Surfcasting - the strike and setting the hook

The act of setting the hook is arguably the most important moment that anglers face in their mission to catch fish.

Everything prior – all the preparation, patience and persistence – is academic if the hook is not securely set in the fish’s mouth.

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Surfcasters, more so than most other fishermen, have to work hard for their bites, and failure to set the hook properly can undo hours and hours of groundwork.

Not so long ago I put in a combined 12 hours of fishing and driving in pursuit of a big snapper, and I hooked one – just one – only to lose it because I failed to set the hook properly. On that occasion I put my failure down to a dull hook and a placid strike, but there are many other ways to get it wrong. Here I explore what I believe are the key ingredients to successfully setting hooks when surfcasting. They are:

• The breakout sinker system

• Hooks – traditional and ‘re-curve’ styles

• Knots and droppers

• Striking technique.

The breakout sinker system

There has been no greater innovation in surfcasting than the breakout sinker in recent years. It might seem simple, and those who have taken up surfcasting in only the last 10 or 15 years might take it for granted, but those stiff wires keep your bait in one place so you know exactly where it is and allow you to fish in swell conditions that old-time surfcasters used to shake their heads at.

Importantly, they also anchor your bait, and for this reason are capable of setting the hook on their own as the fish flees and is stopped dead in its tracks. It is difficult to know for sure, but given the long distances of stretchy nylon line surfcasters generally have out (often in excess of 100m), it may be that breakout sinkers are far more effective at setting the hook than anything the angler can do at the far end of the line. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that using breakout sinkers helps.

Hooks

Before I get into the whys and wherefores of hook types, one thing is non-negotiable: your hooks must be sharp – just as my recent experience attests. In surfcasting, with dozens of metres of line out and a long rod, the effect of the strike is not dramatic at the business end of the line. This is something I have tested with my mates whilst dry land casting. As a result, it is critical to use the sharpest hooks possible. Chemically-sharpened hooks are readily available and cost effective nowadays, so there is really no excuse not to use them.

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Whilst I will try new types of hooks, I am pretty fussy and will test the sharpness on my fingertips and fingernails. Generally speaking, the best hooks cost about a dollar each when purchased in bulk bags of 20 or 30; I use Owner or Gamakatsu branded hooks. Using cheaper hooks in the 50-75 cents range tends to be false economy – save them for fishing where you have a more direct line to the fish, such as in the boat or stray-lining off the rocks.

One of the great debates among surfcasters is whether traditional or re-curve style hooks achieve the highest hook-up rates. Those in the re-curve camp are probably the most vociferous in their arguments, and I have heard quite a few tell stories of hooking up to 20 fish on their re-curve hooks before suffering a failed hook-up. That’s a pretty decent strike rate when surfcasting.

My view is that it’s a personal thing, related to the technique and preferences of individual anglers, and also to the species of fish being targeted. However, the strike required for these two primary hook patterns is different.

Re-curve style hooks do not suit the traditional sweep of the rod that most anglers use to set the hook. Attempts to do so result in the hook being pulled entirely free of the fish’s mouth (because of the closed tip of the hook). What is required instead is a steady tightening of the line, which drags the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth.

I will discuss striking techniques further shortly, but my own preference is for traditional shaped ‘Octopus’ or ‘J’ hooks – mainly because I grew up trout fishing and surfcasting before re-curve hooks became popular, when a quick jerk of the rod was always required to set the hook. Also, as far as surfcasting goes, I’m not fussy about where I hook my fish, and, rightly or wrongly, I have a theory that the open gape and more accessible point of traditional hooks suits my fishing style and guarantees more hook-ups.

Knots and droppers

Knots and droppers are not the biggest part of the equation when it comes to striking fish, but one of the finer details relates to how the hook interacts with the mainline. In my mind it is preferable to have the hook’s shank working in unison with the mainline, and this is best achieved with the ‘snell’ or ‘snood’ knot, which sees the rig’s nylon wrapped around the shank of the hook. I have always had good hook-up rates with these knots, and I believe that this is because the knot ensures the shank acts as a direct extension of the mainline and therefore facilitates setting the hook. Basic dropper loops can achieve the same sort of effect, so long as the dropper loop enters the eye of the hook from the point side.

Striking technique

As already mentioned, there is a key difference in the correct striking technique for traditional and re-curve style hooks, but assuming you use traditional hook types, there are a few other issues to contemplate as well.

When using breakout sinkers, as most surfcasters do nowadays, I have noticed advanced anglers practice one of two techniques for striking fish when experiencing a ‘slacky’. Members of the first group wind up the slack as fast as they can and strike hard the moment they come back into contact with their sinker/the fish. The second group also winds up the slack line smartly, but as the line begins to tighten up they drop their rod tip and wait for the fish to apply pressure to the line before striking.

At some point over the years I graduated from the first group to the second, and now waiting for the weight to come back on before setting the hook firmly in the fish’s mouth is one of my favourite pleasures. With any luck the pressure continues to come on as a solid, startled fish moves away at speed!

As for the act of striking, simply drop your rod tip, wind up the slack and lift up or sweep horizontally in a purposeful manner. It’s not rocket science.

I am also of the view that once you believe you have a fish ‘on’, you should also make a second solid strike to sink the hook home. Those who believe in subtler techniques will say this risks ripping the hook free, but I find this happens very rarely. I would much rather know that I’ve done what I can to firmly set a hook, and am prepared to suffer the consequences of the odd lost fish.

Of course how you strike will depend on the species you’re fishing for. One of my earlier articles was about how you can identify the species on the end of your line by the nature of the bite and fight, and with some practice you should be able to pick the species before you see them about 90% of the time. This knowledge can be used to your advantage. For example, snapper, gurnard and spotted smoothhounds have hard mouth, so a strong strike helps to puncture their skin/jaw and set the hook. On the other hand, trevally have soft mouths that tear easily, so a gentler approach is recommended on them.

The biggest obstacle I see to successful hook-sets when out on the beach is the proliferation of cheap, floppy rods that simply lack the power to impart a decent tug on the line. You don’t need to spend a fortune to have a rod capable of setting the hook properly – a basic graphite rod in the $150-$200 range will do nicely – just avoid the really soft-tipped glass rods, which generally cost less than $100.

You will need to find your own balance when learning how to strike fish while surfcasting, because it can be a subtle art. I recently trialled a demo rod with a much softer action than I generally use, and despite all other components (i.e. rigs, sinker, reel etc) being what I use all the time, I lost four spotted smoothhounds in a row after aggressive takes. Under more usual circumstances I would back myself to land at least three of those fish, but in retrospect I needed to employ a firmer strike to compensate for the rod’s soft tip – most likely I failed to puncture these fishes’ mouths. 

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