We’ve all been there. The conditions are perfect. You make a cast, let the lure settle and begin your retrieve. Two turns in, you feel it. The unmistakable thud of a big fish attacking your offering. You immediately answer back with pull of your own, the rod loads a little, then nothing. Gone. You missed your opportunity. But what happened?
There are a great number of reasons why that fish came unbuttoned. Maybe it short-struck your bait, maybe it just got lucky and hit the lure, missing the hooks, maybe your fish side-bumped the lure. Who knows? One way to minimize the occurrence of missed fish is to use the proper hook set technique based on the fish you’re targeting and the style in which you fish. Whether you fish conventional tackle or on the fly, retraining your brain to do the proper hook set may take some time but it will allow you to put more fish in your net.
There are three main styles of setting the hook on fish. The lift or trout set (think bassmasters style) the sweep set and the strip strike. The lift and the sweep are great for conventional tackle and all three can be utilized when fishing on fly.
Pike. Northern pike are ambush predators meaning they will lay in wait for an opportunistic meal. Targeting pike along ambush points is key to witness their savage attacks. They will lunge forward with bursts of tremendous speed to hit their target, often striking for the head first. They will generally pause all forward momentum once contact is made and will often “turn away” from the point of contact. Lifting the lure straight up will hook fish, however in this case with conventional tackle you have more of a hook-up chance if you sweep you lure. Bringing the lure back into the fish’s jaws with a sweep set is more effective than lifting the lure out of the pike’s mouth, you could be literally pulling the lure away from them. On fly, a sweep or strip set are your best bets. Really they are one in the same it’s just a different technique with the sweep using the rod to do the setting vs pulling the line toward you in a strip set strike.
Walleye. Walleye are pack hunters often schooling up and venturing forth in search of food. They will eat when they can and often feed very differently than pike. Walleye will eat minnows, crayfish and leeches to name a few. The nature of walleye’s prey is such that much of it is stationary. Insects and leeches can’t really “make a run for it” so many times a walleye will simply inhale its meal and not turn like a pike. Therefore most times, a lift set will suffice to hook walleye as opposed to a strip set or a sweep which has more of an opportunity to pull the lure or fly out of their mouths.
Brook Trout. There is a reason for a lift set to also be called the trout set. Simply, its often the most effective way to hook specks. Much like the walleye, a brook trout will be opportunistic in its eating habits. Sitting in current awaiting an insect or fish to pass by simply opening its mouth and taking it in. Current acts much like a food conveyer belt. Therefore the lift or trout set is deadly for brook trout. The only time a different kind of hook set technique is effective for brook trout is when you are swinging flies for them in rivers. This is when a strip or sweep set will be more effective. When swinging flies, often a brook trout will be more aggressive in its attack moving out of the feeding lane to eat. They will then return quickly to their feeding lane. That movement generally away from where the fish ate back to the feeding lane suggests a sweep or strip set is your best bet.
If you are only used to one certain kind of hook set, it may take a bit of practice to retrain your brain on which set to use in which condition. BUT, once you’re comfortable and confident in those three hook sets, it will become second nature to you and will bring more fish to your net.