There’s only one thing worse than not getting bites at all, and that’s getting bites but not being able to actually get the hook into a fish’s mouth. In fishing terms this is called “setting the hook“.
Fortunately, getting a fish to bite is often the hardest part of fishing. If you’ve figured that out, getting your hook-up ratio (more fishing lingo for you) to increase is a little bit simpler. Follow this guide to make sure you’re doing everything you can to hook every fish that bites.
You have to pull hard to hook a fish
I don’t know how many bass I missed before I finally caught my first one. I would get bite after bite, but after I would pull up on the line, there would be nothing at the other end. Finally my dad told me I wasn’t setting the hook hard enough, I was just barely pulling the lure.
When you’re fishing, it’s important to remember that in most cases, a fish biting the lure is not going to hook itself. You are quite literally forcing the hook , which is hopefully in the fishes mouth, up and into the fish’s lips. This requires a good bit of force, especially if your line is well out into the water.
If you’re having trouble hooking up with fish, consider a more harsh, jerky movement when “setting the hook” into the fish’s mouth. As soon as I learned this, I caught my first bass. And that led to thousands more. All because I wasn’t afraid to put a lot of force into how I set the hook.
Or maybe... You're pulling TOO hard to hook the fish
Maybe you’re the opposite of my younger self and you are setting the hook TOO hard. If you’re pulling with everything you have, you might be pulling too hard to catch the fish and instead are pulling the bait straight out of the fish’s mouth.
Setting the hook has many factors, but always keep in mind the route the hook needs to go through to get into the fish’s mouth. If the hooks are exposed with your fishing technique, then pulling out the slack and getting a good, tight resistance is enough to cinch the hooks into a fish’s jaw. If your hook is hidden within a bait or has resistance, then you really need to pull as you’re not only getting the hook into a fish’s lips, but also through the bait itself.
So if you are using a bait with exposed hooks, it’s possible you are pulling so hard that the fish’s mouth is “blowing up” (basically pulling so hard a fish’s mouth forces open and y0ur bait falls right out). Try going with a slightly slower, less jerky motion. You still need to set the hook strong and don’t stop pulling back until you feel resistance on the end of the line. Each technique of fishing has it’s own method for setting a hook. Research whichever technique you are using for more info, but a good baseline is to remember if the hook is exposed – don’t pull in a jerky motion. If the bait covers the hook – pull hard and in a more jerky motion.
Are your hooks sharp enough to catch a fish?
Even if you are setting the hook correctly, there are still some factors which may be causing your hook up ratio to decrease. Chief among this is dull hooks.
If your hooks are old, rusty, and have been sitting in a tackle box for years, it’s possible that they are not sharp enough to catch a fish. Judging this is simply a matter of feel. Put your finger on the very tip of your hook. Does it almost instantly poke your skin? If not, your hook is not sharp enough.
There are several sharpening techniques but honestly, hooks are cheap enough I don’t personally find it worth it to sharpen your own hooks. Instead, just by new, sharper hooks. If you’re serious about fishing, go for a brand name like Gamakatsu (my personal favorite brand) which are guaranteed to be sharp and stay sharp for hundreds of fish. If you’re on a budget, most any hook is sharp enough to catch a fish out of the box. Just don’t expect them to stand up as well over time.
Also, if your hook is bent in an unnatural angle it’s much less likely to catch fish. This can simply be corrected with a good pair of needle nose pliers. The point of the hook should almost always be parallel to the main arm of the hook where the line ties. A slight angle is okay and sometimes even desirable, anything more than 5 degrees or so needs corrected.
Is your bait too large for the fish you're targeting?
You’ve checked your hooks are sharp, you’re setting the hook correctly. What else could it possibly be? Well, if your bait is a lot bigger than the hook inside it, it’s possible that the fish is only biting the end of your lure and never actually getting the hook into it’s mouth.
This is a struggle even pro fisherman often deal with. The more the bait is free from a hook, the better the action is and more lifelike it’s movement. But ultimately many fish only bite the tail end of a lure rather than the entire thing, and if your hook isn’t where the fish is biting, good luck trying to actually catch it.
