Text by Gordon van der Spuy, photos by Leonard Flemming
In my last piece (Tools of the Trade) I spoke about fly tying tools that will make tying life easy. Initially I thought of doing a piece on hooks, threads and basic materials but in retrospect I’ve decided against it. I’d rather cover each separately and give each facet a bit of TLC.
I want to talk about hooks now. This might seem crazy writing a whole article just on this but believe me, the subject could take up a few books, never mind one article. Most people starting out select hooks based on the patterns they wish to tie, often religiously following the labels on hook packaging. It is one of those aspects in tying that very often gets little more than a passing thought and it shouldn’t.
The hook is the foundation of your fly, the skeleton, a proverbial blank canvas if you will. It is the most important part of the fly, period! Without it you’re practising casting as opposed to actually fishing.
The hook you use depends on the function of the fly you’re tying and not the pattern, because that’s limiting. Thinking about the fly’s function first and then tying it accordingly is the way to go.
You actually need to know something about fly design before you start tying. This is where most people do things in reverse. Most tying manuals preach patterns as opposed to common sense. They teach tying by numbers as opposed to teaching us how to think logically about this stuff. Tying is logic when you think about it.
Tying a delicate dry fly on a wet fly hook with a very thick wire gauge would be counterproductive for instance because the fly would sink thereby negating its function. You see, function determines the hook choice.
Alternatively tying a bulky dry like a foam hopper actually requires a heavier hook; the heavy foam will topple the fly over onto its back if it’s tied on a light wire hook. The heavier hook helps work against this weight displacement and keeps the fly the right way up in the drift. Hook choice has everything to do with the function of the pattern you intend tying. Don’t forget that.
Sometimes I’ll purposefully tie a dry on a heavier hook but then just adapt the tying to keep the fly floating. Species like yellowfish can be very unforgiving on soft hooks, you need to find the balance between a fine wired hook and strength. I’m currently playing around with the Fulling Mill Barbless Comp hooks and can tell you that they’re tough as nails. I’ve also found the Gamakatsu fly tying hooks to be great but one does need to file down the barbs. However, what I’ve always found odd is that the freshwater hooks are not that readily available. Herman Botes introduced me to them years ago. I used to get them in the Carp section in Mias in Randburg when I still lived in Johannesburg. They are very fine and very strong albeit being a bit pricy.
I often get asked what hooks I recommend and my answer is always this, hooks that hook and hold fish well. Assuming that all hooks hook and hold fish equally well is a dangerous assumption. They simply don’t.
Most hooks are manufactured in the East in places like China, Japan and Korea. We’re talking mass-production, which doesn’t mean they’re bad but there are hook manufacturers that concentrate on quantity rather than quality.
It is commonly believed that the Europeans make a better hook, and yes they do make good hooks (when they’re actually making them), but there are those European ‘hook manufacturers’ which simply re-label hooks that are imported from the East. So don’t think all European hooks are lovingly handmade, because they’re not. I’ve done comparative tests on a few brands of hooks and I can tell you in certain instances that the same hook is present in a few hook brands, as in identical – they likely originate from the same factory! The only thing that differs is the price.
A hook will generally have a track record, fly fisherman talk, you’ll quickly learn which hooks are good. Good guides and top class comp anglers will point them out to you. These guys are critical on hooks because their reputations depend on them.
These are a few considerations that one needs to keep in mind when buying hooks. I’m not a comp angler or a guide but to my layman brain these aspects of hook design are important:
You need enough space between the hook shank and hook point to actually hook fish. This seems obvious but then again, so do most things in life that get neglected or ignored.
Sometimes I’ll undersize the fly on the hook I’m tying on to give me a wider gape. A #20 would thus be tied on a #18 hook but I’ll just use less of the hook shank. I tend to do this for smaller flies where limited gape size can become an issue.
