Swinging the rod to ‘set’ the hook – often termed ‘striking’ – is meant to ensure a secure hook hold, but over-zealous striking often serves only to pull the bait (and the hook) out of a fish’s mouth, probably spooking the fish in the process. Striking is an acquired skill: strike too soon, too late or too hard, and you will miss hooking the fish.
Knowing exactly when to strike (and how hard) comes with experience. It’s more an instinctive reaction than an exact science, and to complicate matters, timing the strike varies with the species of fish you are targeting, the bait, fishing tackle and especially the hook you’re using.
Different strikes for different hooks
The most common hook types are the j-hook, which is usually kirbed (i.e. with an offset point), and the recurved (circle) hook, which may or may not be offset.
The once ubiquitous j-hook has lost ground to recurved hook patterns, sometimes called circle hooks, though I think ‘circle’ best describes only the most extreme examples. Traditional j-hooks work fine, but as anglers have become increasingly concerned with conserving fish stocks, the use of recurved/circle hooks has increased.
Recurved hooks generally catch fish in the corner of the jaw, whereas j-hooks are sometimes swallowed, particularly when anglers pay insufficient attention to their gear. A swallowed j-hook can inflict internal damage that kills the fish, even if it gets off the hook or is released after capture.
While popular, offset circle hooks miss out on some of the benefits of fishing with circle hooks. Their offset point means they hook up well, even if you strike by accident, but quite often fish are hooked inside the mouth or deep inside the throat rather than in the corner of the mouth. They’re less likely to deep hook and injure fish than j-hooks, but much more likely to do so than ordinary circle hooks.
If you use non-offset circle/recurved hooks, you never need to strike, which solves the timing problem. Circle hooks are self-setting – simply tighten up smoothly on the line and the hook will lodge itself in the fish’s mouth.
Traditional j-hooks, on the other hand, generally need setting to hook up, but if the timing of the strike is wrong, the hook might fail to find a hold at all or already be lodged deeply inside the fish’s body.
The J-hook strike
First up, try and resist the temptation to strike at every nibble because a good bite will register quite strongly at the rod tip. Often the best way to respond is to allow the fish to pull the rod tip down or away against minimal resistance and then to pull back firmly once the line tightens. A solid hook-up will bend the rod over and a few winds of the reel’s handle should keep the line tight after the hook-set – allowing slack line is the surest way to lose a fish.
It’s always better to fish with the rod in hand, paying careful attention to what’s happening to the line and maintaining good contact with the bait in case there is a bite.
This is very true when you are stray-lining. Although you’ll catch fish on a slack line, these fish are almost always deeply hooked if you use j-hooks and even circle hooks may be swallowed if a fish is given enough time. If a deeply hooked fish proves to be undersized your inattention has killed a fish you can’t take home to eat, which is a waste.
Many spinning reels have useful features like a baitrunner/baitfeeder-style free-spool function that allows a fish to run off with a bait without feeling a lot of resistance from the line. It’s tempting to put the rod and reel in the rod holder and leave it to its own devices while you sit back and wait for the baitrunner to start singing.
Doing so will result in many deeply hooked fish. If you are quick enough off the mark you might get to the rod quickly enough to set the hook in a fish’s mouth rather than its stomach, but not always. You’re much better to hold onto the rod and respond to a run smartly, within a few seconds of the spool starting to whirr.
The same advice holds true when stray-lining with overhead reels: rather than plonking the rod in the rod holder to fend for itself, fish with the rod in hand and the reel in free-spool using light thumb pressure to maintain contact with the bait through the line.
You’ll still catch fish with the rod in the holder, but there’s a better than even chance they’ll be deeply hooked.
So, when is the right time to strike? Although different fish species have different feeding habits, which has some bearing on when you should strike, the mistake anglers often make is waiting either not long enough or much too long before striking.
Just like striking the moment you feel a bite seldom results in a solid hook-up, waiting for a fish to run off many metres of line before striking tends to result in a dropped bait or a deeply hooked fish.
It’s easier to time the strike when you are fishing straight up and down using a dropper rig: strike firmly when the rod tip pulls down with some authority. You should have a tight line to your bait(s) anyway, so there’s generally no need for an exaggerated lift, particularly if you are fishing with low-stretch braided line, but you may need to lift a little higher when fishing in deep water using nylon to compensate for line stretch and any bowing in the line.
It’s a bit trickier when you are stray-lining: allow the fish to move away with the bait for a short distance before clamping down on the spool, throwing the reel into gear or flicking over bail arm and then lifting the rod firmly to set the hook.
A solid hook-up can sometimes be achieved simply by lowering or swivelling the rod tip towards the fish as it moves off with the bait, allowing the line to straighten, and then lifting the rod to drive the hook home.
At other times, particularly if you are using large baits, it can be better to allow the fish to pull some line off the reel against minimal resistance (‘run with the bait’) before engaging the gears, closing the bail arm or clamping your thumb on the spool until the line tightens. A controlled sweep of the rod should then set the hook.
Don’t get carried away on the strike: too much force can break the line or rip the hook out. Where possible, avoid a straight pull on the line – let the rod do the work, so its flex cushions the force of the strike.
Don't strike circles
As already alluded to, resist striking at all if you are using recurved/circle hooks. If you are used to fishing with j-hooks, changing over to circle hooks can take some getting used to. Resisting the urge to strike when you get a solid bite is difficult and training yourself not to takes time. Even after years of fishing with circle hooks I still make plenty of mistakes, striking instinctively and almost invariably missing the hook up.
When fishing straight up and down using recurved hooks, lower the rod towards the water in response to a solid bite and then raise the rod gently and smoothly until it takes a decent bend.
Once the rod is bent the fish is hooked: wind the reel to maintain a tight line as you lower the rod tip again to begin fighting the fish.
When stray lining with circle hooks, there’s usually no need to let fish run any distance unless the bait is really large. Simply let a biting fish swing the rod around until it points down the line, allow the line to straighten, and either hold on tight or pull back slowly to bend the rod. Fish will hook themselves.
If you do elect to let a fish run with the bait, don’t let it run far. To seat the hook, simple tighten up smoothly – no need to swing on the rod.
Circle hooks are so effective at hooking fish with little or no angler input, you can happily fish with the rod in a rod holder. Provided there’s no slack line and the reel is in gear, the rod will effectively guide home the hook it as it bends over to the weight of the fish. It works a treat, and best of all, with circle hooks gut-hooked fish are rare.
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