The Pointy End
Considering the point of the hook is the little part keeping you connected in the whole equation, I reckon it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time making sure all your hook points are sharp, strong and the right shape to help you catch that fish of a life time. Having sharp and strong hooks will not only substantially improve initial hook-up rates, but it will also help in scenarios of prolonged fight times.
From a chartering perspective (or even recreational for that matter) there are really no excuses for hook failure when you consider all the energies that go into trying catch that illusive big fish. There’s plenty of other things that can go astray without being let down by poor hook selection, sharpening or even shaping. For that reason alone, I always make sure every hook that goes in the water has had particular attention paid to it.
Within the New Zealand game fishing scene ‘J’ hooks are generally the most widely used due to the popularity of lure fishing amongst our recreational fleet. Target species, lure type, tackle and line weight utilised obviously all spring to mind when selecting the right ‘J’ hook for the job. As with many fishing topics there’s certainly no right or wrong, just strong opinions and with the selection of hooks on the market today fisherman are certainly spoilt for choice. Hook penetration is the underlying theme when selecting the right hook for the job and ability of the hook to ‘find its mark’ and stay there for the entire fight.
One well known Australian lure maker actively promotes the use of light gauge hooks in his lures, especially when targeting our “needle-nose” striped marlin with 30lb-50lb tackle. We’re all well aware how difficult hooking striped marlin on lures can be on occasions, his views of having fine yet incredibly sharp hooks certainly make sense. As a whole New Zealanders generally use pretty heavy gauge hooks when targeting striped marlin and have taken quite a bit of convincing in regard to the Australians lure makers views, as a result hook up rates are generally compromised for the use of heavier/stronger hooks on medium lines classes. I’m sure many New Zealanders would be pleasantly surprised what you’re able to catch with some of the lighter gauged hooks commonly used by our overseas friends.
Obviously it’s a little different on the heavier line classes such as 80 and 130lb or when targeting the bigger blue and black marlin. In this situation heavier gauge hooks certainly have their advantages when the heavier drags are applied... especially over prolonged fights. The lesser penetration of heavier gauged hooks can be compensated somewhat by the heavier drag settings.
When choosing hook sizes for lures, there’s a rule of thumb bandied around that the gape of the hook should match the size of the lure head. I generally don’t buy into this theory too much myself, but I’m sure there are better lure fishermen around than me that may disagree. I’d rather consider target species and the line class used when selecting hook sizes, the lure itself really doesn’t come into it in my reckoning. In my books you’re asking a lot of 50lb drag settings if you’re trying to sink bigger hooks on a regular basis... no matter how big or small the lure is or how well you think you can sharpen hooks.
You’ve obviously got a little bit more leeway with heavier tackle drag settings in attempting to sink the bigger sized hooks, but in saying that I’m really not a fan of using bigger hooks for striped marlin full stop, bigger blue and black marlin yes certainly, but not stripes. Hooking stripes regularly on bigger hooks (9/0 and up) no matter what tackle you choose can sometimes be a frustrating and forgettable experience all round and with this in mind some of the popular Australian lure makers views on smaller/finer hooks for stripes certainly makes a lot of sense in my book.
The majority of heavier gauge ‘J’ hooks available at good tackle stores generally require quite a bit of work before use and in a lot of cases these hooks come off the shelf in a pretty blunt and unsuitable form. Hook manufacturers generally leave them this way so fisherman around the globe can sharpen or re-shape them how they best see fit. We fisherman can be a pretty opinionated bunch and there’s certainly more than one way to skin a cat. I can certainly recall a few fellow fisherman showing me hooks that they considered to be sharp, some of which I wouldn’t dream of having out the back of my boat. This certainly doesn’t make me right or wrong just simply and example of how differing people like their hooks sharpened or re-shaped. Hence many hook manufacturers leave the finishing touches up to us opinionated individuals.
Most of the chemically sharpened options don’t require any work at all and in fact you end up doing more harm than good if you try to alter the point in any form. Some of these chemically sharpened options can lose their point over extended periods of trolling due to electrolysis; small zinc stickers work a treat with minimising electrolysis in this situation. These little zinc stickers generally aren’t that readily available amongst New Zealand tackle stores and are easier found on some of the more popular internet shopping sites for fishing gear... they certainly work and at a small price can be the difference in hooking or missing that much anticipated bite.
