That moment when line comes taut and hook snaps forward to split lip and bone, sending the mighty whiskered quarry digging deep and hard, is like that moment when bat or golf club meets the sweet spot on a ball—sweet indeed unless something goes awry, sweetness mysteriously slips left or right, and the ball goes careening into a terrified crowd.
I actually fish with a few guys like former president Gerald Ford. Now I don’t know if old Jerry is much of an angler, but those of you who remember him as a duffer know he beaned more spectators than—well, Lee Trevino once said the fairway was a hellava lot safer than most of the crowd when Jerry took the tee.
Lots of fellers I fish with, well, you don’t want to stand nearby when they go to settin’ a hook, for the swing and miss that are fairly certain to follow, could get you a rod wrapped around your face. Rod-wrap welts, it’s safe to say, don’t go over that well in church on Sunday mornings, what with everyone staring at you and wondering what happened, instead of listening to the sermon the preacher probably worked real hard on. Not that I’d know anything firsthand about rod-wrap welts, mind you—really, my bottom lip and the lower lobe on my left ear always look like this. I would say, though, some days, depending on who you share bank or boat with, catfishing is more dangerous than a front row seat at a professional wrestling match.
I long ago suspected that I had a lot to learn about hooks, and that doing so would improve my fishing, when I began to see that the grand daddy cat hook of them all, the O’Shaugnessy, wasn’t quite the hook all the old boys said it was. Incredibly versatile, a real fine all-around hook, yes. But the perfect hook for every situation, heavens no. Even for trotlining, where the hook is real fine for most situations, it isn’t the toughest hook a feller might choose if he’s after monster catfish. Not that most fellers who trotline are after monster catfish.
Once you begin to take hooks seriously. Once you spend time considering design features, one hook style versus another. Once you experiment with various hooks given the situations you fish. Once you really get with it and study how physics might even be applied to the logic behind choosing the right hook for the situation at hand. Well, the subtleties of design in catfish hooks could keep you wondering and experimenting for the rest of your life. (Which is what I’m aiming for right now.)
Take the design of the O’Shaugnessy, for example. The little-bit-longer shank makes it easy for a feller to grab and bait a hook—time after time after time, which is the case with trotlining. The relatively wide gap also makes it an easy fit for baits that might range, depending on the season, from grasshoppers to cutbait, to chunks of Ivory Soap.
On the other hand, the hook’s such an ancient design that it’s built a little bit heavy in every corner, from shank to bend to barb. The barb certainly needs to be reduced to make it easy to slide through livebaits, whether large or small. The hook’s also too heavy to make it easy for smaller livebaits to swim seductively. And even in small sizes, the design is just too heavy to do well with small baits like those little red-legged grasshoppers that are such a fine option starting in about late July.
If the hook were thinner, however, it would aggravate a problem already inherent in the design. The longer shank, you see, already offers big fish more than enough leverage to bend the hook out in a few situations. Hundreds of trotline and longline anglers have been astounded over the years to find 12/0 O’Shaugnessys bent straight by big catfish. But then it really doesn’t take a catfish that big to bend this design. A friend once had a 32-pound flathead just about to get free from a 10/0 O’Shaugnessy, which the fish had just about straightened at the end of a log line.
All-Around Designs For Most Situations
So no hook, not even the venerable O’Shaugnessy, is perfect for every situation. Each design makes more or less sense for certain situations. I haven’t changed my mind, though, about the basic hook style I’ve recommended since I began writing about catfish more than 20 years ago. I’ve caught thousands and thousands of catfish of all sizes up to 50 pounds on the Mustad 92671 and the Eagle Claw 84, hooks so similar it’s hard for most folks to tell them apart. Most major hook companies offer a hook of a somewhat similar design. With its slightly shorter hook shank and slightly lighter wire, it’s a design even more versatile than the O’Shaugnessy as a rod and reel hook. Everything an O’Shaugnessy can do, this design does better, except perhaps outmuscle the most monstrous fish.
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The advantages of this design are many. First, this hook style is among the most popular ever offered, so it’s easy to get. I walked into baitshops, tackle stores, or supermarts in eight major metro areas during my spring seminar travels last winter and never failed to find either or both, the 92671 and the 84 in sizes up to about 3/0.
The 3/0 size is my favorite all-around choice for most situations with cutbait. For smaller channel cats, I rarely go smaller than 1/0. If you fish for flatheads with livebait, you’ll need hooks in sizes up to at least 7/0, and perhaps up to and including 10/0. The Eagle Claw 84 and Mustad 92671 are both offered in sizes up to and including 10/0. Only serious catfish shops in flathead country stock 7/0 to 10/0 hooks. But, again, this hook design is so readily available that baitshop owners should have an easy time getting the larger sizes if you ask.
Economy is another major advantage. Catfish anglers often lose lots of hooks. In quantities of 100, these hooks rarely cost more than about a dime apiece, while most of today’s fancier options are priced at ten times that. Cabelas (800/237-4444) offers the Mustad 92671 in quantities of 100 and in sizes up to and including 7/0. Memphis Net and Twine (800/238-6380) offers the Eagle Claw 84 in sizes up to 9/0, which in quantities of 100 are about 14 cents apiece.
