Prequel To The Hook Lowdown…
I mentioned in the Q&A that I would be breaking down my thoughts on hook choice. I get this question a lot and I realized there is not a whole lot of information out there about it. I went in deep on the subject and hope you all get something out of it and enjoy the read. It’s long, and it’s a little bouncy, but I put a lot of thought into it. So without further ado… The Hook Lowdown.
There is a giant elephant in the room when debating hook choice. It comes down to a question that we all like to ignore. What is catch and release fishing? We are trying to be effective at stabbing something in the face. Also, we want to grip it by the mouth and drag it through the water. After landing the fish, at BEST we let it go quickly without removing the fish from the water. At the worst we toy with it in our hands for a photo before letting it go.
Make no mistake about it. There is simply no way to catch a fish without the potential to damage or kill the fish. It’s like a cage fighter who denies the possibility of someone getting hurt. Unfortunately fish, occasionally are unable to recover from the damages of a fight. It is our responsibility to minimize the damage inflicted on the fish at every opportunity.
The 3 Factors Of Choosing A Hook
When choosing a hook we need to balance these three main things.
1.) The potential to cause unnecessary damage to the fish.
2.) Compliment the pattern tied on them. In both balance and size.
3.) Effective holding power.
We could end the hook lowdown right here… If you find those three factors while choosing a hook. You will be good to go. However, lets break it down a bit further.
That’s too small…
If you choose a hook to small, the potential goes up dramatically that a fish will swallow it, or get hooked in the gills. Not to mention the sudden “bad hook up” rate increase. A hook that is too small will fail all 3 factors of choosing a hook. Suddenly it becomes a health risk to the fish by being to easy to take deep into it’s mouth. It will not compliment the fly by balancing it out or becoming more of a weapon. A hook that is to small won’t catch the flesh in the corner of the mouth and be effective at holding the fish. So grabbing a size 8 SC15 might not be a great idea for a baitfish pattern.
Bigger Is Not Always Better…
Now lets go to the subject of hooks that are to large. For baitfish, I don’t think “brain hooking” cutthroat is a big issue. I can count on 1 hand how many fish this has happened to over the years. All of them were small fish less than 4 inches. I am not sure this is avoidable while fishing baitfish patterns. So let’s talk about why a hook would be to large. Brain hooking or eye hooking is obviously a consideration. As is causing unnecessary damage such as ripping big holes in fish or shredding the face of the fish. The other consideration is the hook being too large and blocking the fly from entering the mouth.
I do not think brain/eye hooking cutthroat is a big concern when fishing baitfish. However, I do think there are hooks that you should avoid for this risk. The size 2 Ahrex NS172 Gammarus hook has a HUGE gap that is potentially dangerous to cutthroat. A gap this big stabs through the cheek higher up causing damage to a much thicker portion of the mouth, and potentially could damage the eye of the fish with more frequency. Any thick gage hooks like the Timeco 800s beyond a size 6 is probably to big for cutthroat, causing more damage than necessary.
Sea Run Cutthroat are violent predators, meaning a hook to small could quickly end up in the back of their throat. A hook to big could harm them beyond what is acceptable in a sport based on stabbing things in the face. We want to find the sweet spot. That’s why we are providing the hook lowdown.
Hook Choice Considerations:
When considering what hook to choose, consider what is required to tie your fly. What are you trying to accomplish with your fly, what kind of water are you fishing in, are you adding weight or relying on the hook itself to keel out. Do the conditions you are fishing in require more hang down, or the hook to ride upright? There are plenty of questions to ask, and here are somethings I consider when sitting down to tie a fly:
If you are tying a fly where you have a lot of “wrapping” materials, you might need a longer shank such as a 811s Tiemco or NS110 Ahrex. Both make great hooks for Raccoons or Buggers (notice I said bugger and not squid), I use the latter for a few of my simple baitfish and shrimp patterns. Both hooks work very well for Clouser style flies as well. These are your more standard hooks for most saltwater applications. One that falls into a similar catagory would be the Diiachi 2546. I think the Diiachi hook falls short on being great at any particular level. Where the Tiemco is heavy and keels well, the Diiachi light for the gage, and keels okay. The NS110 is ultra sharp and holds fish tight, the Diiachi is pretty sharp and does okay.
