How to Choose the Right Fishing Hook the First Time
Your target fish, tackle, technique, and water conditions should dictate hook selection
Hooks are the oldest tackle item in fishing. Walk into any tackle store, and you’ll find a bewildering array of hooks that can confuse even the best guides, veteran anglers, and tournament competitors. They are available in a mind-numbing variety of sizes, shapes, configurations, materials, and colors, and are produced by companies around the world for countless types of fishing. Every year there are new hook designs (touted by manufacturers as the next best thing) devised by cutting-edge anglers who’ve created new and innovative fishing tactics. Here’s a primer on hooks and how to select the right one for your fishing.
How to Choose the Proper Fishing Hook
As a general rule, hooks should be chosen according to the target fish, tackle, technique, and water.
For example, when you’re fishing for 5-pound bass in a stained lake with big soft plastic worms and 20-pound test line, you’ll need a bigger hook than the one used for 6-pound test and tube lures for stream smallmouths. Hooks used for muskies, pike, oversized largemouths, stripers, and catfish are a whole lot bigger and beefier than ones needed for trout, panfish, smallmouths, and even most walleyes.
Rods, reels, and line also dictate hook size and type. It takes a stout rod and heavy line to drive a hook into the maw of a 20-pound pike, striper, muskie, or catfish. If the hook is too small or made with inferior wire, it won’t hold well and can pull out or straighten during a grueling battle.
A standard weedless bass flipping jig is a good example of how hooks are suited to fishing style and lure design. Most such jigs are made with very heavy wire to withstand the brutal close-quarters tug-of-war between an angler and a large bass. Fish must be muscled out of jungles of cover, and this requires rugged rods and non-stretch braided line that may test up to 100-pounds. The “gape” and “bite” of such hooks is wide and deep, allowing heavy wire to be driven into the muscled maws of lunker largemouths. These hooks also often hold trailer plastics, which can “wad” or “ball” during a hook set. So, they must have a wide gape and sufficient shank length so the point and barb can be driven through gobs of plastic into a fish’s mouth.
Such jigs with oversized hooks are a far cry from the smaller, more diminutive styles used for soft plastic finesse plastic worms or spinning tackle with 6-pound-test line.
Hook styles for use with natural baits are about as varied as shoes in a Hollywood A-lister’s closet. Some have turned up eyes, others turned down eyes, and more have straight eyes aligned with their hook shanks. Hooks come in different colors, sizes, shapes, and number of hooks (single, double, treble); with many add-ons such as weights, swivels, and weedless wire guards.
While there is no one perfect hook design for every type of fishing, there are some models that have stood the test of time for generations of anglers.
A straight-shank j-hook is a common hook shape that most are familiar with. They resemble the letter “J,” and require an angler to “set” the hook and bury the barb in a striking fish. This traditional hook shape has been in use for hundreds of years and is still popular worldwide today—mostly for bait and lure fishing.
One of the most popular J-Hook designs is the sprout-style, which typically has a long, straight shank with a couple of barbs to help hold bait to the wire. Available in sizes and wire diameters suitable for fish from bluegills to blue catfish, this hook design is a go-to model for many anglers.
The Aberdeen hook is similar to the sprout, though usually with a longer shank, and popular with panfishermen. The long shank allows for leverage to back out a barb and is advantageous in helping to remove a hook from a small fish’s mouth.
This hook was popularized some years ago by Japanese long-line fishermen who use this nearly circular piece of stout wire for hanging bait on a line. No “setting” or striking by an angler is required. When a fish takes the bait and turns away, it automatically sets the hook. The hook almost always turns and buries itself in the corner of a fish’s mouth, which makes for sure barbing of fish, and easy hook removal.
Circle hooks are excellent for a wide variety of bait fishing, especially when big baits and large wire hooks are required for heavy fish like catfish, pike, and stripers.
Some bass-style “finesse” hooks have a circle hook appearance, but they are not true circle hooks because they have much wider gapes. Most anglers use them for soft plastic lures.