Prior to any game fishing season I always make sure all my tackle is prepared and ready to go, right from the tip of my riggers down to my bait catching gear. This includes all the hooks I intend to use for the season, whether they are ‘J’s’, circles or chemically sharpened they’re all ready to be used, the last thing I want is my crew having to sharpen hooks at sea. Other than the fact of getting metal shards and fillings through the paint work of your boat, you’ll simply never sharpen a game fishing hook as well as you will in a vice on a work bench. Most, if not all stainless steel or galvanised steel hooks (straight off the shelf) require a substantial amount of work and you’ll simply never do it justice unless you have a vice and good quality file (usually around No. 6) to sharpen or re shape it.
Most ‘J’ hooks are purchased with anything from blunt points, to barbs that are too big, being too bulky around the ‘shoulder’ area or the length between the point and barb is simply too long. How you alter these little issues basically comes down to considering what tackle you intend using, target species and probably a quite bit of personal preference too – all points already discussed. Trying to sink a hook with a bulky point and big barb on 50lb tackle will simply do you no favours what so ever, verse versa having a ‘too finer’ point on 80 or 130lb tackle can have the adverse effects of points bending over, hooks straightening or
hooks that simply break.
Whatever bench vice you use, it’s always a good idea to use wood between the vice and the hook itself. Light ply works well with a vice or even a timber ‘Workmate’ bench can be a good option to, however Workmate bench don’t quite get the same purchase as a vice especially if you need to get stuck into heavier gauged hooks. Squeezing metal on metal in the vice can cause pitting and damage to the hook, whether it’s stainless or galvanised steel, both can be damaged and weakened and possibly even broken during a fight - worst case scenario.
When you’re filing the hook itself, always try and use a good quality file. Using dull files can cause any steel to heat up and weaken once again. Good files will do a much quicker, finer and better job all around. Initially running the file flat against the sides of the hook will taper back all the manufacturers grind marks and possibly even the excessive ‘shoulder’ area that so many hooks seem to have. Sometimes I find myself tapering this shoulder area right back to the bend in the hook, this is probably when you need to consider line classes used as you don’t want to weaken the point to much for the heavy line classes. Once I’m happy with the tapering on the sides, I’ll smooth/round the manufacturing marks and barb down on the underside of the hook. What I’m looking to do here is basically smoothing all the flare in the barb; I’m trying to make hook penetration as fine as possible yet still maintaining a small barb for holding.
Following this I’ll sometimes take the point back a little if I’m not happy with the length between the point and the barb itself, this again is inconsideration to your intended tackle of choice. Sometimes I find hooks off the shelf have long/weaker points and can take a lot of sinking especially on medium range tackle. In a lot of cases 2-3mm makes big difference and is plenty enough.
From here I’ll smooth/round of the top of the hook, once again normally right back to the hooks bend. I’m always looking to take of any excessive shoulder area in an attempt to increase the hooks penetration without compromising strength.
To finish the sharpening process, I use emery paper glued to paint mixing stick easily purchased from any hardware store. The emery paper or wet ‘n’ dry simply removes all the imperfections caused during filing and gives the point a polished finish. This polished finish not only improves penetration but the tiny imperfections are actually weak or wear points in steel, no matter if you use stainless or galvanised hooks. Others use diamond files to finish the job, I’m sure these work fine too as all you’re really trying to do is finish the point as fine as possible and remove any imperfections.
Galvanised hooks need to be painted or coated with a permanent maker on all areas filed or where the galvanising has been removed. Coating the hooks will slow the rusting process, it certainly won’t stop it but it will help maintain that polished finish for longer.
What I’ve described above is widely referred to as a conical point; other techniques include shaping the hook with cutting edges running the points length. I’m not really a fan of cutting edges myself as I find they tend to not only cut their way in, but also cut their way out, particularly during extended fights. I prefer the only cutting edge to be the point itself, the only way the hook can go is in. In saying that I’m also well aware some pretty good lure fisherman prefer hooks with cutting edges.
At times the process of reshaping or sharpening game hooks can take anything up to 30mins to get them perfect, another example of why you really need to be pre prepared rather than trying to sharpen them on board. I can certainly recall many seasons gone by where I’ve spent close to a week sharpening hooks for an upcoming charter season. It can be a tedious exercise at times with plenty of puncture wounds and trophy scars to show for your troubles, all of which are certainly worth while in the whole scheme of things.
Every hook that goes out the back of your boat might just be the one to get bit by that fish of a life time, in my way of thinking it’s more than worth while making sure it won’t let you down when it really matters.