Back to basics: set the hook
  |  First Published: September 2012

Reel spooled, drag set, cast made – it’s time to feel for that first bite and then set the hook!

When a hungry fish takes a chomp at your baited hook, lure or fly, you can usually tell immediately that this exciting event has occurred. The indication you receive may range from a tiny pluck or tick on the line to a dip of the rod tip, a quiver of the float (if you’re using one), or even a full-blooded wrench that threatens to rip the outfit clean out of your hands!

How you react to such a nibble, tug or bite can spell the difference between hooking the fish and missing it, or even losing your bait.

In most cases, when you feel the bite of a fish through your line, you will need to strike in response. To strike means to raise the rod tip or crank the reel handle (preferably, do both things at once) in order to pull on the line and set the hook; in other words, to make sure that the hook is firmly planted in the fish’s mouth.

Two common mistakes in this area are to strike too hard and to strike too late. You really don’t need to rip the fish’s head off when striking, especially if using modern, low-stretch lines such as braid or PE! Modern fish hooks are wickedly sharp, and only a modest pull is usually required to bury the point and barb, especially if the fish is also pulling in the opposite direction at the same time. Too much gusto can prove to be counterproductive, because you might actually rip the hook clear of the fish’s gob or, in extreme cases, even break the line.

Timing is critical, too. If you’re going to successfully set the hook, the strike needs to be made while the bait or lure is still inside the fish’s mouth — not after it has been thoroughly chewed up or nibbled at and then spat out or stolen.

Rather than strike too hard or too late, try the following steps: Concentrate on reacting quickly, smoothly and with the minimum of excess force to any movement in the line. Respond to a bite or tug on the line by briskly, but smoothly, raising the rod tip through an arc of 30-50cm while also quickly turning the reel handle two or three times. This response is usually all the effort that’s needed to securely set a hook.

If you can feel by the lack of extra weight that your well-timed, restrained striking action has missed the mark, quickly lower the rod to the original position and stop winding the reel. By doing this, the bait stays near the fish and chances are good that the critter may come back for a second bite at the cherry. If you’re lure casting, simply continue the retrieve.

Of course countless exceptions exist to the general rules just described for dealing with a bite and strike. Nevertheless, with practice it becomes obvious you’re striking or hook-setting action needs to be significantly delayed, when no strike is necessary at all, or when a much harder, more aggressive hook-set is warranted (such as when using a weedless-rigged soft plastic, where the hook point is concealed or shielded by the body of the lure).

To begin with, however, try maintaining a high level of line control so you can actually detect bites and then reacting quickly but smoothly to any biting fish, as described above. In most instances, this strategy offers the greatest chance of success, and only if you consistently fail to achieve positive results should you experiment with different strategies.

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