Friday, August 14, 2015

How to Fish Friday: Hooks

How to Fish Friday


Welcome to "How to Fish Friday".  The Incomplete Angler has promised to teach you how to fish, and on this promise he will deliver.  On fridays I will be writing about all of the basics of fishing in an unprecedented and absurd level of detail.   Over time I hope to cover everything.  Everything.  From The Big Bang to the heat-death of the universe.  But mostly the fishing bits in the middle.

For the first few weeks, I will be explaining, exploring, and explicating on the essential equipment of angling.  There is a lot of water to cover here, but to help make it more manageable for you, dear readers, I'll provide a little roadmap.  We'll be traveling from the thing closest to the fish, the hook, to the thing closest to the angler, the beer.

Today we will take our cue from Aristotle, and explore hooks through via their causes.

Final Cause

The final cause, or purpose, of all fishing hooks is to hook fish.  Nothing mysterious there. 

The fishing hook is deceptively simple: a curved bit of metal with a pointy end and a loopy end. The pointy end pokes the fish, the loopy end gets the line tied to it. What more could there be to say? Well, one glance down the tackle aisle at your local sporting goods store, or a glance at the product list of your favorite internet vendor will demonstrate that between point and eye the world of hooks branches off in a fractal of possibilities.

Do not be daunted, dear reader. As your psychopomp of puncture wounds, I will take your hand and guide you through this labyrinth. I will not be giving you a laundry list of hook styles and names to memorize. Rather, I intend to help you understand how subtle variations in form affect function. For each fish, and each technique, there is a correct hook, and for each hook there is an ideal execution on the part of the angler.

Material Cause

Humans have been angling by hook and line longer than we've been able to brag about it.  Perhaps complex language and grammar was developed because our desire to tell fish tales was so great that simple grunting and gesturing were no longer sufficient.  Perhaps we owe all human social and technological development to our desire to lie about our catch.

Probably not.  But we have been angling a long time, and in the beginning every angler had to practice their art using the materials at hand.  Early fishing hooks were pieces of stone or bone chipped or worn down into a sharply bent L, like a pointy boomerang.  Archeologists have discovered evidence of fishing in nearly every ancient culture, with some recent finds including a turtle shell hook estimated to be over 15,000 years old. And as Walton's Piscator was very happy to point out:

I shall content myself in telling you, that angling is much more ancient than the incarnation of our Saviour; for in the Prophet Amos mention is made of fish-hooks; and in the book of Job, which was long before the days of Amos, for that book is said to have been written by Moses, mention is made also of fish-hooks, which must imply anglers in those times.

Over time, humans have mastered the manipulation of other, more manageable materials, the most meritorious being metallurgic.  Legend has it that one Lady Bustingstuff was the first modern angler, a title she earned by bending one of her hatpins to a sharp angle and attaching it to a piece of strong string.  She baited it with a piece of old bread, tossed it into a stream, and soon had herself a fine dinner.  Aside from my ridiculous and hastily made up name, I'm not sure of the veracity of this story, but it does provide us with a bit of insight: angling gets its name from the angle bent into something sharp.  

All modern fishing hooks are now made of metal.  Expect those weird ones made of plastic.  Ignore them for now.  Almost all hooks are made from steel, generally an alloy designed to be durable enough to hold a sharp point, and malleable enough to bend instead of shattering if put under pressure.  Some hooks are made from stainless steel, aimed at the saltwater angler concerned about corrosion resistance.

I am not a chemist or a metallurgist.  I cannot tell you what the best steel is for fishing hooks.  I'm sure that any reputable manufacturer of fishing hooks employs somebody specifically to think about this for us, and chooses the alloy appropriately.

I will say that unless you are a saltwater angler you should steer clear of stainless hooks.  Yes, they are strong and corrosion resistant, so they will likely last longer than you do, but stainless steel is very labor intensive, and incredibly toxic to produce.  All modern stainless steel is made in China and produces an incredible amount of pollution.  It is not worth destroying someone else's waterways so you can fish in yours.  Stick to the anodized steels.  Especially those made in the USA, Canada, Japan, or Europe.  These countries tend to have strict laws about industrial pollution, so are made without ruining someone else's fishing spot.

The only other consideration of hook material is its gauge, or thickness. Hooks are made in a range of thickness from thin, easily bendable wire, to unbelievably strong, thick hooks.  

Thin hooks are useful for very small hook sizes, or for larger sizes in applications where you're like to snag on rocks or submerged timber.  Thin hooks are made to bend, and often can be bent back without losing any strength.  This way, if you snag into something without gills, your hook will straighten out and you can recover your rig without re-tying.  The downside is that if you hook into The Leviathan there is a chance that it will be able to straighten your hook and swim away, allowing Hobbesian tyranny to survive.

Thick hooks are better for larger sizes and applications where you plan to hook into larger fish.  They are typically designed to be nearly impossible to bend, or if they are bent may not retain their strength when bent back.

