The first real consideration I can remember giving to fishhooks was at Burnett Larsen's Hardware store in Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
I was about 15 years old and planning to make a streamer out of Mylar for a lady named Mrs. Daniels who'd almost killed us both while trying to cast a Prescott Spinner on an earlier outing.
The only hook available in the size I needed was a black, kirbed model with a large ringed eye. I know now that it was a size 2/0 trotline hook for catfish.
The shank was so heavy I knew Mrs. Daniels would be hung up constantly in the shallow rocks I was planning to fish. I decided I could add a pencil cork along the shank to make it more buoyant. I gave the fly a red marabou tail, and added a shock of gold Mylar at the head. It was my Mepps spinner imitation.
The next time Mrs. Daniels showed up, I had her drop the new fly in the water while I rowed across the topside of the riffles. The fish bit it like crazy, but her 6-weight fly rod wasn't stiff enough or her wrist strong enough to sink that big, dull hook into a fish.
I finally had her point the rod straight at the fly with about 30 feet of line out while I rowed cross-current in the tailout. She caught the first smallmouth of her 10-year fishing career. In fact, she caught so many she tore the heads off matches to keep track.
Rather than solving the hook-up problem by using the momentum of the boat, another solution might have been to sharpen the hook in a triangular fashion, and reduce the size of the barb by 50 percent or more. Hook files had been invented, but apparently I had yet to be introduced to them.
The years passed and after searching the Herter's catalog and the combined inventories of everyone I knew that had any hooks. I discovered the Herter's 933R (actually a Mustad 3366, which is still one of my favorites for deer hair flies). It was inexpensive, lightweight and had a fairly stiff shank, small barb and sharp point.
Using flies tied with it, Mrs. Daniels could hook her own smallmouths fair-and-square, if she was paying attention.
During the last dozen or so seasons guiding fly fishermen to smallmouths, I devoted my "off time" to investigating other aspects of angling. I spent several seasons experimenting with live bait of all kinds, mostly targeting walleyes in the river, but catching lots of smallmouths in the process. When not on the river, I spent my time harassing largemouth bass with everything from frogs to mudpuppies.
Other than using great bait, which is a huge part of it, I found success was also dependent upon hook selection.
Rather than simply trying to tell you what hook to use for a specific purpose, let me share my observations and look at some of the options available today in the world of fishhooks.
As I've hinted in my story about Mrs. Daniels, in hook selection, there are three major considerations: 1. Hooking power, 2. Holding power, and 3. How the weight or shape of the hook affects the bait or lure to which it is connected. Point and barb design, metal quality (stiffness), shank length and diameter are all factors that can affect any of these three criteria.
When most of us think about hook penetration we focus on making sure the point is sharp. In fact, there's been an argument for as long as I can remember as to the best way to manufacture a sharp hook point. One school says to triangulate it to create a cutting edge on the inside of the barb. The other claims it's better to have a tapered, conical point. I've also seen sharpeners that put an edge on the outside of the barb.
One of the most interesting is the spade-type point offered on many hooks from Owner Corp. In cross-section, their "Cutting Point" actually has a "+" shape.
Which hook point offers the best penetration? It's fairly easy to test. In fact, I once saw a device designed to measure the pressure it took to push the point of a clamped hook through a latex membrane that simulated a fish?s flesh.
This type of test quickly reveals three things: 1. Given identical barb size and wire diameter, all properly sharpened hooks, whether they're conical or triangulated on either side, penetrate effectively, 2. Small barbs penetrate more easily than large barbs, and 3. Points that taper slowly penetrate better than those with a steep taper.
In my own workshop I took things a step farther by testing penetration on more bone-like materials. More importantly, I attached the hook to a monofilament line so it could twist and turn like it does in a real fishing situation. As a result, I made some very interesting discoveries that have helped me boat hundreds of fish that I otherwise would not have caught.
PUT TO THE TEST
The "Angle Of Penetration" experiment illustrates what I believe to be the most important hook fundamentals: Tie a short-shank hook with a straight point (like you'd use to fish a yarn fly for steelhead, or a leech for walleyes) onto a piece of monofilament fishing line. On the other end tie a straight-point, long-shank Aberdeen hook.
Place one hook point on the tip of each thumb and pull the line tight.
Both hooks will tip when their points catch. Note how the short-shank hook tips to nearly a 45-degree angle while the long-shank hook only tips a few degrees. You'll see that while the penetration angle of the long-shank hook is better (flatter) than the short-shank hook, neither hooks' point is on the same vector as the line.