These are not from-the-factory needle-sharp hooks. You need to invest in a good steel file. Run the file a few times along the base of point and barb and then along the top edge of the hook point. It really doesn’t pay to hone hooks to needle sharpness because such a point often bends or breaks when it encounters bone. “Just sharp” usually sinks easily into soft flesh and also slides easily through baitfish and cutbait.
These hooks really aren’t designed to pull stumps, although often as not, you might get the job done. They would not, however, work well for large fish on setlines, where a catfish can get leverage against something stiff, like a tree limb. I also wouldn’t use them for muscling huge flatheads from heavy cover with heavy test superline. Still, in all the years I’ve fished with the hooks—often around heavy cover—I’ve never actually had one bend out. Said another way, I’ve broken a ton of 50-pound line horsing fish, but never have straightened a hook. They are a a hook sturdy enough for 95 percent of the fishing most of you will ever do.
Slightly Modified Designs
Plenty of other sturdy hook designs, slight modifications on the same basic theme as the 84 and the 92671, may perform better for you in certain situations. Surely you realize, too, that much of this becomes a matter of personal preference, a matter of subjective choice that might be argued each morning in the coffee shop, and never resolved.
Like the two old boys who I used to hear in the booth next to me each morning. Friends, they were, but one, a surly old newspaper publisher, was a potential client of the other, a paper salesman. At least once a week they’d argue about paper prices, and out of absolute duty, for the salesman was salesman to the core, the salesman would pitch the publisher, who hadn’t been buying from the salesman for years. So one day I asked the salesman when it would stop, when he would quit trying to sell the publisher, and when the publisher would quit trying to squeeze a price break out of him. Will either of you every win? I asked. Depends who dies first, he replied.
I like the extra gap offered by a hook like the Eagle Claw 042, in situations that also call for lighter wire, but not wire so light as the wire offered by Aberdeen hooks. The 042 in a #2 or #4, for example, is a better choice than the more standard Aberdeen whenever you want to fish small grasshoppers and think you might also tangle with bigger catfish. An Aberdeen will hold a 10-pound cat when you’re fishing nightcrawlers during spring, but they often won’t hold the same fish when it’s in a much more feisty state in August.
On the other hand, if you’re on a tiny stream full of nothing but one-pound cats, the gap on a 042 is too much to hook those fish consistently. The 042 in (#1/0, 2/0, or 3/0) also is a good frog hook and a fair hook used as an alternative to Kahle-style hooks when you want to slide many small chunks of bait on a hook, as is often the case for blue cats during winter.
The 042 also makes a good replacement hook (#1, #2, or #4) for the treble hook that is standard rigging with most plastic dipbait worms. If you’re on lots of fish with dip rigs, extracting a single hook becomes much easier. Most octopus-style hooks, around #1, also make good replacements for trebles. With your file, though, reduce the barb on these replacements, making them even easier to remove. Actually, I usually reduce the barbs on all my hooks. It doesn’t take much of a barb to hold a catfish.
Surely even this short discussion of only one modified design among a dozen or more begins to show how far we could take a thorough discussion of the potential for each hook. Again, no hook does it all perfectly, although many hooks can do most of it well.
The classic wide-gap design has long been one of the most popular catfish hooks in many areas of the country, used by anglers in those areas as an all-around hook for most fishing situations. The unusual design of this hook style, however, sets it far apart from all-purpose hooks like the Mustad 92671, Eagle Claw 84, or O’Shaugnessy. As one might therefore expect, they work superbly in some situations, modestly in others.
This design is, by the way, often called a Kahle. The term Kahle, though, technically applies only to the wide-gap design offered by Eagle Claw. Kahle is the registered trademark for their wide-gap hooks. So the wide-gap designation is more accurate for the range of hooks that fall within this category.
Most companies offer a range of wide-gap hooks. Eagle Claw offers the L141 in sizes from 12 through 7/0. Mustad offers the 37140 (and 37160) in sizes from 14 through 6/0. VMC offers their 9800 in sizes from 14 through 6/0, and Gamakatsu their “shiner hook” from 6 through 6/0.
In smaller sizes for use with nightcrawlers, cut up minnows, or grasshoppers, I would chose the wide-gap design every time over a hook like the Aberdeen. The wide gap is a much sturdier design and hooks fish as well or better than the Aberdeen. In larger sizes, the wide gap is easily the best design for presenting a bunch of smaller chunks of cutbait all packed on the same hook. The presumed advantage is the additional scent or taste offered by the extra chunks that wouldn’t fit on all-around hooks.
This design also works well fished on the bottom in current, for it usually keels itself so the hook point lies downcurrent, the direction from which the fish will most naturally take the bait. But it doesn’t work well with an individual strip of cutbait, unless it’s one individual square chunk, for a strip often doubles itself back over the hook point, making it difficult to set the hook into a catfish’s mouth. One of the all-around designs is a much better choice for presenting a piece of cutbait, which remains perhaps the finest all-around bait for channel cats and blues, winter, spring, summer, or fall, in every body of water in which these fish swim. Still, I know many anglers out there would argue vehemently that the wide gap is the finest all-around catfish hook of all. She’s a good one, all right.
