by Ben Paull
Ask a fisherman what the most important piece of gear is and you will probably get a variety of answers: the rod, the line and the lure. Some people might say the boat.
My opinion? Hands down, the hook. Without the hook, the ultimate connection to the fish, fishing is impossible. While so much attention is paid to the next best rod, most abrasion resistant line, most salt-proof reel, the hook is something that is overlooked time and time again. I’m speaking from personal experience here. More than once I have lost fish from careless hook selection. You may still be saying, a hook is a hook, right? Wrong. Not only have I lost fish but I have lost truly incredible trophy fish, fish of a lifetime. It was eight years ago and the wound is still raw. Maybe sharing this story will ease my pain. Probably not.
It was the end of my third season guiding in Alaska. I had had a very successful season and guided people from all over the world into trophy rainbows. I had gotten numbers. I had gotten size. I was riding on cruise control, and fish just kept appearing where I thought they would be. Perhaps I had gotten cocky. On my day off, my two buddies and I decided to float the lower river, where the big trout live. The fishing isn’t as pretty down there; it’s mostly deep nymphing with fairly giant split shot, but it takes a lot of skill to keep your fly out of the numerous snags.
At the end of the day we had covered a couple miles, catching several nice fish along the way. My buddy Ken hooked and lost a fish in the mid 20 inch range. But we all knew there were far bigger fish in the lower river. We had about half an hour left to fish, and I had a hunch about a spot I had been meaning to try. It’s a spot where the river makes a hard left turn on a dropoff, creating an edge and a juicy gut that I just knew had to hold a big fish.
We brought the oars in and motored down to a couple hundred yards above this spot. It was my idea, and my turn to fish, so I got into prime position in the stern of the boat next to the motor. My gear, an 8-weight rod and 15 pound fluorocarbon tippet, was tailored specifically for big fish. The boat drifted over the dropoff. I threw a cast about thirty feet upstream of the boat, and let my fly drift down, faster than the boat’s downward progress. It was a flesh fly about two inches long, big enough to be attractive but small enough to be an easy bite. It was made from white rabbit fur and some fake soft eggs. I was tied to this fly, I felt it was money, and so I neglected the fact that it was tied on a standard size 10 nymph hook. Now, if you had pointed out a 30 inch rainbow and asked me what the proper hook for that fish was, I would not have chosen that hook. But it was a fly I liked. I was running low on hooks for the season. And what were the chances of hooking the fish of a lifetime anyway?
This hook was definitely enough for the 20 inch rainbow that could be expected. My fly drifted over the dropoff and into the beautiful seam. Right as my fly drifted into the best theoretical spot and paused on the pillow of current, I felt a savage tug on the line. I barely had time to set the hook as the fish started pumping, loudly slamming my rod against the motor several times until the line went slack. A synchronized wail of “ohhhhhhhhh!” released itself from the lungs of all present. I fell down in the bottom of the boat as if shot. Never have I felt such violence from a freshwater fish, and that includes king salmon and steelhead. I had seen quite a few fish over 25 inches that summer, and this fish was on an entirely different level. It was 30 inches for sure. It would have been the fish of a lifetime, likely for my entire life.
I reeled in my line, and to my horror, my hook was bent a good 30 degrees. My hook had failed me. Everything else, from the idea to fish this spot, to my drift, to my hook set, and finally my tippet and rod selection were perfect, but I had neglected the most important element of the entire pursuit. Ken looked at my hook and shook his head in empathetic disappointment. “How could you! You know better than that!” And the worst part was, I did. A fish of that magnitude requires a much thicker wire hook, something on the order of a size 2. I’d love to say that that was enough to learn my lesson, but sadly, it wasn’t.
On another occasion, I was on the Sol Duc River, a river on which I cut my teeth as a winter steelheader. It’s one of the toughest rivers in the steelhead world to fish, thanks to its almost ditchlike quality and absence of typical gravel bars. The fish I caught there cost me almost twice as much time as those I had caught anywhere else.
It was December 2015, and my girlfriend and I were spending Christmas near the Sol Duc on the Olympic Peninsula. By this time I knew a few spots pretty well, and one of my favorite runs, while relatively wadeable at the top, becomes progressively more difficult, until close to the bottom, a long cast is complicated by rear obstructions. Only good anglers can fish it right, which is why my friends and I have nick-named it “Varsity.”
At that point I was pretty into tying intruder style flies for steelhead, a skill and time intensive pursuit. With this style of fly, the hook is attached separately so you can switch it out in case it ever dulls. You might fish one fly for many days before retiring it.