These different gauges of hook have traditional names, the origins of which are shrouded in the fogs of time, lost forever in the haze.  Manufacturers are inconsistent in these naming conventions, and some are even phasing them out.  For example:

Aberdeen Hook - a thin wire hook with an even bend and a very long shank

O'Shaughnessy Hook - a medium wire hook with medium length shank and a nearly impossible to spell name

Still, other manufacturers are coming up with new naming conventions like "3X STRONG" or "FORGED IN THE FIRES OF MOUNT DOOM".  

My recommendation to you, dear reader, is to simply look at the hooks.  Are they thin wire?  That's a thin wire hook you've got there.  Does your hook look like it's made out of polished rebar?  That's a thick hook you've found.  You can tell because of the way it is.

Formal Cause

Exploring the formal cause involves looking at the anatomy of the hook. Once again we will work our way from the part closest to the fish, to the part closes to the angler.

Point - The point is the business end of the hook. It should be sharp.  Quite sharp. The sharper it is the easier it will pierce the lip of the fish, and that seems to be the whole point. Hah.

Different manufacturers have different styles, technologies, or gimmicks in their hook points.  I am not yet convinced that there is any added value in proprietary sharpening technologies.  A good hook should be sharp when bought, and then easily re-sharpened while in use.
The primary consideration with the point is the direction it is pointing in relation to the shaft.  If the hook points roughly parallel to the shaft, it can be referred to as a "J-hook".  A J-hook points directly, or nearly directly, back in the direction of the line.  Thus, J-hooks must be "set", or pulled via the line by the angler when the fish grabs hold of the bait or lure in order for the hook to pierce the fish's lip.

J-hooks are very useful for making the angler look AWESOME AND EXCITING.  The hook set can be one of the most dramatic and bombastic moments in an otherwise serene and meticulous activity.  J-hooks are also available in nearly limitless sizes, shapes, shank lengths, and wire thickness.  Clearly J-hooks are superior to any alternative.

However, some people do seek an alternative.  If the point of the hook curves back and points at the shaft of the hook, it is called a "Circle hook".  A circle hook is not set by a jerking or setting like J-hooks, as that force would simply pull the circle hook out of the fish's mouth due to the point being bent back.  Instead, circle hooks are intended to be set by a slow pull, reeling the line in, or simply letting the fish swim away with the hook in its mouth.  In some sense, the fish can set itself.

If the fish takes the hook into its mouth, and then pressure is gradually applied by either the angler or the fish swimming away, the hook will work its way onto the ridge of the fish's mouth.  The point then grabs just inside the lip, pierces the fish's mouth, and the hook works its way to settling in the puncture at the bed.  (You can watch strangely troubling demonstration of this on a rubber fish.)

Circle hooks are sometimes advertised as being better for catch-and-release fishing or selective harvest. If the hook is swallowed there is a chance that it will be pulled out of the fish's gut as there is no point to set in the gut.  In my experience, this is not a guarantee.  I have reeled in many fish that I have "gut-hooked" on a circle hook. When properly used, circle hooks can improve the mortality of fish, but the angler should still be prepared to cut line or utilize unintended harvest.

This does not mean that there is no point to using circle hooks. (Hah.)  Circle hooks are very useful.  There are many situations where you want or need a circle hook for the fish to set itself.  For example, when fishing from shore I sometimes make casts to put my bait over one hundred feet away from me.  Even under ideal conditions, one hundred feet of fishing line creates a lot of slack, and there is a good chance that I will not be able to feel a fish taking the bait soon enough to set a J-hook.  By the time i feel the fish, it will likely have already swallowed the hook.  I do not enjoy being forced to kill a fish, or putting a fish in danger if I do not know that I am going to eat it.

In these situations a circle hook is almost a requirement.  By the time the fish swims away with the bait, it will have typically set the hook in the fish's mouth., and I am able to play the fish to shore, unhook it, and safely release it.

Circle hooks, due to their specific function, have specific formal limitations.  Circle hooks need to be wide enough in their gap to fit around the fish's lip.  Circle hooks need to be deep enough in their bend to put the point of hook in the side of the fish's mouth.  They also require the eye of the hook to be straight or angled away from the gap of the hook so it does not interfere with the action.

Barb - Completely optional.  The function of the barb is to prevent the hook from coming out after it has pierced the lip of the fish. In many fish this simply does not matter.  For example, the mouths of centrarchids (sunfish, crappie, bass, etc.) are generally thin and papery.  Once the hook pierces their mouth, it easily makes a hole large enough for even a barbed hook to slip through.  The barb may not play any role in your fishing.

The mouths of catfish, however, are very fleshy and thick.  A barbed hook is almost never thrown by a catfish, making the landing of a fish very easy.  Unfortunately, this also means that hook removal can be rather difficult in these fish, almost always requiring a pair of pliers and strong wrists.  If the angler is planning on releasing these fish with consideration for their health, or has notably weak wrists, barbless hooks might be a better option.

All your hooks have barbs?  Pinch them down with a pair of pliers.  Come on, figure it out.

Bend and Shank - The bend of a hook is what gives its shape or character.  Deep gradual bends produce Kahle hooks.  Deep angular bends produce sickle hooks.  Medium, proportionate bends produce ... almost all hooks.  As long as the point of the hook ends up pointing in the right direction, there is no limit to the nuance of the hook's bend.