These need to be long and sharp. Beak points on dries are not ideal. I actually straighten them out whilst still in the vice. I don’t know why, but my hook-up rate is better when I do this. Maybe it has to do with how the fish takes the fly when eating a dry. Beak points on nymphs are not an issue.
I’m not a fan of ultra-long shanks like in the hooks traditionally used for old school Carrie Stevens-style streamers, they offer the fish too much leverage in the fight. I prefer a shorter stouter hook but then just tie the actual fly longer by dressing it accordingly. You can still get a big fly but just with a shorter hook. Try it.
I like forged hooks and don’t like hooks that have too much give in them. If you can bend a hook straight in the vice avoid it. Soft hooks are just not cool especially when targeting species like yellowfish.
I also prefer barbless hooks; I don’t think barbs have a place in modern fly fishing although I know a few people who will strongly disagree with me. Mind you, micro barbs are less of an issue, those harpoon-like barbs are a major problem preventing penetration and a proper hook set, and they also injure fish. One can always flatten barbs but I think filing them away is a better option.
Hooks need to be finished off well. There is a certain brand of European hook which is a really good hook but their eyes are always finished off badly with sharp edges protruding from the joining point. This ends up cutting the thread when finishing the fly off. Anyone who’s tied flies on these hooks and who’s reading this knows exactly which hooks I’m talking about. This is very irritating. These hooks also seem to be inconsistent, individual hooks varying quite drastically. Not exactly cool when you want to tie a row of identical flies.
In terms of hooks eyes I’d say straight eyes are first prize with down-eyed hooks coming in a close second place. Straight eyed hooks offer the most direct line of attack in terms of hooking fish. Up-eyed hooks are counter-productive, the line of attack is all wrong when you strike. Tiers of old used to use a turtle knot, threading the tippet through the eye and tying the knot on the actual hook shank not unlike a nail knot. They’d leave space up front when tying the fly to accommodate this. This would correct this wrong line of attack issue.
You’ll find yourself tying on down-eyed hooks most of the time though, straight-eyed hooks are not all that common. Why not bend them you might be thinking? Well, it doesn’t work, I’ve tried, the hooks break. You can bend hooks on the actual shank but the eye area is a no go especially on smaller hooks.
Junior Czech competition coach Jiri Petjar likes bending Hanak H130 BL dry hooks to turn them into jig hooks. He doesn’t trust conventional jig hooks and prefers the super light wire of these hooks as a slimmer more aquadynamic nymph can be tied on them.
Jig hooks in conjunction with slotted beads are designed to fish point up. Great when fishing places like the Vaal or Orange where your flies need to be on the bottom most of the time. Snagged flies are a big problem; jigs prevent this to a large extent resulting in you fishing more and spending less time saving flies. I normally fish jigs on the point with the other flies up the cast, the flies up the cast are lighter and offer slightly more resistance on the sink to ensure I’m fishing the flies in a line as opposed to having angles in the leader. Takes are easier to detect when you’re in direct contact with the flies.
Some guys tie jigs like the old tiers did it using a normal hook but then attaching the bead on top of the hook shank at the eye with a ‘thickish’ piece of melted mono. Hans van Klinkens’ cased caddis is tied like this. Phillip Meyer from Winelands Flyfishing ties his really small jigs like this too. The shape of conventional jig hooks tends to occlude the hook gape in the smaller sizes hence this method of tying small jigs. More bead sizes are also a possibility on these old-school style jigs, a big bonus.
Comp anglers are at the forefront of hook design and development. The Europeans have taken things to the next level in terms of hook design. I am always interested to see what hooks the top Comp anglers are tying on. These guys rely on their hooks more than the rest of us as numbers of fish caught are important to them when competing.
Numbers are not important for me personally, I‘m a stream stroller, but when it comes to statistics then numbers do become important hence me seeking advice from the numbers guys. They are very critical on their hooks and they do tend to scrutinise them very thoroughly, well, Gary Glenn Young at least. This guy is what one could term a scientific angler in the truest sense of the term. How many guys do you know that weigh their tungsten beads?