One fly I was particularly fond of had been tied with this river in mind. It had pink, white, and some hints of orange. As I went to attach my hook, a size 2 octopus, try as I might, I was unable to fit it through the wire loop. Searching my box, I found a size 4 hook. Not too horrible a choice, you might think. But this particular hook was specifically a light wire hook, designed originally for bait fishing. It is suitable for trout fishing, and maybe, just maybe, light summer steelhead. But I was about to fish a river where on every cast you might catch a 30 pound winter steelhead. A 20 pound steelhead doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in the local coffee shop.
So, I looped that size 4 through the wire and hiked through the woods to Varsity. It didn’t take me more than ten casts before I felt the deep slow pull of a large winter steelhead grabbing my intruder. I set the hook low and felt my rod bend deeply. As the fish shook its head several times, I maintained pressure, my thirteen foot rod bouncing with every thrash of the fish. The fight was in its very initial stages. The fish was at least 15 pounds, who knows, maybe even double that.
The fight could have gone anywhere from there. I might have had to run downstream and slip and slide over boulders. Or it might have run upstream and made a spectacular cartwheeling jump. But my line went slack. “Noooooooo!” My shoulders slouched and my head rolled backwards to the sky. I tried to cry, but couldn’t. I reeled in and discovered that my carelessness with the hook had cost me another awesome fish. The hook was badly bent. I was heartbroken. The band aid covering my old wound suddenly ripped off.
In the best of times, this would have been hard to accept, but I had never landed a fish in this, one of my favorite runs in the world. And you want to know the worst part? I still haven’t landed a fish there. That fish would have been my first and only. And now I have moved away. I may never land a fish there. And if I had been a more responsible and mature angler, I might have.
Then there was my last trip to BC, where there were two separate stretches in which I lost five fish in a row. The unique exhilaration of catching multiple steelhead in a day is really dampered when you have lost that many in a row. I was losing fish with a drag reel, clicker reel with minimal drag, shorter rod, longer rod. To my embarrassment, I didn’t try fishing with a bigger hook.
Even though my hooks weren’t straightening, I believe the failure was due to the fact that they weren’t biting onto a big enough chunk of meat, or they weren’t big enough to get around the upper or lower jaw of the fish and were just rubbing on bone. If my recollection serves me correctly, I was fishing a size 3 for most of that trip. But looking back I should have been fishing a size 1. Overall, for that trip I landed just about 50% of the fish I hooked, which is consistent with my long term steelhead average.
My friend Jeff Coffey has started fishing a 2/0 Octopus style hook for steelhead and he tells me he lands 75% of the steelhead he hooks. For me, on that trip, with that landing rate I would have landed nine more steelhead. Nine! How much happier would I have been during that trip, how much more would I have gone on about the beautiful mountains and fall colors? How many more pictures and memories would I have had of beautiful wild steelhead? Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing trip and feel super lucky for every steelhead I landed. But wouldn’t you take a 25% increase in your success in any fishery, especially one where there is so much time between strikes, even on a good day?
So, you can guess my point: don’t skimp on your hook! Give yourself every advantage you can and invest in a proper hook for the species you are going after. Don’t just fish a fly or lure because you like the way it looks. Fish a mediocre looking lure with a strong hook before you fish a dazzling lure with a cheap hook. Ask yourself, what are you actually fishing for? Your hook should be up to the task of catching the biggest fish that you may encounter-that you want to land.
For me, in Florida these days, that’s a 50 inch snook or a 30 pound redfish. Maybe bigger. When in doubt, fish a heavier hook. If I’m fishing blind, the smallest hook I’ll fish is a 1X strong size 2. I might go smaller than that if I know, as I do on some flats, what I’m fishing for. But in fishing smaller, I know I’m taking a risk. Some will say that bigger hooks risk “braining” small fish. That may be true in some cases, and it’s a balance you have to strike. But in my Florida fishery, I can fish a hook that’s strong enough for big fish without damaging little fish in any significant way. Back when I was steelheading, it was rare to hook anything under 20 inches. I’m not saying always fish a huge hook. You get worse penetration with a bigger, thicker hook anyways.
I’m not an expert on all species and all forms of fishing, so I can’t give you a guideline on the proper hook to fish on whatever species you might be chasing. A good rule of thumb is to choose a hook with a gape that’s wider than the middle of the fish’s maxillary, which is the bone on the outside of the upper jaw. A hook that penetrates the inside of the maxillary can’t penetrate very deeply at all, and that may be why many fish are lost. By getting around that bone, the hook can penetrate more deeply. Remember that the longer the hook shank is, the more leverage the fish has against the bend of the hook. In other words, shorter hooks of the same thickness are harder to bend.
I hope that these horror stories convince you not to skimp on the hook, by far the most important piece of gear you take on the water. All hooks are absolutely not created equal. Don’t be like me. Choose a hook that will penetrate into meat and withstand the tension of the biggest fish that you hope to catch.