Now try the test on something less soft and tender than your thumb, like stiff cardboard. As you increase pressure, the soft, thin, Aberdeen hook begins to open, reducing it's penetration angle to less than that of the short-shank hook. In fact, the hook's flexibility will allow it to open up another 20 or 30 degrees.
Now try the same experiment with a long-shank hook featuring a curved point. While the straight point might catch flesh more quickly than a curved point, it's obvious that when the hook tips under pressure, the curved point penetrates instantly, almost parallel with the line. And because it digs in and slides forward, the point of pressure on the hook moves into the bend, reducing the force acting to open the hook.
One could argue that a curved point is less likely to catch soft flesh, especially if you're using light mono, have a great deal of line out and are dealing with substantial stretch. This problem can be overcome by offsetting the point slightly to the side with a pair of pliers. Hooks that are designed this way are called "kirbed," and do indeed yield better hooking percentages.
How do you get a hook with a straight point to pull more parallel to the line? Change its shape. Tie on a wide-gap hook, or what is popularly known as the Kahle-style, and perform the same test. You'll see the point penetrates parallel to the line. Now perform the test using cardboard, pitting one hook against the other.
You'll notice that, though the wide-gap hook may penetrate best initially, it may stop halfway into the cardboard if the barb is too large or dull. A hook with a less efficient shape may pass through the cardboard more easily if it has a smaller, sharper or more gradually tapering barb.
Now try both long- and short-shank hooks with curved points. The curved point compensates when you tighten the line and allows the point to penetrate at a much more efficient angle. Follow up by trying a piece of plywood instead of cardboard; something hard like the jawbone of a fish. The first thing you'll notice when you pull fairly hard is that the long-shank hook begins to flex.
A thin-wire hook will open up and eventually let go. A wide-gap style with the same shank stiffness will stick deeper on the initial pull, but will also flex and want to open. A forged wide-gap hook, or one made of super high-grade steel, will retain its shape and penetrate much more efficiently than any of the more flexible hooks.
So, why aren't all hooks made with curved points and stiff shafts?
Because in fishing, you always have some kind of compromise. Say you're fishing crappies in wood. Crappies have very soft mouths, so hook penetration is not an issue. Breaking off when you get hung up in the wood is an issue.
A soft, thin Aberdeen hook easily straightens when you apply pressure, even with light line, and can be pulled free from the snag. Plus, once retrieved, the hook can be reshaped without risk of breaking it.
A hook made of stiff, high-grade steel that hangs up would most likely stay in the brush. And, if you did manage to straighten it, the stiff hook might snap like a twig when you tried to reshape it.
Fortunately, anglers don't usually have to make sure the hook point has to penetrate bone, cartilage or tough gristle. But, I've found in the circumstances where this is the case (big catfish, pike, muskies, tarpon, sailfish, tigerfish, payara and freshwater dorado), penetration becomes a critical issue. Light, stretchy line and a fairly large bait and hook compound the problem.
In my experience, the curved, flattened, tapering point of the Owner SSW hook offers the best penetration. As I mentioned earlier, the cross-section of the point is a "+" shape rather than being round.
This fiendishly clever design decreases the surface area of the cross section while providing support to combat flexing. Also, the diameter of the shaft is extremely thin, but very stiff.
The trade-off is that achieving stiffness with the thin shaft can make the hook brittle if it's not perfectly tempered. Sometimes they break under pressure, and are nearly impossible to resharpen.
Hooks with cone-shape points and small, gradually tapering barbs made of super high-quality steel are also able to penetrate more efficiently than the hooks available a dozen or so years ago. Partly because of their out-of-the-box sharpness, partly because of the reduced barb size and partly because they better resist flexing and bending under pressure.
Interestingly, the sharper the point and/or the more efficient the shape, the less of a problem flexing becomes. Once the point catches and begins to sink in, the odds of the hook opening up are reduced because the point of pressure moves toward and into the bend of the hook.
Most of the time when hooks open up, they have not penetrated to the point where they are holding in the corner of the bend. They open up when the point has hit bone, putting a great deal of pressure on the tip.
Shape not being a consideration, all premium hook points in both triangulated and cone versions have phenomenal penetration. Some anglers argue that the cutting edge of the triangulated hook creates a bigger hole, enabling the fish to shake the hook more easily. Although this seems a possibility to me, I have never found it to be the case.
