I had just lost one of the biggest channel catfish of my career. I stood on the bank of the river staring at half a fishing hook dangling from the end of my line, and realized I didn't know enough about hooks.
I'd been fishing for "eater" channel cats, using a 1/0 bait-keeper to drift gobs of chicken liver alongside brushpiles in a small river. That rod, reel, and line combination, right down to the hook, had been bulletproof all summer. The hook had impressed me with its durability. It was a little misshapen from using pliers to wrench it from the jaws of dozens of catfish, but always bent back into a basic hook shape and kept catching catfish—until the encounter with the big one. Closer examination showed it had broken at one of the bends where I'd straightened and re-straightened it.
"We can talk about the type of hook an angler uses, the size of the hook, the metallurgy, the tempering, and all the other things that go into manufacturing quality fishing hooks, but one of the biggest problems is the way anglers handle a hook when they release fish," says Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish. "Catfish have tough mouths, and one of the biggest causes of hook failure is using a pair of pliers to pry hooks out of catfishes' mouths. If you mar or scar that hook, nick it so you can see shiny metal, or bend and re-bend it, you've created a potential weak spot that could fail the next time you hook a big fish."
Replacing hooks that show even minor signs of mechanical damage now is a no-brainer for me. But even greater gains in catfishing success came from taking time to understand how different hooks work, and the best way to use each type. That's because different baits, presentations, and conditions favor different hooks, sometimes manufactured with different techniques and metals.
Metallurgy & Materials
Nearly all catfish hooks are made of either high-carbon steel, steel-vanadium alloys, or stainless steel. Some catfish anglers favor stainless-steel, but higher-priced hooks are generally made for saltwater fishing where corrosion-resistance is needed. Steel alloys are the province of freshwater hooks, and the metallurgy in carbon steel or vanadium alloy hooks can be complex.
"Some hook manufacturers include the carbon rating written on the inside of their packaging," says Ron Stallings, TTI-Blakemore product specialist. "Tru-Turn hooks are 60-carbon steel. Daiichi hooks are rated at 80. XPoints are 110. Higher ratings don't mean they're better, just stronger for their weight. If you're crappie fishing using light jigs, a higher carbon hook is stronger, but weighs less than an equivalent low-carbon hook."
The strength and flexibility of hooks go hand in hand with the diameter of the wire. Wire diameter affects not only strength and flexibility, but also the speed with which the point penetrates a fish's mouth. "Our 7385 Tournament Circle Hook, for example, has a relatively thin wire for faster penetration, but has strength for any catfish because it's made of a vanadium-steel alloy," says Cyrille Mathieu, vice president of sales and marketing for VMC hooks. "It was designed for saltwater billfishing. Our 8382 Nemesis Circle Hook also uses a vanadium-steel alloy, and comes in 1/0 through 10/0. It's popular in Europe with anglers who fish for huge wels catfish because it has great penetration and tremendous strength."
Penetration is also affected by the type of hook point. In today's market, all quality hooks come from the factory with points sharp enough to be suitable for fishing without sharpening, though different manufacturing processes affect sharpness and penetration.
"Our hooks are chemically washed to give them needle points," says Joe Quiocho, sales manager with Gamakatsu. "Points are mechanically formed, then washed with chemicals that erode a uniform layer from the surface of the metal so the points end up needle-sharp."
Forged hooks, such as Eagle Claw's general-purpose 181 J-style baitholder, have knife-like points, while their Trokar line of hooks feature points surgically sharpened to penetrate faster. "Trokars have been proven to penetrate up to 50 percent faster than a standard needle-point hook, and needle points are already fast," says Eagle Claw's Eric Chaney. "Trokars are more expensive, but they're popular with tournament catfish anglers who are willing to pay for every possible advantage."
Years ago, it was common to re-sharpen dull hooks, but today's hooks may actually be harmed by sharpening. "Needle-point hooks, where the cross-section of the point is round, shouldn't be re-sharpened," says Eagle Claw's Mike Rosasko. "Forged points, like our traditional Eagle Claw hooks, have more of a knife point, and can be resharpened. Trokars, with a three-edged point, shouldn't be re-sharpened. When in doubt, just replace the hook. New Trokar hooks are always sharp."
Shapes & Styles
The shape of hooks, from their eye, down the shank, around the bend, and back up to the barbed point is a frequent topic of discussion among catfish anglers. Many of us started as children fishing with long-shanked hooks to make it easier for our father, uncle, or mentor to unhook the fish we caught. Long shanks work great for small-mouthed fish like bluegills but give big catfish an unfair mechanical advantage. Imagine a hook with a long shank protruding from a big catfish's jaw. If the fish makes a sudden right angle movement opposite the direction of the hook's bend, the length of the hook's shank provides mechanical leverage that may pivot the hook free of the jaw. That's why short-shanked hooks are favored by setline anglers that tie their lines to tree limbs, bankpoles, or other objects. With long-shanked hooks, fish hooked for long periods of time can eventually find the perfect angle to lever it from their mouth
A different kind of leverage is the basis for specially designed hook shanks, such as Tru-Turn hooks or Eagle Claw's L045R rotating worm hook, which have an extra kink or bend in their shank compared to traditional J-shaped hooks. Pull between partially closed fingers a fishing line tied to either of those hooks. As the bent segment of the hook passes between the fingers, it creates a cam action that pivots the hook 30 to 90 degrees. In a fish's mouth, that cam action increases the chance the hook point encounters flesh for a solid hook-set.
