As a fly tyer who geeks out hard about tying, materials, and flies it would be totally justified to think hooks would be top of mind for me when deciding how to tie a fly. Hooks are the foundation to every fly tyed, but criminally overlooked, especially when it comes to planning for a trip to an exotic location. Even if you don’t plan to go deep into the Amazon for your fish, hooks matter even at the local trout or bass level. If you have read any of my other articles or my blog you can already tell that this is something I get up on my soapbox about. This will be part 1 of a series of posts about hook choice and why that should be taken as seriously as what waders you buy.
Some of you may think; Why is this important? Can’t I just get a hook and tie a fly? And to be honest you can, but even then you’re making choices subconsciously. I want to get into why those choices should be made with purpose and reason. First off, quality plays a major role. Some hooks have high carbon or different alloy content. This will allow a hook to act like a nail versus screw when it comes to sheer strength, which depending on the fish can be good or bad. This also plays in the sharpness factor and how long it can keep a point. The keel and weight of the hook itself is also a deciding factor. Now, the factor we all make when choosing a hook no matter what else we consider is the shape. A hook’s shape is not only important to the action, presentations, or look of the fly, but it’s important to us as the tyer, if the fly has the correct aesthetic. I’ll dive deeper into all these factors as they apply to specific fish and scenarios. Every fish has a window for error or slop when it comes to hooks. The freestone trout in Northern Connecticut are different from the trout in Patagonia which are different from the pike in Norway and the dorado in Bolivia and the GT’s in the Seychelles. Now why should this all matter? I mean I guess none of this does, right? I mean if we all tyed flies with the attitude of, “At least it’ll catch fish ”, then why bother even reading this article, a blog, or watching that youtube video? These things matter because it means you’re producing a quality product that you are proud of, you’ll lose less fish, the flies will last longer, and the fish will be released happier. So let’s dive into the weeds of hooks and hopefully by the end of this series when you go into your local fly shop you really start to look at hooks with a less blaise attitude.
The first thing I like to consider when it comes to choosing what hook to use when I tie a fly, is the wire gauge or wire diameter. I’ll use those terms interchangeably throughout the post. The wire gauge plays a dramatic role especially when you start tying flies on bigger hooks for predatory fish like bass, pike, dorado, peacock bass, and more. I would argue that the biggest thing the wire gauge impacts, that is overlooked, is the hook penetration. The force to penetrate the fish’s mouth increases as the wire gauge thickens. This is nominal when you are talking about trout flies normally. The difference between a 1x heavy wet fly hook for trout and a light dry fly hook isn’t noticeable enough to choose curtain hooks over another based on penetration ability. Now when you start to tie streamers you will notice a difference slightly and you will notice the difference a lot when it comes to bass, pike, and any hard mouthed species as well. For example, I tyed up a bunch of finesse gamechangers for smallmouth fishing. When I went out and used them they worked great. They swam great and got tons of eats. The problem was even if the fish engulfed the entire fly and I “set” the hook the fish almost always came unpinned. The hook could drive deep enough where the fish wasn’t able to shake it out of their mouth. I then took those same flies out to my local jetty for rockfish and they worked extremely well with hardly any fish being lost once I set the hook. The difference was what fish I was targeting. Every fish has different bone structure in their head and they attack flies differently. The rockfish had larger places with softer spots and they aggressively attacked the fly so they helped the hook up percentages a ton compared to the smallmouth that may have had a softer mouth all together but less areas for penetration on a thick wire hook. I had to switch to a lighter wire hook and compensate the keel of the hook with some weight for smallmouth. On that note the wire diameter of the hook helps with keeling the fly correctly, helping or hindering the hook point down or up. On streamers the added weight and the change in the center of balance due to the keel, weight makes a big difference on the action of the fly and how it swims. A hook that is too heavy may not allow the fly to move realistically in the water. A hook too light means that the fly could roll and yaw in a way that doesn’t look natural either. The most common thing I run into tying dry flies for trout and using foam and how the fly lands. The common idea is to use a dry fly hook for a dry fly. The problem is the wire is so light and offers very little in the way of a keel. A lot of foam flies tied on too light of wire will roll on their side and in extreme situations land upside down. This can be incredibly annoying especially during hopper and stonefly season where the fly is being shot into pockets and undercut banks for a quick drift in hopes of getting an eat. You want that fly to land right side up and be in a fishable position as soon as it hits the water.
The last thing I want to address with wire diameter is the strength factor. We talked about keel and weight, and I also talked about hook penetration, but that all needs to be taken in account with strength. The strength of the hook can be a big deal and can overshadow the other factors. The strength of the hook doesn’t just come from how thick the wire of the hook is either. That is a big factor and a hook that is 50% thicker should be stronger than one that isn’t. One of the other factors that contributes to the integrity of the hook is the carbon content of the steel. You might ask how one would go about finding that out. Do you have to contact every hook distributor or manufacturer out there and ask for the chemical breakdown of the steel that they source to make their hooks? The short answer is, no. The quick but less scientific way of figuring this out is how much the hook will flex. The more flex to a hook means there is less carbon or another alloy material in the hook making it less ridged (how the hook is tempered can also affect this, but right now we are talking steel make up). This can be good or bad. I like shorter shank hooks to be stiff and strong hooks. This is because a longer shank hook has lots more leverage just by the nature of the design. A great example of this is with steelhead hooks. Traditional steelhead hooks are long and depending on the size they can be anywhere from an inch or two or more long. When a fish is hooked, through the process of fighting the fish, the hook experiences a ton of leverage between the angler and fish. This can work a larger hole in the fish’s mouth and if any micro slack is introduced you can lose that fish. This is why the use of stinger hooks and tube flies have become the norm in modern steelhead and swung trout flies. The shorter shank hooks don’t offer that leverage. When a hook has flex in it there is a reduction in the leverage by absorbing some of the leverage through the flex of the hook. Now if the hook doesn’t flex enough you can run into the problem of breaking a hook. This can be a pain because it’s typically not something you’re thinking about when you are on the water. So if you can’t seem to set the hook and fish keep popping off check to see if something has broken.
This is the end of part 1. In part 2 I’ll talk shape, design, barbs, and quality. Let me know how you feel about hooks; are they just a means to and end and the cheapest one that hooks fish is your motto or do you take in account the factors I stated above and look for the best hook for the job no matter the expense?
As always if you have any questions, comments, concerns, queries, or want to just talk fly fishing or tying feel free to email me, comment below, or reach out through the contact page.