(Image of different hook shapes, Kahle, sickle, octopus circle, o'shaughnessy)
The hook's shank can vary in length, but is never shorter than the point of the hook. The shank can also take on some interesting features.

For example, the top of the shank (part furthest from the bend) can be manufactured with barbs of its own.  These barbs are used for holding bait onto the shank of the hook.  Small hooks with two or more barbs are often labelled as "Baitholder" hooks.  Larger hooks with one large barb are sometimes sold as "Worm Hooks" for fisherman using soft plastic baits.

Some small, thin hooks have an extra long shank, or a shank that leaves the bend at an unusual angle.  These hooks are sometimes made specifically for fly-tying,  For example, the Limerick hook has a particularly long shank so that a fly-fisherman can tie on some amount of fur or feathers, imitating a small insect or other natural piece of forage.

The shank can also be bent near the eye into a zig-zag.  This chicane of steel, coupled with a particularly deep bend and angled shank, allows a steady-handed angler to thread a bait onto this hook leaving a gap between the belly of the bait and most of the shank of the hook.  The usefulness of this will be elaborated on at a later date, but it is enough to know now that this is called a "Wide Gap" hook, or an "Extra Wide Gap" hook, or sometimes just "That hook right there."

The shape of a hook is never an accident.  Hooks are given their shape to either hold bait, hold a lure, or allow for some specific fishing technique.

Eye - The eye of the hook is the loop at the end of the shank, by which an angler might tie fishing line.  Fishing hooks do not always have eyes.  In early stages of their evolutionary history, they smelled and tasted their way through the world.  Instead of eyes, they were made with a T at the top, and they were attached to the line with a special knot called a snell.  I will be getting more into that next week.

There are a few functional considerations to the eye beyond the line attachment.  The angle of the eye in relation to the rest of the hook plays an important role in how the hook moves, but this only matters if the angler utilizes the correct eye with the correct knot. Or loop.  Or slip.  Or snell.  Okay, sorry, next week.  Can you tell I'm excited about knots?

If you're just discovering angling, don't worry about anything having to do with the eye.  Get hooks eyes that run straight out from the shank.  Everything beyond that is academic, and thereby, very very interesting.

Gap and Size -  The last thing to consider with hooks is the size.  This can be the most important, most argued over, most convoluted and most tedious part of hooks.

Hooks are made in many sizes.  Depending on the style of hook, the sizes range from 32 to 20/0.  32 is the smallest size.  20/0 is the largest.  Perfectly transparent, right?

Imagine a number line.  0 is the middle, and it extends in either direction infinitely.  To the right are positive integers.  To the left, negative.  Fish hook sizing is like this, except to the right of 0 are numbers that end in */0.  1/0, 2/0, 3/0, etc.  To the left of 0 are simply numbers, but of increasing size. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.  Simply imagine these as having a negative sign, and it will make sense that a size 1 hook is bigger than a size 2, but smaller than a 1/0.

There is no 0 size hook.  Deal with it.

Hook sizes are not standardized.  Ostensibly, they are the label of varying "gap size.'"  A hook's gap is the distance between the hook point and the shank.  The larger the hook, the greater this distance is. The numbers 3, 2, 1, 1/0, 2/0, etc, may be a reflection of gap size, but are not measurements.  They are not a gauge.  They are simply an archaic counting system.

Hook sizes are relative to their style and manufacturer.  That is to say, a 2/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook might have a larger gap than a 2/0 Gamakatsu baitholder. A 2/0 is a 2/0 because it is larger than the 1/0 of the same style.

Similarly, a 2/0 Gamakatsu circle hook might be smaller than a 2/0 Owner circle hook.  They are both 2/0 circles, but the manufacturers have no standardization of 2/0 means.

This can be horribly frustrating, especially for new anglers.  My best advice is to pick a reputable brand, and stick with their hooks for a while until you get a grasp of what sizes mean.

The hook size is important in relation to the fish being sought.  A largemouth bass, for example, has an enormous mouth.  Even a small specimen can easily fit a 4/0 wide gap worm hook into its mouth. In bass fishing, choice of hook size is about how it fits into or through the bait, not about how big the fish's mouth is. By contrast, a Bluegill has an extremely small mouth.  Even a very large bluegill would have a hard time fitting anything larger than a size 6 hook into its mouth.  When bluegill fishing, the goal is to have the smallest hook that can effectively hold the bait.

Hooks must be sized to the fish being angled for, with some consideration to how that hook is going to function with the technique used.

Immediate Cause

There are many hook manufacturers, many with very good products and assurance of quality.  I do not have any brand loyalties here.  All I suggest to you, dear reader, is to shop around.  In price, aim for the middle.  Finding value for money is about trial and error.  In the future, I may write some reviews, or confess to my hook manufacturer preferences.  That is all in the future.


That is all for this week's edition of How to Fish Friday.  In this article I've only barely covered some of the basics of fish hooks, and gotten into some absurd detail on others.   I am sure I have bored some of you to tears, thinking that nobody should speak at this length on anything.  Some of you, however, see that this article is still very incomplete.

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