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Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

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Thursday, August 15, 2019
Second day advantage pays off
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Sorrow and grief


By hook or by crook
Hook selection is one of those things that's become challenging to communicate. Nominative hook sizing and style varies widely by brand. The size and style may sound similar but the hooks they refer to are nowhere near. Thus a number 4 Owner is comparable in size to a 1/0 Mustad.

So, I tend to talk in terms of basic shapes, wire weight and use relative sizes most are familiar with. Back in the day, it was either a Mustad or an Eagle Claw, and in saltwater it was most often a Mustad (before Mr. Dan Fink came along), so I use their sizing for reference.


First, circle hooks and tuna: Circle hooks enable one to use a very small hook by comparison to the line strength and fish size. The object of their design is to hook the fish in the corner of the mouth where even a small chunk of fish face is strong enough not to pull out. In fact, lots of times you can pull on a tiny hook hard enough that the wire starts to open instead, or you tear the whole maxilla out.


nominativehooksizeNOMINATIVE HOOK SIZE varies greatly from brand to brand today. So simply stating hook size is no longer definitive. Traditional Mustad sizing is not even similar to Owner's newer standard. Here Owner's no. 4, traditionally a tiny hook, similar to Mustad's 1/0 in size.

Another advantage is they're a lot less likely to hook elsewhere and cause mortal damage to fish you may want to, or have to, release. So, for some fisheries, like mooching salmon up north of Point Conception or billfish off Costa Rica, they're required by law.


Lastly, once a fish is hooked, it's a lot less likely to throw the hook when the line goes slack, or be hooked deeply such that the line crosses the sharp teeth of toothier critters. This is why they were invented for, and why they became so popular in the commercial long-line fisheries first.


But there are a couple of tricks to using them, and also a downside which dictates when not to use them. It all stems from the fact the fish has to bite, then swim off and hook itself. An angler can't set a circle hook because it will just pop out of the fish's mouth.


When you pin a live bait on one, it's easiest to push the bait into the tiny gap, then pull on the line. Otherwise you can fiddle for several minutes trying to work the tip to where it needs to be, especially if that's in a meaty part of the bait.


Most importantly, when it gets bit, you must let the fish swim off so the line lays down the side of the fish, then let the line come tight on it's own. Just throw the reel in gear and hang on or wind slack slowly.


Unfortunately, this means if the fish you're trying for has a tendency to sit still after biting or continue to swim toward you, a circle hook can be a poor choice. Thus, while they're ideal for tuna, especially toothy bluefin, they're perhaps not the best choice for yellowtail and dorado. Those two tend to hang out near the boat looking for a second bait after eating yours rather than swim out for clear water like a tuna.


Another thing to consider when fishing a smaller circle for a larger fish on heavier line is wire size. You'll want the "XXXH" version of that hook, not the little-fish, light wire version. And of course, the only good reason to fish a smaller hook, is because you can't get picky fish to go for a bait on a larger one.


When fishing for critters in situations where your target is less likely to swim off right after grabbing your bait, you'll want a hook you can swing on – one which's tip will bury into the first flesh it touches. That would be the standard J-hook.


I see the shank length as a critical consideration – one where choice varies with the fishing situation. For pelagic fish I prefer a shorter-shanked hook, shaped very much like an old fashioned salmon egg hook, for two primary reasons. These are u-shaped hooks where the tip of the hook is almost even with the base of the hook's eye.


The first reason is when you tension the line with the hook held where it naturally will adjust too, the tip of the hook points outward at a nearly 45-degree angle. It plows ever deeper into fish flesh, even if it's being pulled on so hard it's tearing through flesh. Such a hook will slide deep into the softer tissue until it hits a hard part, rather than ripping out.


A second reason is that the shorter shank provides less mechanical advantage to ripping out sideways if the line angle changes back and forth as you're fighting your fish.


I found such hooks to pull out far less often when rod and reeling tens of tuna per day in a commercial fishing setting. Often rod and reeling is what we ended up doing because the fish wouldn't eat the heavy commercial gear some days.


However, a longer-shanked hook holds more bait when cut bait of some sort or is being used. Fishing live squid works best with a longer-shanked hook you can thread through a couple of times – or even jam on several squid to give the appearance of spawners.


When it comes time to remove a hook, the longer shank makes it easier to unhook your catch quickly. You end up retying a lot less often when retying between each fish is not so critical for other reasons. It gets you back in the water quickly while the fish are biting.


Here are a couple of points that are important for all hooks.


Sharpness and strength count! It used to blow my mind that common pins could be produced so darned sharp for so little money, yet the strong fish hooks of the day were nearly "child-proof," while the sharp ones couldn't be trusted not to break or bend out.


In fact, a large reason we have so many hook brands competing with one another now is that back when it was a two-brand market, the door was left wide on for competitors to provide these critical improvements and grow their market share – even with prices more than twice that of the majors.


Today, pretty much all the top brands compete strongly in both regards. Hooks are sticky-sharp right out of the package. Today, only a few off-brands of super cheap hooks have runs where the wire can be too brittle and breaks, or be too malleable and open up too easily.


But even amongst the best, there is a large variation in barb size from brand to brand. Myself and most boat crews prefer a larger barb. Fishing the tiny barb J-hooks can be frustrating and infuriating. A larger barb holds a lively bait onto a J-hook far better.


If you're fishing in the weeds, having a large barb is critical when a fish buries into the kelp. Without a hefty barb, when a stringer slides down the line and onto the hook, that fish is gone with its first flip – leaving you hooked to the stringer!


Also, I prefer now-uncommon silver hooks for fishing finbait. They don't show up as a black splotch against the silver bait – like a big, fat fly having landed on your prime rib.


Yet, if producing a silvery electroplated hook that's sticky sharp right out of the package is technically impossible, sharpness is far more important than silvery shininess.


* * *


Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


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