How to set the hook is probably one of the last things I thought about when I started fishing.
After all, you have to get a bite first before you can set the hook. Getting a bite seemed to be more important.
Once you know how to find the fish and make them eat, that is when you can actually start working on setting the hook.
It was tough to lose a fish after all the effort I’d put in to get to that moment…
It wasn’t until I had a bit more fishing experience that I realized that different situations required me to do different things.
Setting the hook right is both an art and a science. It takes experience to master!
Let this in-depth guide help you learn how to set a hook…
The Crucial Moment
This is one of the most important parts of setting the hook, the moment when a fish decides that your bait is what it wants to eat.
But how do you know when the fish really wants it?
If you set the hook too early you miss, if you set the hook too late you could miss or damage the fish.
Your timing in this moment is key to setting the hook.
Behavior differs amongst fish species and you are going to have to read the situation to know whether the fish is really committed or just interested before setting the hook.
In order to understand how to set the hook, watch and feel carefully, and learn from every experience.
Usually, a fish who is just interested will come around a few times, give a little nudge and not fully commit.
In these fishing moments, you have to be patient and wait for the real bite before reeling in.
Other times the fish is less patient and will just hammer it.
This behavior is far more preferable, but the surprise attack may catch anglers off guard.
This will require patience…
Be sure to time it right, you want to set the hook when the fish has committed not before and not after.
If you set early, usually, the fish won’t have the hook in its mouth and you’ll miss it. If you set too late one of two things may happen.
1. The fish would taste what it’s eating isn’t real and within a few moments, spit your bait out.
2. The fish would swallow the bait and you end up hooking it too deeply.
All your senses need to be on high alert while fishing but you also need to stay calm in the moment.
Unfortunately staying calm when the fish of your dreams decides to bite can’t be taught, it’s something you’ll have to learn to manage internally.
I’ve guided all over the world and even the best of anglers still fall apart at this moment.
My advice as a fellow angler is to play it out in your mind and remind yourself of what you’re gonna do when it happens.
This would require determination. Keep doing this throughout your day and you’ll be ready when it goes down.
Setting the hook is simply making sure that when a fish does eat, you respond in a way that ensures the hook would penetrate through the mouth of the fish quickly and deep enough.
This will ensure that the hook won’t come out until you want it to, once you’ve landed the fish.
Check out the video below to give you an idea
How you set the hook is very important.
A good set can make all the difference in landing a fish and the set differs depending on how you’re fishing.
Pre-preparation Before Setting the Hook
Now you know what to do in the moment, let’s talk about how to prepare for it.
This prep work will be a huge help for your hook up rate.
Keep your line tight. This is important no matter what fish you are after.
Ensure that your line is always tight and that there is no slack line. Having no slack or loose line gives you a direct connection to your bait and therefore to the fish that eats it.
If your line is slack when a fish takes and tries to swim away, you’re gonna have to make up for that line slack when you set the hook.
It could be these few seconds that end up losing the chance to get that fish hooked.
Important Factors to Consider
Before you set a hook, think about the weather and water conditions where you’re fishing.
The wind, swell, current and/or light going to affect how much slack you have, the technique, the movement of your baits, and your ability to feel a bite.
Planning ahead will help you a lot.
Think about it and adjust your tactics based on the situation at hand.
Look around you, what could go wrong, are there snags, is it shallow or deep, are there trees behind you?
Imagine hook setting conditions where you’re fishing, think about what could happen and plan against it.
Stay sharp, paying close attention even to the little details will help you in the long run.
If you are fly fishing there are 3 different ways to set the hook.
They’re very simple but it’s when you have to swap between the 3 that the real challenge comes into play.
Freshwater Fly Fishing
When you’re trying to get a bite with a fly rod in freshwater (for all species bar salmon and steelhead), to set a hook you simply keep hold of the fly line in one hand and lift the rod with your other hand. Easy!
If you’re swinging flies for salmon and steelhead, you have to let the fish hook itself.
When you feel their bites on your baits, you do nothing. This is very hard to do if you’re not used to it and it’ll need some training.
The idea is that you want more fish to take the fly, then turn and hook itself instead.
This moment lasts 3-5 seconds and once you’ve done it right, you can lift the rod and start playing and reeling the fish in.
Saltwater Fly Fishing
When saltwater fly fishing, lifting the rod is against the law.
Imagine you’ve been trout fishing your whole life and suddenly when you are in the salt, everything you’ve learned about hooking a fish to date is now wrong.
This takes a lot of getting used to, It can be even overwhelming at first but I’m here to help you learn.
Using a Strip Set
To set the hook in saltwater, you need to use a strip set.
To do this, just keep stripping. There’s nothing fancy about it.
You’ll be stripping your fly in whilst fishing and when you get the eat, don’t lift your rod, and keep pulling the fly line to set the hook.
With some fish, you may find hook setting will be harder than others to penetrate their mouths. As long as you keep your rod down and keep pulling you’ll get the hook in there.
When you are bait fishing the key is to wait and make sure the fish has the bait and hook in its lips before setting the hook and reeling them in.
This technique involves some patience and good timing, the biggest differential here is whether you’re using live bait, dead/chunk baits, a bobber, J-hooks or Circle hooks.
You might want to consider checking out this best baitrunner reel review to enhance your bait fishing experience.
When fishing baits on the bottom or on a bobber, you are waiting for the right bite.
