You can fish with the best fishing reel, latest rod, and premium line, but none of them matter if you’re not using the right hook for the job. Those jobs, of course, range widely. The ideal hook for yellow perch will not be the same for smallmouths or monster catfish. The type of bait you’re using, the water conditions, and the average size of the species you’re targeting all factor in to hook selection. Picking a hook can seem daunting for new anglers, but all you really need is a basic understanding of fishing hook sizes, their designs, as well as an understanding of common features and styles. So, let’s start with an anatomy lesson.
Anatomy of a Fishing Hook
Fishing hooks are pretty simple in design, so much so that you might think there isn’t much to explain. But these days there are hundreds of hooks to choose from on tackle shop shelves. There’s also no such thing as the best fishing hook for every fishing scenario. Understanding the role each part plays will help you choose the right hook for the task at hand more easily, and help you figure out exactly what you need when you’re ready to get after a new species.
The eye of the hook is the point to which you connect your fishing line or leader. The orientation of the eye can vary by hook design or intended use, though the two most common eye styles are straight or bent slightly up or down, which are known as “upturned” and “downturned” eyes. These angled eyes are generally found on hooks used for bait fishing, as the bend creates a seating point for a snell knot, which is very commonly used to attach a line or leader when employing bait fishing tactics.
The shank is the part of the hook between the eye and the bend, and they vary greatly based on hook style. A long-shank hook will have more distance between bend and eye; a short-shank will have less distance. Some hooks, such as circle hooks, will have a curved shank. Just be careful not to associate long-shank with big hooks and short-shank with small hooks, as there are long-shank hooks on the market that could fit inside a dime, and short-shanks capable of landing 1,000-pound tuna.
The bend is the curved section of any hook. While most bends follow a traditional round curvature, some modern hooks also have bends created with a series of angled sections. Others start out round and abruptly meet a straight angle, as is often the case with wide-gap hooks used for bass fishing with soft-plastic lures.
Not all hooks feature a barb. Barbless hooks are very common in fly fishing for trout and on lures used to target gamefish that are frequently released. However, most hooks designed for bait fishing and bass fishing have a barb, which is a secondary point positioned below and perpendicular to the main point. Much like an arrowhead, the direction of the barb allows it to easily penetrate a fish’s mouth but makes it more difficult for the hook to be backed out of the entry point as the fish jumps and thrashes during the fight.
The point simply refers to the sharp, needle-like tip of a hook. Most hooks have a rounded point, though modern hooks can also feature multifaceted points that penetrate faster. Some points also feature laser and chemically sharpened edges that make them cut like a razor blade.
Gap refers to the distance between the tip of the point and the shank. Gap size is one of the most critical things to consider when choosing a hook, as the gap will change based on the kind of bait or lure you’re using, as well as the size of the fish’s mouth you’re targeting.
Throat refers to the distance between the tip of the point and the deepest part of the bend. The throat determines how far the hook can penetrate, and while it’s the attribute you’ll have to consider least for common tactics, some specialty hooks do exist with extra-long throats. They are most often used, however, for targeting offshore giants like marlin and tuna.
Understanding Fishing Hook Features
All hooks have an eye, shank, bend, and point, but that just covers basic anatomy. There are secondary features you must consider when picking out a the right fishing hook based entirely on the size and strength of your target. If you skip this step, it could easily lead to lost fish.
How to Understand the Difference in Fishing Hook Sizes
Obviously fishing hook size matters. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you’d want a pretty small fishing hook for bluegills and a pretty big one for muskies. But “little” and “big” don’t help you truly understand fishing hook sizing, and it trips a lot of people up. Hooks are sized by numbers ranging from 22 to 1. Here’s the fun part, though—the bigger the number, the smaller the hook. A size 22 hook, as an example, is so tiny it can be hard to see in your hand. Conversely, a size 1 can measure an inch or more. But if that wasn’t tricky enough, then you have the fractions. After a size 1, the next size bigger would be a size 1/0. The next bigger would be 2/0 and so on until you get up to 10/0. The easiest way to remember the difference is that hooks designated with fractions are heavier and usually reserved for big fish like saltwater predators, trophy catfish, and muskies. Sizes 22 through 1 are freshwater hooks, and just for some easy reference, a size 16 is ideal for trout, an 18 is perfect for panfish, and a 2 would work well for bass.
Fishing Hook Diameter (a.k.a., Fishing Hook Gauge)
Diameter—also referred to as gauge— is extremely important, as it determines the overall strength of any given hook. The thinner the diameter the more flexible and bendable the hook will be. So, why would you want a hook that can bend at all? Because diameter also determines the weight of a hook. If you’re casting a cricket for bluegills, a light-wire hook is going to do less damage to the bait, stop it from sinking too quickly, and make it appear more natural in the water. Likewise, a bluegill isn’t likely to have the strength to bend the hook straight. If, on the other hand, you’re targeting pike that require a hard hook set and have a mean head shake, you’re going to want a hook with a thicker diameter so it doesn’t bend or break.
