esoteric realms of fishing, but its importance has not been lost on hook makers. There is ongoing research into this aspect of hook design.

Cone-cut hook points have been around for a long time, but suffer from the problem of a lack of hook-point strength. If the pull on the point is not in line with the point the point tends to fold over and will not penetrate.

Fluted hook points of the 'Owner' brand type, combine strength with very high penetration. But these hooks are very expensive to make, and expensive to buy!

Some have tried to change the characteristics of the hook mechanism itself. 'Tru-turn' hooks are of this type. These hooks are designed to rollover on the strike to ensure that the hook point is in line with the line pull direction to maximise penetration.

One thing is for certain, the first aspect of getting a good hook-set is to ensure that hooks are sharp enough to 'stick' at the slightest touch of flesh. The new laser and chemically sharpened hooks have made this easier to achieve.

(For an article containing all you need to know about hooks, go here.)

But for me the best hook in the world is of limited use if the angler does not develop the skill to 'sense' when a fish has got the bait, fly or lure hook inside its mouth. Then the job is to remove the slack from the system and strike. Only then can we maximise the opportunities to get firm hook-sets and then concentrate on the job of actually landing the fish.

fish illustration by Bish

Article written by Tony Bishop

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