A light or little nibble is probably the fish just tasting it and you’ll want to be patient until the fish commits and tries to swim away and you get a solid bite.
This is when you strike with the rod, lifting it with an upward motion.
Wind the reel at the same time of the strike to ensure the line is as tight as it can be.
Reeling this way will give you a solid hook set.
If you’re fishing a whole dead bait, before you set the hook, you’ll want to give the fish a chance to get the whole bait in its mouth and start eating it.
This technique will also involve free spooling to give the fish slack so it can pick up baits and start biting on it.
A good rule of thumb is 5-7 seconds but you’ll vary this with experience.
After the 5-7 second point, reset the drag out of free-spool, wind to pick up the slack, and lift the rod into the fish.
The hook set on live baits is exactly the same as the set on a whole dead bait.
Make sure you give the fish enough time to pick up the live bait and start eating it on the free spool before you set the drag and lift the rod.
Hooks, J v’s Circle
With a J-hook, the risk of hooking your fish too deep is a concern, and to avoid this, you have to time your set right so the hook is in the fish’s mouth but isn’t swallowed.
The directions above should be enough to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Using Circle Hooks
If you’re using circle hooks, then there’s nothing to worry about.
Circle hooks are designed not to hook a fish in the stomach and only to set in the corner of the fish mouth.
The point being, you can even let fish eat the bait for as long as you want, without worrying about damaging it.
If you are using circle hooks for bait fishing, then don’t worry about the timings above.
To set the hook simply wind and set the drag, the hook will set in the corner of the mouth.
Casting Artificial Lures
When you are spin fishing with artificial lures the way you set the hook really comes down to the type of hooks you have on your lures, rather than the fish you are trying to catch.
In most cases, these are either going to be treble hooks or J-hooks.
Let’s be honest, hooking a fish with a lure that has trebles on it isn’t very hard.
There can be between 3-9 hooks on the lure compared to other methods where there is just one.
To get a solid hook set using treble hook baits you only have to keep the line tight which involves winding.
When a fish eats, wind a few more times and the hook will properly set and penetrate correctly.
When using a J-hook, you’ll need to strike into the fish.
When you feel the right bite, lift the rod into the fish and wind, this’ll pull the hook through the mouth and get a good set.
When you’re trolling, the exact same rules apply as mentioned above.
It depends on the hook in the lure or in the whole dead/live bait.
The key when trolling is to remember which line has what baits or lures on it, and which hook is in that bait or lure.
Using Multiple Lines
You may be fishing up to 9 lines or more at a time, and you’ll have to react correctly depending on which line gets a bite.
Also, remember that the boat is moving which helps you set the hook, you won’t need to put much more power into it.
Trolling For Billfish
Getting a good hook set on billfish is a different game.
The first thing is to always watch your lures like a hawk.
Billfish are some of the quickest on the planet and you’ll see their dorsal or bill come up behind the lure before they take it, if you’re on your game.
At this moment, you have to take the rod and lift it above your head.
Now set the drag to free spool, put your thumb on the line to stop it leaving the reel and wait for the fish to eat.
This wait can feel like years, keep calm.
Wait for the Billfish to Hit Your Lure
Once you feel them hit the lure, point the rod at the fish and free spool while thumbing the line to make sure it doesn’t ‘birds-nest’.
Count for 3-5 seconds while you free spool the line, this will allow the fish to pick up the lure, turn and get it in the fish’s mouth.
Now, return the drag on the reel back to strike, lift the rod gently into the fish a few times and you should be on.
If you miss it, start free spooling until you feel the fish pick it up again and repeat. Don’t worry if you lose a fish.
What I’ve described above is the ideal situation. Sometimes you won’t see them and they’ll just hit the lure. Other times they’ll just eat the lure and hook themselves. It pays to be alert and ready.
If you are trolling with circle hooks you can free spool for a lot longer and simply return the drag to strike to set the hook, you don’t need to lift the rod when you strike in this situation.
Here are the key tips from my experience that should help an angler like you get a better hook up rate when you’re out fishing.
- Be prepared. Think about where you’re standing and what could get in the way. The tree’s behind you? A slippery bank? Fly line by your feet? Do you have a taut line? Is your drag set right? The technique is to think about all of these things and how to get around them.
- Play it out in your mind. “I’m fishing for this, it will probably do that, and when it does I’m gonna do this.” This’ll get you ready for the moment.
- Stay calm. This is probably the hardest thing to do and as I’ve already said, it can’t be taught. The more you practice the better you’ll be at it.
- Time your set right, not too early and not too late.
- Strike correctly based on the hook and baits you’re using.
- Think about how the conditions will affect the bite and adjust accordingly.
- Enjoy it and learn from every successful or failed hook-set. Don’t be afraid to lose a fish.
Now you know how to set a hook properly and all that’s left to do is to go and practice and keep your elbows tight.
Over time you’ll develop your own technique, possibly with different methods…
You’ll learn your own little tricks and tips to help you set the hook. The key is being there and learning from every experience.
Sometimes when setting the hook, fish will take the bait while others will behave strangely compared to others and do different things that you simply won’t understand.
Remember, there is nothing you can do to prepare for this, we’ve all been there and will go there again soon before long.
Also remember to have fun and enjoy it. The unpredictability, having to adapt and learn the whole time are what makes fishing such a great sport.
If you know someone that could use some of these tips, feel free to share it! I’ve also done some writing about the top catfish rod and reel combos and how to humanely kill a fish, if you could use a change of pace.