In-line Fishing Hooks Vs. Offset Fishing Hooks
The best way to explain in-line hooks versus offset hooks is to picture two fishing hooks laying on a table. One is lying perfectly flat, but the other’s bend and point are slightly raised off the tabletop. The former is the in-line, meaning the point and bend are perfectly “in line” with the shank. The latter is the offset, meaning the point and bend are cocked slightly to one side, misaligning them from the shank. It’s a subtle difference, but the benefits of each aren’t subtle at all.
Imagine each hook in a fish’s mouth. You set and pull the hook toward you. The misaligned point of the offset hook is likely to find meat in that mouth much quicker, thus providing faster penetration and a stronger hold. Offset hooks, however, arguably do more damage to the fish’s mouth, and if the hook is accidentally swallowed, it will be more difficult to get out. For this reason, many anglers lean on offset hooks only when fishing for the table. In some states, offset hooks are illegal for some applications, such as in New Jersey when targeting striped bass with natural baits. In-line hooks, on the other hand, are not only gentler on the fish, but they’re also easier to hide in baits and often stronger that offsets.
Common Fishing Hook Styles
Now that you have a better understanding of the elements that make up a hook, you need to pick the right fishing hook style for the target species and situation. Though the amount of hook designs on tackle shop shelves is vast, these five main categories of hook cover the most common fishing scenarios and presentations.
Best For: All sizes of live bait, all sizes of cut bait, some soft-plastic lure presentations
The J hook is a fish hook in its simplest form—shaped like the letter J. Of course, you can’t get off with a definition that easy, because there’s no shortage of J hook subcategories. As examples, an Aberdeen hook is a long-shank, light-wire hook ideal for use with delicate live shiners and minnows. A wacky hook—used specifically for rigging soft-plastic stickbaits—has a medium shank and strong construction. Despite these niche uses, however, they are both still J hooks, and there’s no target or scenario where a J hook won’t get the job done. When determining the length of the shank you need, remember that long shanks provide a little more protection from fish with teeth and allow you to put more pressure on during the fish. Short shanks are often stronger than long shanks, and they’re ideal for finicky fish that require you to hide the hook completely inside the bait. Short shanks, however, pull out more easily if you’re not deft during the battle.
Best For: Medium to large cut baits, large live baits
Circle hooks rose to popularity as anglers grew more conservation minded over the last 20 years or so, though ironically, they were originally developed for use in the commercial long lining industry. Circle hooks are shaped roughly like the letter C. They curve all the way around, and even the point curls around and angles downward sharply like a claw. While circle hooks have limited use with artificial lures, they shine when using stationary cut bait for bigger players like catfish, striped bass, and redfish, or when fishing larger live baits for bass or pike.
The idea is that a circle hook will set itself. After the fish eats the bait and begins moving away, the hook is supposed to slide back toward the mouth without sticking deep in the fish’s throat. As the hook nears the corner of the mouth, that downfacing point is supposed to catch the inside of the jaw, turn under the pressure, and sink in. If it works correctly, you end up with a fish hooked neatly in the corner of the mouth that can be released in good health to fight another day. Just remember, you don’t swing to set a circle hook. When a fish starts running, point the rod right at it and just reel steadily until you come tight.
Best For: Soft live and cut baits
Baitholder hooks are another J hook variant, though a key additional feature makes them worthy of their own category. They feature two extra barbs on the back of the shank closer to the eye. Their purpose, however, has nothing to do with stopping fish from pulling the hook. The spare barbs are designed to keep your bait in place, particularly when dealing with any offering that requires the hook to be concealed inside, soft baits like chicken liver or dough bait, or squirmy baits like nightcrawlers. Baitholders are most commonly found in smaller sizes ideal for trout, panfish, and catfish. Simply thread the point through the bait, then work the bait up the shank to the rear barbs and you can cast a mile without it flying off and thwart nibbling fish from quickly cleaning your hook.
Best For: Hard-body lures, small soft dough, live, and cut baits
Treble hooks feature three points and three bends all connected to one shank. They are most commonly found on hard-body lures like crankbaits, in-line spinners, and jerkbaits. However, some anglers do lean on treble hooks in bait fishing situations, predominantly when intending to keep their catch for the table, and sometimes when dealing with finicky, light-biting fish. Treble hooks provide added insurance when using a single salmon egg or dough bait for stocked trout. If you want to make sure those channel cats come home for dinner, try sending worms or doughs out on a treble. In the walleye world, it’s not uncommon for anglers to rig live shiners with a treble hook in the back hoping to increase the odds that these fast, light biters will find one of the points.
Best For: Soft-plastic bass lures
When dealing with hooks specifically designed for rigging soft plastic lures, volumes can be written. Every season, tackle companies unveil the latest and greatest iterations of finesse hooks, flipping hooks, and drop-shot hooks. However, if there’s one style of hook that’s remained relatively unchanged it’s the wide-gap hook, and it’s the most versatile of the lot. Whether you’re using a rubber worm, creature bait, finesse shad, or lizard, you’ll want to pin it on a wide-gap. These hooks are designed to be threaded through the head of the bait, turned around, and run up through the belly. The hook point sits on the bait’s back, making it both streamlined to cast and weedless. Naturally, you’ll want to match the size of the hook to the size of the soft-plastic you’re throwing, but unless you’re married to fishing with bait, you will have a need for some wide-gaps.