Circle hooks are another type of hook designed to increase hookups. At first glance, the inward-turned point (the hook point is pointed inward perpendicular to the hook shaft) looks like it would never catch and penetrate a fish's mouth. But if you steadily pull a circle hook between two fingers on a length of line attached to the hook, it pivots as it moves over a finger (or over a fish's jawbone) in a position to embed. The resistance of the fish pulling embeds the hook, usually in the corner of its mouth.
"Circle hooks require a special technique to set the hook in the fish's mouth, but nearly ensure a hook-set if you do it right," Williams says. "One way is to have the rod in a rod holder, with the bait-clicker off. The fish takes the bait, the rod loads as the tip bends almost to the water before you pick it up and start reeling. Don't set the hook in a traditional sense. The other way is to hold the rod and let the fish pull against you until it's a steady pull, then start reeling. The main thing to understand with circle hooks is that if you do a traditional hook-set with a sudden jerk of the rod, you may jerk the hook out of the fish's mouth before it has time to rotate and set."
Circle hooks were originally designed for saltwater fishing, but hook manufacturers are responding to demand and now design them specifically for catfishing. "Our 39951-NP UltraPoint Demon Perfect Circle was designed for sailfishing so it's more than strong enough for the biggest flatheads or blue cats, and a lot of catfish anglers have used it for years," says Sam Root, marketing manager for Mustad Americas. "But catfishing is getting so popular that this year we released our new 39946-BN Circle Hook designed for catfish tournament fishermen. It's got a slightly longer shank, increased strength, and comes in #4 to 8/0."
Because circle hooks are somewhat finicky about the way they're "engaged," variations have appeared, such as Eagle Claw's patented Kahle-style hooks, and modified circle hook designs such as the Gamakatsu Octopus Circle and Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L7228, which have a wider gap than true circle hooks yet still have an inward turned point. Other modified designs include Team Catfish's Double Action, Whisker Seeker's Triple Threat, and Rippin' Lips Tournament Grade Circle.
In addition to fishing them like a true circle hook, you can also set modified designs with a long sweep, so they're more forgiving for beginners who set hooks in a traditional way. The modified octopus design like the L7228 fits this category, explains In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. Matt Davis, founder of Whisker Seeker Tackle, also finds that you can fish a hook such as the Triple Threat like a traditional circle hook by letting the rod load or reeling down on a fish, or by using a long, sweeping motion of the rod instead of the traditional hard, sudden jerk."
While circle hooks and variations on them have gained popularity with catfish anglers, J-hooks remain solid options in many situations. "Circle hooks don't work well under a float," Davis says. "When fishing under a float, you need to set the hook, and that's when J-hooks work well. They're sort of a universal catfish hook that works under a lot of conditions, but circle hooks offer extremely high hook-set percentages if they're used correctly." Along those lines, Stange says that when using J-hooks on set rigs on bottom, it's important to set the hook sooner and not let catfish run too long with a bait, which creates more opportunity for deep-hooking. Setting quickly after a bite or using circle hooks helps reduce deep hooking.
While circle hooks have recently dominated tournament catfishing, and J-hooks are traditional favorites, legions of catfish catchers still use treble hooks. The metallurgy, tempering, point design, barb options, and other variables of treble hooks mirror those of single hooks. The only difference is that most trebles are made by adding a single hook to a double hook and brazing the three shanks together to create three times the hooking potential—and improved bait-holding opportunities for anglers who fish punchbaits.
Punchbait enthusiasts jam bare treble hooks into tubs of thick fibrous baits and pull them out at an angle to load the hook with a dollop of pungent catfish-catching concoction. Dipbait aficionados opt for treble hooks outfitted with silicone tubes, corrugated rubber worms, or other arrangements to hold semi-liquid dipbait on their hooks. An option with dipworms is to replace the treble hook with a single J-hook or circle hook.
Trilene, Palomar, improved clinch, and uni-knots work well on catfish hooks. Snelled circle hooks have gained popularity in recent years, and "snelling makes a strong hook-to-line connection on hooks with offset eyes," says Stallings. (Offset hookeyes come in two styles: "up" eye, where the eye of the hook is at an angle away from the hook point, and "down" eye, where the eye bends toward the hook point.)
"You want the (snelled) line coming off the hook to pass straight through the eye, in-line with the shank, not coming off the backside of the eye at an angle," he says. "If you dangle a snelled hook from its line, it should hang straight or curved slightly toward the bend of the hook. If it's snelled so the hook arches away from the bend, it might not be as efficient in catching the fish's mouth." Two options for snelling hooks include the traditional snell knot and uni-knot snell knot.
Gamakatsu's Quiocho says the biggest thing to remember when standing in the aisle of a bait shop in front of racks of hooks is to select the right tool for the job. In any system incorporating multiple components, there's always a weakest link. "If everything is matched correctly, the drag on the reel should be the weak link that 'gives' before the line, rod, knot, or hook reach their breaking point," he says. "Knowing how to choose the right size and design of hook to match the fish and fishing conditions prevents your hook from being the weak link that loses a trophy fish."