In the final analysis, hooks need to be determined by the type of fishing you’re doing and the function of the fly. Don’t blindly follow the label on the packaging because hook manufacturers or re-packers do get it wrong from time to time. Look at the hooks before you buy them and ask yourself the relevant question. Will these hooks perform the function they need to? You don’t want to be connected to a six kilo smallmouth yellow only to have the hook break or open up on you. Your tackle should never be the reason you failed.
Buy the best you can afford, buying the cheapest hooks available is not always the best option. In terms of value for money I’d say the new Fulling Mill Barbless comp hooks are right up there – their dry, Czech nymph, jig hooks and nymph hooks are great. You can get them from Morne Bayman at The African Fly Angler as well as Mavungana.
My only gripe is that the available hook styles are a bit limited regarding choice, they need to expand the range. That Czech nymph hook in a #18 would’ve been great for small emergers for example.
I don’t fish or tie on a specific hook brand exclusively but have favourites from various brands. Gamakatsus B10S’ are great for large trout (nice for Papa Roaches), largemouth yellows and tigerfish for instance. Troutline’s ST800 BL is an awesome streamer hook. I love the Fulling Mills Czech nymph hook and tend to use them for emergers in their smaller sizes too. Skalka offers one of the nicest dry fly hooks in the world with a lovely long, straight super sharp point.
Unfortunately not all these hooks are available locally but material importers are working on this and the range has grown dramatically over the last few years. We currently have Tiemco, Dohiku, Hanak, Knapek, Varivas, Allan, Grip, Gamakatsu, Mouche, Fulling Mill and occasionally the odd Kamasan, Daichi and Mustad hooks available. When I was a kid we tied on Mustad and little else, we used to buy them in little cardboard boxes in quantities of a hundred. They were crude, cheap and had harpoon-like barbs. Hooks have come a long way since then.
Hook choice is subjective. It’s a bit like religion in that way. If you’re not confident in the hook you’re using you’ve already lost the battle mentally. Hooks should instil confidence in you. Confidence is an important ingredient when it comes to catching fish. Buy the best you can afford, go for quality as opposed to quantity. Scrutinise hooks but do realise that hooks do have limits. Know them. Catching a 10 kg largemouth yellow on a tiny light wire #18 emerger hook designed for small stream work is asking for trouble. You won’t take down a buffalo with a pellet gun for example, hooks are no different!
They are practical implements and as such need maintenance every now and then. Sharpen them regularly. You’ll be glad you did, especially when you’re connected to that fish of a lifetime, and believe me it sometimes happens when you least expect it. Fail to plan, plan to fail. Be prepared.
Until next time
Extra tips by Leonard Flemming:
- Always sharpen new hooks
- Sharpen hooks with fine sandpaper and not a grinding stone
- Sharpen hooks by placing the tip on sandpaper and drawing the tip lightly towards you
- A sharp hook will stick to your thumbnail if it is slid down over it
- The same sandpaper should be used to file down barbs of short-shank, freshwater hooks
- Streamer hooks with micro-barbs should be used – de-barbed, long-shank streamer hooks are easily shaken out by fighting fish
- Pinch the barbs on saltwater hooks – the bump of the pinched barb provides sufficient resistance, preventing the hook from slipping out while fighting the fish on a taut line
- All saltwater flies should be rinsed thoroughly in freshwater and sprayed with 100% silicone spray to prevent corrosion after use
- If a brand works well for your purposes, stick to it until you find a hook that beats its performance (in other words, keep experimenting, taking tips from experienced anglers into consideration while fishing your trusted methods)
- The Mustad Stainless 34007 series are pliable and can be bent in the vice to suit your fly, such as jig-style flies
- Circle hooks hook fish well, but do not get stuck easily on the bottom and are by far the best choice for control flies when Czech nymphing for yellowfish
- Colour shiny, silver hooks with a black marker – most fish do not respond well to a shiny hook