This style hook can be had in J-Hook and Circle Hook designs and features a shank that is decidedly bent or offset in its wire plane.
The purpose of most offset shanks is to rotate in a fish’s mouth to facilitate barbing the fish. The “Kahle” or “Shiner” hook is one popular offset design with live bait fishermen.
Some off-set hook models, however, are used for rigging and with soft plastic lures. The Tru-Turn “Cam-Action” hook design and the original “Messler” hook are some examples.
Most weedless hooks are straight-shank sprout style, usually with a wire hook point protector. They are usually made of stout wire and designed chiefly for use on bass, pike, muskies, and other burly, weed-living fish.
They can be rigged and used with live or dead baits, and also with lures—usually soft plastics.
Matching Hooks To Bait Size
Matching hooks to baits isn’t difficult, but it takes some careful calculation. Generally, hooks for use with large baits (shiners, eels, suckers, etc.) for stout fish (pike, stripers, etc.) and heavy tackle should be big and hefty. Conversely, hooks used with small, fragile baits and light lines—for crappies and other small fish—should be made of finer wire.
Anytime anglers use big baits for large fish they should be certain that hooks have a large enough gape, bend, and shank to accommodate the larger bait. This also enables hook points and barbs to drive into fish more efficiently. Hooks should be chosen that are large enough to penetrate chunky baits, and then into a taking fish’s mouth. Be sure to employ stout enough tackle to accomplish this.
Hook size can be confusing because there is no industry standard for, say, a size 4 Mustad and a size 4 Eagle Claw or Owner. What is standard in the hook industry is that the size of a particular company style and model becomes larger as the number attributed to it reduces. For example, a size 2 Mustad hook is larger than a size 4 Mustad.
Also, as hooks get larger, they can have an “0” designation: A Mustad 1/0 is larger than a Mustad size 1, while a Mustad size 2/0, however, is larger than 1/0; size 4/0 larger than 3/0 or 2/0.
Hooks are generally made from wire, and for heavy-duty use—on fish like muskies, catfish, or lake trout—the heftiness is designated by an “X” factor. Thus a size Mustad 4/0 4X hook is made of heavier wire than the same hook with a 3X or 2X designation.
Picking hooks for lure fishing is similar to choosing hooks for use with bait. However, in most lure fishing, especially with plugs, hooks (normally trebles) already are fitted onto lures bought from a store. Trebles usually are sized correctly to the lure by the manufacturer, so they balance well and a lure runs “true.” Further, manufacturer trebles on most plugs offer good barbing qualities for striking fish.
Treble hooks (three “gang” style hooks with a single eye) attach to most lures with a split ring. They can be removed and replaced easily with special split-ring pliers.
Some anglers replace trebles on plugs with larger or more stout treble hooks, believing bigger fish and heavier tackle dictate the change. Some also replace trebles with single hooks, or remove all but the rear treble believing single hooks or fewer treble hooks facilitates easy catch-and-release. Night fishermen also remove trebles from plugs to minimize injury while handling fish after sundown.
While double hooks can be used for “trailers” on spoons, spinner-baits, and even live baits, most double hooks are designed for use with soft plastic frog lures.
Double hooks come in several designs and sizes, and are usually made of stout wire to target weed-living largemouth bass, pike, and muskies. Stanley, Owner, Gambler, Gamakatsu, and Mustad all make such hooks.
Hooks For Soft Plastic Lures
Soft plastic worms, lizards, flukes, tubes, frogs, finesse baits, and the like all require hooks. There’s a wide variety of specialized hooks for varying lures and the techniques anglers have devised for their use.
Most soft plastics are designed for largemouth and smallmouth bass, but they work well for other species, too, including pike, muskies, walleyes, striped bass, trout, and even salmon.
“Bite” is an important consideration in all hooks used with soft plastic lures, but too many anglers simply look at hook size designation and buy worm hooks based solely on that. Problems can arise, however, because not all the same “size” hooks have the same “bite” or gap between point and shank. It’s possible to take two new soft plastic lure hooks from two different companies and place them alongside each other. The gaps are identical, yet one is designated as a 2/0, the other a 4/0.
