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Beginners often get bogged down when selecting fishing hooks, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Know this: Some hooks work better than others with particular baits or plastic lures that require rigging. A nightcrawler presented to a largemouth bass excels when placed on a hook that matches the size of the bait, and the fish it’s intended to catch. But you can’t predict from one trip to the next exactly what hooks a situation will call for.

The solution is an easy one: Buy variety packs of hooks (this is an economical way to do it), or buy a range of separate hooks that will work for your fishing location. Begin assembling a range of hooks like the ones in the following figure, from tiny to large, and in a few styles. If you can, buy both J hooks and circle hooks. You want to be ready to catch whatever fish presents itself, with whatever bait is available and needed. Using a too-small hook will result in swallowed hooks — making the hook difficult to remove and endangering the fish. A hook that is too large will look unnatural and may be avoided by the fish.

A typical range of hooks the general-species angler should carry at all times.
A typical range of hooks the general-species angler should carry at all times.

Although hooks come in a variety of shapes and styles, they also come in a tremendous range of sizes. The classification system for hooks confuses some people, but here’s what you need to know: When you use the word “size” before you give the number of the hook, you are dealing with smaller hooks (as in, “I caught it on a size 6 hook”). The higher the number, the smaller the hook. A size 6 hook is much bigger than a size 28 hook. Hook sizes are counted by twos (14, 12, 10, 8, and so on) with no odd numbers until size 1. The measuring system then changes at 1 to the system called the aughts (written 1/0, 2/0, and so on) in which the zero is pronounced old style, as aught. In the aughts, the higher the number, the bigger the hook. So a size 28 is tiny, a size 1 is bigger, and a 2/0 is bigger still.

J hooks

J hooks earned their name from their resemblance to the letter. J hooks work because they fit into a fish’s mouth and then catch on something on the way out, and they’ve worked that same way for a long time. Not every J hook is the same, though, and many styles put a twist (sometimes quite literally) on the standard. Any fish that swims can be caught on the right J hook.

Buy J hooks that match your intended target. What’s the typical mouth size of the fish you hope to catch? Bluegills, for example, have small mouths; even a big specimen would have to open wide to bite the tip of your thumb. So using giant J hooks to fish for bluegill will only result in hooks stripped of bait. But a fish with a big, toothy mouth, like a northern pike, calls for a larger J hook.

A standard J hook (a) and circle hook (b).
A standard J hook (a) and circle hook (b).

Circle hooks

Circle hooks are sized like J hooks, and available in the same wide range. Because they are so often used in saltwater, large circle hooks for species like groupers and sharks could almost encircle a coffee cup. But manufacturers make small circle hooks too, and they work for many freshwater species. Small circle hooks — about a size 6 — are good for catching carp, and 8/0 circle hooks, which work well for a variety of saltwater species, are perfect for blue catfish.

The design of the circle hook would appear to render it impotent — with the point of the hook aimed back toward the shank, how could it possibly catch fish? Well, therein lies its beauty. Circle hooks are less likely to snag simply because the point of the hook is not exposed. But they will catch fish, providing the angler can forget everything he or she knows about setting the hook in the traditional J hook fashion.

Circle hooks work because fish often move after they pick up a bait or lure. Say a smallmouth bass grabs a nightcrawler rigged on a circle hook. The smallmouth will inhale the nightcrawler, then most likely turn away from the place where it sucked in the bait. The nightcrawler — and the hook — will be in the bass’s mouth for a second or two before it swallows. As the bass turns, the hook drags across the fish's mouth, lodging in the corner of the jaw. As the bass continues to move, the hook rotates until the gap of the hook fits around the jaw. Then the point sinks in and the bass is hooked.

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