The circle hook has long been a favorite in saltwater, particularly among commercial longline fishermen. The hook has, however, seen only limited use in freshwater, particularly among rod-and-reel anglers. A few setline anglers have used them extensively and successfully over the years.
The circle design works efficiently when a fish pulls steadily away from an anchored line. It’s a superb hook, for example, for catfish anglers who set loglines, limblines, and bankpole lines. Once the hook’s in a catfish’s mouth (or gullet), it slips and slides without catching hold until it reaches the corner of the mouth. There, the struggling fish grinds the hook home. Once set, it’s impossible for a fish to get free, unless the hook tears through, which is rare.
The circle design also works well when a rod-and-reel angler applies steady pressure against a fish that has taken a bait. Instead of lifting the rod tip sharply to set the hook in traditional fashion, steady pressure must be applied by pointing the rod tip at the fish and reeling to tighten the line. When the line tightens and the hook catches the corner of the mouth, the rod tip can be lifted firmly, but never sharply. A traditional hookset in which the rod tip is snapped upward and back usually rattles a circle hook right out of a fish’s mouth.
The most popular designs among setliners are classic saltwater designs like the Mustad 39960, which is the same hook I often use when fishing with livebait for tarpon or cutbait for sharks in the Florida Keys. The most popular size setline hook is a 12/0 or 13/0, again, the same size hook I often use in saltwater. I mention that because the hook easily handles 150-pound tarpon and sharks surpassing 500. Aside from the sure-hooking factor and the fact that catfish usually are hooked in the corner of the mouth, this hook offers little chance of bending under pressure from even the largest catfish.
Hooks like the 39960, the Eagle Claw 190, and the VMC 9788 are, however, perhaps a bit much for many or most rod-and-reel situations. The point here, though, and as we continue discussing circle hooks, is that right now no one really knows which circle designs are the best for each situation as they apply to rod-and-reel fishing.
The emerging consensus among our staff seems to be that modified circle designs, which offer more hook gap than the three classic designs just mentioned, offer the most potential. Probably. But modified designs also vary significantly from one hook to another. Note, for example, the obvious design differences between the Eagle Claw 787 (probably the most available modified design on the market right now), the Gamakatsu Octopus Circle, and the Owner Mutu Light. I doubt that these hooks perform the same in each of many situations.
But it will take time to sort this out. All the modified designs are, of course, much easier to bait up than classic designs. A modified design, though, isn’t so likely to always hook fish in the corner of the mouth, although that’s not a factor for catfish anglers who aren’t interested in releasing catfish.
So far it appears that circle hooks can be substituted for “regular” hooks in almost every catfishing situation. Again, though, the important thing is not to set the hook but to apply steady tension first and then lift firmly but not sharply. This can be accomplished in several ways. If a fish is just out there biting, but not moving away, drop your rod tip toward the fish, reel until the line comes tight, and continue reeling as you lift the rod tip firmly but not sharply. If the fish is moving away, pick up the rod, point the rod tip at the fish, let the line come tight as you begin reeling, and continue reeling as you lift the rod tip.
One advantage of circle hooks is that with a rod in a rod holder a catfish that picks up a bait and runs often will set the hook itself. At that point, just pick up the rod and lift. Don’t sharply set. Most bank sticks aren’t set in the ground firmly enough for this to work, but several times I’ve propped my rod behind a log and had it work.
This works best with rods set in rod holders firmly anchored on the gunnel of a boat. Say you have seven or eight rods positioned around a pontoon, for example, with the rods in holders so the rod tips are positioned just above horizontal. A rod tip starts to bounce, then goes “thump,” indicating that a catfish has firmly taken hold. This is when we normally would grab the rod and set the hook. In this case, though, let the fish continue to move away against the bending rod tip. The hook just naturally sets. You need only to lift the rod from the holder and start reeling and lifting at the same time.
It’s almost that simple, although as you might imagine, many nuances arise given different situations, different sinker set ups, different baits, and on and on. Sometime within the next year, or perhaps for the 2001 Catfish Guide, we’ll do an article that focuses entirely on circle hooks.
If there’s a problem with circle hooks from my perspective, it’s that setting the hook is no longer part of the fishing equation. It’s almost like setlining with a rod and reel. And I haven’t quite decided whether or not I like that. After all, the moment when line comes taut and hook snaps forward, splitting lip and bone, sending the mighty whiskered quarry digging deep and hard, is perhaps the most magical moment in fishing.
Unless, of course, you’re standing behind Bubba when he swings and misses and you have to answer all those question about those embarrassing rod-wrap welts across your face—not that, I want to assure you once again, I’d really know anything at all about that firsthand. Really, my lower lip and the lobe on my right ear always look like cauliflower gone bad.