Hook ’Em Hard

How you set the hook could mean the difference between catching the fish of the day or retrieving another empty hook.

Set the hook hard, son!” the salty old man told me. That short sentence might just be the best piece of fishing advice I’ve ever given or received. It’s amazing how long a fish will sometimes stay on your line just by keeping its mouth closed never having the hook pierce its jaw.

Failing to set a hook is a pretty common mistake made by novice anglers. I’ve seen rookies get so excited the first time they feel that tug, they completely forget to close the deal by imbedding the hook before attempting to reel in a fish.

So what exactly does setting the hook mean? The short answer is moving the rod tip in a sweeping motion as to drive the point of the hook into something solid so it won’t shake loose when fish are brought to the boat.

The long answer is much more complicated. There’s been lots of fishing-camp discussions — maybe better described as arguments — about when and how hard to set what type of hooks in order to make a successful hookset.

As far as trying to identify what species of fish has your hook in its mouth to determine the when and how much pressure to apply, forget it. I believe in equal opportunity hook setting. More about how hard to set later. Knowing when to set the hook is much more important.

When using artificials, I set immediately. There are exceptions, but fish usually won’t mouth a plastic or metal lure very long. Baits containing scents will keep the fish’s attention a little longer, but they’re still not going to mouth it very long before they spit it. With plastics, quicker is always better.

Fishing live bait is very different. When fishing with big, lively croakers, it’s especially important to let the fish get the bait settled in. Otherwise you’ll jerk it right out of its mouth.

When fishing live bait, I like to give a little slack and let them even swim off a ways. Then I turn the handle until I feel the fish’s weight on the line, and then jerk the rod tip to the side in the opposite direction the fish is swimming. This will drive the hook backward toward its gullet instead of out the front of its mouth.

Offshore bottom fishing requires a vertical strike with most types of hooks.

There are lots of theories about how to set or whether certain types of hooks even have to be set. Again, I go with the equal-opportunity hookset. Whether it’s a kahle, treble or any other type of hook, I believe in setting them all with one exception — the circle hook. When you feel a bite when fishing for snapper or other bottom fish offshore with a circle hook, instead of an upward jerk, you just have to start reeling, and the fish will either be on or you’ll have to reel up and rebait.

Hook barbs are interesting. Most people are surprised to hear hook barbs were originally designed to keep bait from coming off the hook and not to keep the fish on it.

Fact is, you really don’t need a barb to land a fish. I discovered that on a trip to Canada where it’s illegal to fish with barbs and they must be removed from lures and hooks. What you do need is steady pressure to keep the hook from sliding back out the hole it entered. This can become much larger during the stress of the fight.

Now for the real shocker — unless you’re fishing with extremely light tackle and line for very small fish, there’s no such thing as setting the hook too hard. And I say this not just to aggravate the PETA people.

To understand why this is true, you have to look at the physics of setting a fish hook. First off, all line stretches — certain types more than others. Although it may be very little, even the non-monofilament types stretch some.

So the power of a hookset has to first overcome line stretching, but that’s not all. Rod tips bend and give, absorbing some of the momentum under the stress of a hook digging in. Hook points may seem very sharp, but unless they’ve been sharpened recently, are pretty dull and blunt.

Finally, fish mouths and jaws are harder than you realize. Speckled trout and crappie have soft tissue on the sides of their mouths, but even they have hard, bony interior mouths. Think about it. A fish hook isn’t much different from the sharp shrimp horns, crab shell points or pinfish fins inside the mouth of a predatory fish. Mother Nature equips fish to deal with mouthing sharp objects in order to survive.

Bottom line, the net result of overcoming energy absorbed from line slack, stretch and bending capacity of the rod plus the resistance of bony material with the equivalency of a 5-gallon plastic bucket to a less than perfectly sharpened hook supports my “can’t set a hook too hard” concept. That is, of course, so long as the reel’s drag is properly set to give, preventing the line from breaking.

While I’ve had my share of line break-offs and even a rod or two snap while fighting or lifting a fish, I’ve never broken line or rod from setting the hook too hard.

Still not a believer? Here’s a little exercise to try that may convince you to set harder. Pull out about 20 yards of line from your reel and have a fishing buddy hold your hook between his first fingertip and thumb at the curve. Just to be safe make sure the point and barb of the hook is above his fingers and pointed toward you. Take up the slack and, without reeling, give your normal hook set.

If he has even a loose grip, you will not pull the hook from his fingers. Give it a try; it’s an enlightening experience.

Enough about my theory, here’s what two professional guides have to say about sealing the deal with a fish.

“It depends on what kind of bait and hook I’m using,” says Capt. Dudley Vandenborre. “When I’m fishing with live bait, especially those big live croakers, I like to let the fish swim off with it a ways.

“I use a kahle hook at times, but when using live shrimp, croakers or minnows, I use No. 6 (for live shrimp) and No. 2 (for live croakers) treble hooks. After I let them get it settled in their mouth, I just kind of roll my shoulder, and the fish will usually hook themselves.

“The most common mistake I see my customers make, especially fishing with the large croakers, is setting it too soon before the fish can get it deep into its mouth. It’s pretty funny, but a lot of times they set the hook when the croaker starts swimming when it sees a fish coming toward it before it even bites.”

But when Vandenborre’s using his namesake artificials, it’s totally different.

“With plastics, I strike as soon as I feel the bite,” he said. “I also set with a straight-up motion and hold the rod tip up high.

“I use a wide-gap hook in my plastics, and as soon as I feel a bite, I smash ’em.”

Capt. Ryan Lambert of Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras also is a big believer in strong hooksets.

“A lot of the fishing I do is over oyster reefs, and that means I have to hold the rod up high to begin with to keep from getting hung up on the shells,” he said.

Lambert very rarely tips his lures with dead bait, and almost never uses live bait.

“With plastics, you’ve got to strike soon,” he said. “I give a full-strength, straight-up set, never sideways. Because I’m always fishing with customers, there’s no place to set a hook to the side when you’ve got three or four guys on the boat.

“When I’m fishing under a cork, I like a three-shank hook because it keeps the plastic bait on better. I also like to use a weight-in shrimp tail like the Impaler.”