If you’re concerned with this, look up the recommended hook size for your lure or look at the packaging to see if there is a particular size hook recommended. Usually, your hook should cover at least half of the bait you are using, or else you are at risk of the fish biting part of the lure and never getting the hook in it’s mouth. If you have more than half of your lure exposes without a hook, try using a larger hook and see if that leads to more hooked fish. It’s possible they are only biting the tail, so when you pull there is no hook to set into the fish’s mouth.
Or vice versa, I usually downsize the bait I’m using if I feel like fish are only biting at the tail. Having a smaller bait they can more easily get in their mouth seems to give me greater hookups than changing hooks. Plus, it’s a lot easier to just tie on a different bait than untie and retie a different sized hook.
Should you reveal the hook? Why and why not...
Along the lines of hook size, revealing or hiding the hook inside the body of your bait is a consideration you should think about when fishing if you are having a hard time hooking into fish.
If a hook is hidden within the body of a bait, it is automatically harder to hook up with a fish. Remember when we talked about setting the hook? That extra layer the hook needs to go through can limit your hookup potential.
A simple solution that could be possible is allowing the hook to slightly poke out from the body of the bait you are using. This is often called “tex-posing” the hook. Allowing a clear route from the bait to fish’s mouth when setting the hook can allow for a better hook-up ratio if you are struggling to land fish. However remember, you are much more likely to get hung up in other debris in the water if you let the hook hang freely. It’s a trade-off you have to determine if you’re willing to make. Personally, I almost always hide a hook if I can to avoid picking up weeds or other debris.
Is your pole power correct?
If you have everything else figured out, then you need to think about the power of the pole you are using in relation to the type of fishing you are doing. Poles are rated from light to heavy power, with heavy having the most strength and light having the least.
If you don’t know the power of your pole, it is written on it somewhere, usually near the base near the handle. Usually poles include the pole power, action, and recommended lines or lure weights to use with it. The majority of poles available at large retailers and non-specialty fishing shops fall in the medium power.
So if you are using a light pole but fishing in a lot of vegetation or heavy current, then it doesn’t matter how hard you set the hook you might not catch a ton of fish. Or vice versa, if you have a heavy rod and are setting the hook heavy with an open hook, you are much more likely to force a hook right out of a fish’s lips.
If you are using a heavy rod, be a little lighter with how you set the hook. Or if you are using light, set the hook harder or go to a medium to medium heavy setup. Keeping this in mind is extremely important if you are having trouble catching fish. Ultimately, a medium action rod is best to cover a variety of situations and will allow the most flexibility.
When should you pull to set the hook?
Another consideration is if you are setting the hook at exactly the right time to catch a fish. This is an art as much as it is a science. Sometimes a fish grabs it immediately and you need to set the hook as soon as you feel a tug. Other times, a fish is extremely cautious and only nibbles before taking your bet. Wait too long, and the fish will have spit your lure before you set the hook. Pull too early, and the fish doesn’t have it in it’s mouth before you yank it away.
Given this information, take into consideration how you have been setting the hook previously. Have you pulled at the slightest notice of a a fish on the other end? Then wait a little and see if waiting for a fish to fully take the bait increases your likelihood of landing the fish. Or if you’ve waited and waited before setting the hook, try pulling earlier and seeing if that leads for more fish landed.
Again, this is as much of a feel as it is a science. I would love to give you hard and fast rule, but it simply does not exist. I personally do not set the hook at the soonest tap. I wait a moment and wait to feel a large pull, or see my line running off, before setting the hook hard.
My father though, pulls at every little touch. Which method is better? I’m honestly not sure. We both miss fish from time to time. All fishermen do. But if you are having trouble hooking up, try something different. Fishing is an art, not a science.
You can't catch 'em all...
Hopefully the advice above has led you to at least hooking up with a few fish. But it is important to remember, even the best of fisherman will miss their fair share of opportunities. Fish do not always committee fully, and other factors always take their toll. If you catch every fish that bites, you would be a professional on the world tour. Instead, take the blessing that you are at least getting bites and know that the the fish will come eventually. Bites lead to catches. Once I put the tips above into place, my ability to hook up with fish increased exponentially. Keep fishing, and you too will eventually start landing more fish than you miss.
If you have any other helpful tips for fishermen unable to land fish, please post them below. I love hearing form the community and learning myself, so please contribute!