Shorter Shanks-Wider Gaps
When tying bulkier or fuller baitfish flies using a heavier stainless hook helps keel the fly. Keeling the fly essentially means balance the fly out and ensure that it swims well. The Tiemco 800s work great for fuller unweighted patterns that need bit of help balancing. The Tiemco 800s is heavy for its size and passes our 3 rules with flying colors. The Ahrex NS172’s shape will balance out many baitfish patterns that are not super bulky too. The NS172’s wide gap moves much of the weight below the fly creating a beautiful keel and a very “grabby” razor sharp hook.
My Top Two Baitfish Hooks
I like tying many baitfish light, with weight towards the eye of the hook. This eliminates the need for a heavy keel, to correct the fly in the water. My preference has become the Ahrex NS110 for skinny profile baitfish, and the Ahrex NS172 for shorter or bulkier baitfish. Both are razor sharp and have a great hook gap for what I am using them for. The whole “Nordic Salt” series of hooks are extremely impressive.
When I tie topwater flies I prefer the Ahrex NS122 over anything else. The gap hangs down low increasing hook-ups whether sipped or slashed. Of all the hook choices that I have mentioned, this one is the most noticeable. When cutthroat hit the surface, your hook needs to be as available as possible. This hook design is the best choice on the market. I’ll be completely honest in saying, I just don’t have a second option anymore for this particular application. Moving up and down in size depending on my pattern, my rule is to have the hook riding as deep in the water as I can, while keeping the fly as buoyant as possible. The shape of the NS122 is the best hook I have found for this job. From Gurglers, Disco Shrimp, Surface Fry, if it floats, this hook is what it is tied on.
Before finding the Ahrex NS122 I was using the Gamakatsu SS15. The SS15 is a great hook for surface flies because it is light and razor sharp. While it is great, I still find the Ahrex to be so far ahead of their competition that nothing compares.
A Trailing Note:
One of the things I am often asked about is why I do not use a “stinger” or “trailing hooks” off the back of my flies. My answer is the simple and direct, they are unnecessary for our fishery. From my experience with trailing hooks our “foul” hooked fish numbers increase astronomically. Fish that are almost never handled out of the net go up dramatically due to deeper hook sets and/or offset hooks.
All that foul hooking/extra handling is just unnecessary. Cutthroat just do not require the use of stingers because they CRUSH a fly. You don’t pull the emergency break at every red light right? Why would you when you have antilock breaks right next to the gas peddle. Why would you fiddle around with a trailing hook when it is completely unnecessary.
Another thing that goes up with trailing hooks is the amount of tangles the average angler experiences which directly results in less time fishing. As with the SC15, you simply won’t see a trailer hook on my boat… Did I mention the SC15?
Gamakatsu SC15 take a hike…
Obviously, there are good qualities of the SC15, or Gamakatsu would not sell any. Personally, I can not figure out what those qualities are. They are too light of a hook to balance most flies, they are too brittle to withstand any abuse, and they are too small to catch the corner of the mouth during an aggressive take.
The Gamakatsu SC15 in a size 6-8 hook is too small for a baitfish fly. That is just plane ol’ fact. Sea Run Cutthroat eat a stripped baitfish too aggressively to fish such a small, light hook. The hook is small and light enough to miss the corner of the mouth and catch gills, throat, or the tongue of the fish. Will this happen every time? No, of coarse not. However, it will happen significantly more with this hook than a Gamakatsu SS15 or a Ahrex NS110.
I also think the shape of a SC15 in 6-4, once you pinch the barb, has no gripping power. Which was what first encouraged me to move away from these hooks. Then Brita started talking about using the hook to keel flies, which changed my opinion on fly tying completely. The SC15 might be the worst saltwater hook ever made for helping balance a baitfish pattern.
Almost done with the SC15
For little krill/euphasiid patterns a tiny light hook like the SC15 might be more appropriate. The reason it’s more appropriate is all in the way a cutthroat eats euphasiidds verses the way it eats other fish. Think of a eagle catches a fish (violently snatching) vs. chowing on dead chum (lazily grazing)… However the Ahrex NS172 is the better option.
This covers all three factors in choosing a hook. The SC15 Fails #1, #2, and #3 decisively.