Even using a strong pair of pliers, the large, sharply triangulated barbs on the trebles most of us use on our striper or muskie lures are difficult to remove from a fish's elastic flesh.
You can test hookpoint strength on a small hook by pulling it sideways across your thumbnail. Back in the early 1970s I had an entire box of 50 hooks where the points snapped off during the thumbnail test. In addition, there were hooks of the same model in other boxes that came in the same master carton, where every point curled over.
Nowadays most premium hook points will neither snap nor bend, and will make a deep crease in your thumbnail. The only way to ruin them is to remove too much material, or weaken the point with too much heat when sharpening.
On hooks that tip when the point digs in, I sharpen the inside of the barbs in a very sharp triangle. If you look at the angle of penetration, it's obvious a sharp leading edge will help the point sink in. Tests through a membrane will bear out the obvious. In most cases, and on all hooks larger than 8/0, I also reduce the height of the barb considerably- as much as 50 to 75 percent.
Conversely, a hook sharpened so the edge is on the outside of the barb (as is accomplished with the double files I've seen used), is virtually ineffectual. It's like sharpening the wrong side of a knife.
You'd do better using this file to sharpen your teeth or toenails. It might save time spent digging for the line clipper.
Holding power comes into play after the hook has penetrated. It is a function of hook stiffness and shape.
Obviously, the stiffer and stronger the shank, the less likely it will open under heavy pressure.
Shape is important because it affects where and how leverage is applied against the bend of the hook. While wide-gap hooks penetrate best, they also tend to open more easily because the actual point of pressure against the bend is farther from the shank (almost to the barb), allowing more leverage to open it. That's why, when using this style hook, it's critical to have the best steel money can buy.
In my experience, the treble hooks used on large lures seem to have the most problems with opening up. Usually, the longer the lure, the higher the likelihood the hooks will open. In most cases, the problem occurs with either the front or middle treble when the fish is hooked in the corner of the mouth with a hook stuck in both the upper and lower jawbone. The reason is that the length of the lure provides leverage against the hooks. The fish spins and something has to give.
Adding a split ring often helps. Another solution is to go to a much heavier, thicker hook shank. But the very best solution is to add a split ring and go to a treble made of super high-grade steel that is both strong and stiff. (On a side note, I'd also like to say that someone needs to start making a high-grade split ring, one that's strong but has a thin diameter so it fits through hook eyes. In fact, I think they owe it to us.) The way to test a hook for strength and quality is to try to open it up with a pair of pliers. If it's hard to bend and springs back when you ease off, it's going to perform better than one that's hard to bend, but doesn't spring back.
When using live bait, the weight and size of the hook can be the deciding factor in getting bites. I don't think it's so much a matter of the fish seeing the hook, as much as how the hook affects the bait's ability to swim strongly and stay alive. The smallest, thinnest hook you can get away with yields the best results.
Unlike conventional hooks, penetration of a circle hook has nothing to do with achieving a parallel vector between the line and point.
Instead, penetration occurs when the shank acts as a lever, rotating the point into tissue.
Although they resist getting hung up better than conventional hooks, and are easier for beginners to hook fish with, the main reason to use circle hooks is to reduce post-release mortality. It's my belief the use of circle hooks should be mandated in all fisheries where special regulations such as catch-and-release or slot sizing are in place.
One warning, however: many manufacturers offer offset (kirbed) circle hooks. In my experience, offset circle hooks have a high percentage of gut, throat and gill hookups, which defeats their purpose. Don't buy them. If you have had trouble hooking fish on circle hooks, here are a few helpful tips:
1. Snell the hook so the line comes out of the eye toward the barb. I learned this from a commercial fisherman on the Indian Ocean, and it makes a difference.
2. Don't jerk. Tighten the line and let the fish set the hook.
3. Make sure you are are at an angle to the fish when you tighten the line. You can be behind it, directly over it or to the side, but unless the line passes out of the fish's mouth at an angle, you won't hook it. The best scenario is for the fish to be running away when you apply pressure.
There have been enormous strides in the quality of fishhooks, especially in the quality of the steel and manufacturing technology.
The result is better out-of-the-box sharpness, higher strength and better performance.
Many new shapes have evolved as well, but the majority of marketing emphasis is usually centered on penetrating power and the hook point.
As you can see when performing the simple experiments we've illustrated, there's a whole lot more involved. The key to applying this to your own fishing is understanding the trade-offs and compromises in each design.