So much is written about fishing techniques, the latest rods and lures, and of course seasonal patterns. But one aspect of our sport is always overlooked, and it may be the most important one—getting that little steel point into a fish’s mouth—setting the hook.
How many times have you felt the tell-tale tap on the end of your Texas-rigged bait, reeled down, then hauled back with enough force to move a Peterbuilt, only to realize the bass was swimming toward you? Where did the rod tip end up? If you applied any force at all, it probably wasn’t enough to bury the barb. You know the result: a jump, a splash, and slack line.
There’s an alternative to the standard hook-set that we all know and hate. It’s called the “reel set.” When learning to fish, most anglers are taught that when a fish bites, you should jerk the rod hard to pull the hook through the fish’s mouth. For youngsters fishing with bait, this works fine. Most of the time, a fish picks up the offering and starts to swallow, allowing for a solid set, even if there’s slack line.
But when you start bass fishing, things change. In this art, weedless and semi-weedless rigs are the norm. For this reason, hooking fish becomes more difficult. Only with additional force are we able to bring the hook point through the softbait or bend down the weedguard to expose the hook point, then drive it home.
The Standard Method
The standard method of setting the hook with a worm or jig is to reel down toward the water, wait for a bit of pressure, then rear back with the rod. If a bass is swimming away with the bait, slack is removed and you generally hook the fish. But if a fish swims toward the boat or at some angle other than away from the boat, you’re in trouble.
Setting the hook on this kind of bite normally results in the rod going overhead. You have no alternative but to lower the rod, reel, and try to keep pressure on the fish. If slack is available at any point in that process, the fish is generally missed.
The Reel Set Method
A reel set is the solution. After sensing a bite, lower the rod tip to the water where the line enters. Then start reeling as fast as you can. Once you feel the rod starting to bend, set the hook with a short, fast stroke. With this method, your rod is never out of position and you’re in constant contact with the fish as you set. It’s that simple.
Why does it work? Most reels of today can take up more than 20 inches of line with each turn of the handle, with an average around 24 inches. Some fast-retrieve models surpass 30 inches. Assuming you get only 5 handle turns, you have moved 120 inches (10 feet) of line through the water before even setting the hook.
Compare that to a 90-degree swing with a 7-foot rod, which moves 11 feet of line. Yes, the swing set moves one more foot of line. But the rod ends up overhead, so you have to reel down while trying to keep tension with the rod to avoid giving slack line. Because you’re not exerting much pressure on the fish, it has more opportunity to dive into cover and get free.
With a reel set, you’re always in control, with your rod in front of you, exerting maximum pressure. Often, you don’t even have to set the hook in the classical sense when using a reel set. Speedily turning the handle drives it home, especially with today’s super-sharp spears.
Anglers lament losing fish on big swimbaits and frogs more than other lure types. The reel set is by far the best approach when fishing them because you must move the lure in the fish’s mouth to sink hooks. Although this hook-set may require a trip or two on the water to master, your hook-up ratio rises dramatically once you do.
Terry Battisti, Idaho Falls, Idaho, is an avid bass angler and freelance outdoor writer. He has written several features for In-Fisherman and Bass Guide.