Another point to consider when choosing soft plastic lure hooks is the diameter of metal or wire used. Too often bass fishermen want the strongest, beefiest, thickest triple-strength hook they can find. But a thick-wire 2/0 hook requires a much stronger hook set than a similar 2/0 hook made with lighter wire. This is important because rarely do bass break hooks or straighten them out—fishermen do. And you can’t fight a bass until a hook has been driven through a plastic lure and well into a fish’s mouth. It’s easier to set finer wire hooks in fish with lighter tackle than heavy hooks with stout gear.
Straight-Shank Worm Hooks
Most modern straight-shank hooks are designed specifically for soft plastic lure fishing, especially for weedless Texas rig fishing. They often have an extra-wide gape or “bite.” This is important because it allows plenty of “space” for the point to be driven through a lure and into a fish’s mouth without wadded-up plastic interfering with a barb for a proper hook set.
Many anglers like such hooks because of the direct line of pull they have in setting barbs. Straight-shank hooks are also slim in design and work well in weeds and tangles.
Offset Worm Hooks
Many companies make this type of very popular soft plastic lure hook. Essentially it’s a straight-shank model with the wire offset in a small step-like fashion near the hook eye. The hook works great in most soft plastic lures because when it’s rotated and the point gets turned back into a lure for rigging, the “step” in the shank allows the plastic to lay level and flat, while the hook eye is hidden in the lure head. This makes for simple rigging and very natural lure action.
Wide Gap Hooks
In recent years wide-gap, relatively short-shank “rigging” hooks have become extremely popular with anglers using soft plastic lures, including tube baits. Many have an almost rounded appearance, and some have off-set shanks like many popular live bait hooks. These hooks are available in a large variety of sizes, styles, and shank configurations with wire arms, clips, and screws at the hook eyes to securely hold plastic lures.
The venerable Kahle hook may be the original wide-gap, “rigging” soft plastic lure hook. This popular live bait hook was the inspiration behind the development of the High Performance (HP) hook, produced by Eagle Claw. Tommy Clark of Hampton Lake, Florida, and tournament angler Shaw Grigsby designed and modified the HP hook into a highly refined plastic lure hook system.
HP hooks have a small wire clip attached to the hook eye that secures to the hook shank behind the head of a rigged tube lure, finesse worm, soft plastic jerk bait, regular plastic worm, or similar lure. Rigged correctly in plastic, the hook has an enormous “gap” with plenty of bass-hooking bite. Further, the angle of the hook point and the comparatively thin wire of the hook make for fast, easy hook sets even with very light line.
“Even young kids can set a hook in bass that hit a plastic lure and HP hook simply by winding the reel,” says Shaw Grigsby. “No heavy hook set is needed because the hook pushes through soft plastic and into a fish’s mouth so easily—even with 6-pound-test line. It’s by far the best hook around for tube lures and finesse worms.”
Many hook manufacturers have jumped on the “rigging” hook craze, and some excellent modifications have been devised. Owner’s “Wide Gap Plus,” for example, has an innovative cutting-point tip with an inside cutting surface and spade-like point that allows for easy hook sets without a large hole being made in fish.
Another style is the VMC “Bass Rig’n Hook.” Made from vanadium-hardened carbon steel, it features an extra-wide gape, reinforced wire, and chemically sharpened point. It’s designed specifically for heavy fishing in tough conditions with braided line.
Octopus/Drop-Shotting, Wacky Hooks
These compact, specialized soft plastic lure “technique” hooks have short shanks, wide gaps, and are made with fairly stout wire. Most anglers prefer such hooks with a “straight” eye, not turned. This allows for specialized rigging of short drop-shot lines, which reduces tangling and improves strikes with “nose hooked” soft finesse-style plastics.
Wacky worm hooks are similar in shape and size to octopus models, though usually with a larger gape. The hooks are positioned in the middle of a soft plastic worm, and require plenty of bite for sure fish hook setting.