Practical tackle



It seems to me that not enough anglers pay attention to the hooks on their lures. After all, lures come with hooks attached, so there's no problem. This is far from the case. The only thing that I can remember ever having read about lure hooks, is that those fitted to some of the larger lures are often too large and too heavy for pike fishing. That these 'grappling hook' trebles come in for criticism is due to the fact that live and dead baits do not call for such ironmongery. Being soft baits which don't tend to mask hooks, and being fished in such a way that they do not need to be driven home the instant a pike hits the bait, small trebles like 8s and 6s are perfectly acceptable here. But on hard bodied lures, which are instantly rejected by pike if the hooks are not set, there must be a point or two standing proud of the bait in order for it to find a hold in the crucial fraction of a second between the angler detecting the take, and the pike ejecting the lure.

While it is true that lure hooks are occasionally too heavy in the wire, rarely are they too large. The thinking behind the fitting of smaller hooks to a lure, so as to cause less damage to pike, is all well and good - and I applaud the sentiment. This advice is usually accompanied by instructions to wrap the hook shanks with lead, or copper, wire to restore the weight of the original hooks, so as to maintain the balance and action of the lure. I have found that some lures actually have their performance improved by the fitting of smaller, lighter trebles. However, there is an increased chance that you will now connect with far fewer of the fish that take your lures. And the more you reduce the size of the hooks, the fewer pike you will hook. My response to this problem is twofold. If possible I reduce the number of hooks on a lure, while increasing their size. What this does is reduce the number of hook-points, yet retains the overall hooking potential of the lure. On wooden lures this is quite easy as the hook-hangers can be moved without too much trouble.

Repositioning one of the belly hooks will maintain the overall coverage of the hooks. Plastic baits give you only one option when it comes to hook removal. With a three-hooked bait one can be removed, generally the middle one in order to maintain the balance of the lure. This can lead to the centre portion of the lure being inadequately covered, and might result in an increased number of failed hook-sets. Pike tending to grab lures in the middle. It might, therefore, be worth removing the front hook.

Should the hooks fitted to a lure be excessively thick in the wire, I will swap them for a lighter gauge hook - but never lighter than 2x wire. The second thing that I now do to all the treble hooks on my lures is to crush the barbs. To crush the barbs on lure hooks goes against the received wisdom of the last few decades. All that I have read on the subject says that pike fall off lures that have had the barbs doctored. While this may be true of lures fitted with totally barbless hooks, the crushed barb remains as a bump that retains some of the holding properties of a full barb. In my experience no more pike fall off my lures than anyone else's, having even deliberately given pike slack line (the pike stayed hooked) to test my confidence.

Close-up of a crushed barb showing how the tip of the barb forms into a hump. Although the barb is not completely closed in this case, there is no gap between the tip of the barb and the main point of the hook.

I know a few anglers who have tried debarbed hooks and, after initially being convinced that they do not lose them pike, have reverted to barbed hooks after a few losses. My thinking is that they should have persevered, or altered the way they play fish. A lot of the losses I have heard about have come when a pike has gone airborne, and shaken the lure free. This only happens when you give slack line. So don't give it. Nine times out of ten you get a warning when a pike is going to jump. Keep the pike in the water by lowering the angle of the rod, and pulling on the fish to knock it off balance. I have even done this to the odd fish while it has been in the air. Now that does confuse them! Too many people let pike do what they want when they leap (and at other times too). Don't be one of them.

If you are still sceptical about the value of debarbed hooks, try the following experiment. Take half or dozen of the lures that you use regularly, ones that you have plenty of confidence in, and crush all the barbs down on half of the lures. Then take them all fishing. As you go through the session you will start to forget which lures have the crushed barbs as you swap baits. Eventually you will land a fish and only realise that the barbs were crushed when you come to unhook the lure. I am not out to convert everyone to debarbed hooks, but I do think that they are worth an extended trial. I was having a bit of a bad patch recently, with pike failing to stay hooked. My confidence in crushed barb hooks was starting to waver. By chance I started using a new lure on which I hadn't got round to doctoring the hooks. I soon had a take, and after a second or two, during which short time I felt sure that the fish was on', it promptly fell off! I then lost another on a different crankbait, again with barbed hooks, and that had been 'on' for some time. So I crushed the barbs, and lost another fish on that lure! A few days later I landed a couple of doubles without any problem on a lure fitted with hooks that had had their barbs squeezed down. Sometimes pike will fall off no matter what you do.

I am convinced that the better initial penetration offered by crushed-barb hooks results in more fish being hooked. You have to remember that skin, yours and a pike's, is elastic. This means that a smooth bump on a hook will 'squeeze' through the initial, tiny, hole made when a sharp hook pricks the fish. The hole is unlikely to be enlarged as it would be by the entry of a full barb, and it will close up behind the bump. In effect this helps to prevent the hook falling out. It has been said in criticism of barbless/debarbed hooks that they can penetrate too deeply. This is only likely to cause severe harm if the hook comes anywhere near the fish's heart. While I do not deny that this might happen when lure fishing, it is so remote a possibility that I am prepared to live with it. It hasn't happened to me yet, but this could be because of the size of lures that I use most regularly. Only small lures, with correspondingly sized hooks, are likely to get far enough back in a pike's throat to make this a frequent concern. Far more often you will find a hook has taken hold outside a pike's mouth, frequently near a fish's eye socket. In this delicate area, so vital to a visually hunting predator like the pike, I like the quick and clean removal that crushed barb hooks allow. There is no ripping of skin, or flesh with these hooks. Because crushed barb hooks are speedy to remove the side effect is that pike are handled for a shorter length of time during unhooking. This is a big factor in pike welfare.

To crush a barb simply apply firm, steady pressure to it with a pair of fine nosed pliers until the gap of the barb is closed. Smooth jawed pliers are best if you can find them. The result should be a smooth hump. Now and then a barb will snap off and leave a sharp lump. Carefully file this smooth with your hook file. Not only should a crushed barb penetrate easily, but it should cause no tearing on removal from a pike. Broken barbs will do almost as much damage as full barbs when unhooking. Test the difference between a well crushed barb and a broken one yourself in a woolly jumper to see the difference!

With the barb crushed the next thing to do to a hook is hone it. Few, very few, hooks on pike lures are sharp enough straight out of the package. Sharpening hooks can be a bit of a chore, but it is one not to be skimped on. Well honed hooks will markedly increase your catches. This is probably the one factor that you have control over that will make the biggest difference to you lure fishing success, certainly in terms of converting takes. Someone asked me at a Lure Anglers' Society conference how I got my hooks so sharp, after dipping into a lure box of mine. "With a file", was my answer. If you use hooks bigger than size 2, or thereabouts, and you already have a hook stone do yourself a favour - throw it away! What you need to do the job properly is a fine file. Fine hook files are available, but difficult to find. A trip to your local ironmonger's should, however, enable you to find something suitable. One or two tackle dealers may have something like the Luhr Jensen file. Try a sea fishing specialist. Failing that, send to America for a quality hook file where the choice is wider, there are even hook sharpeners which feature two round files strapped side by side (like those made by Donmar and Shur-Sharp) which are simple to use.

When filing a hook you should be aiming to produce a point that is neither too long, nor too short. Long points, while very sharp, are easily damaged, turned over by the slightest contact with underwater debris or even the lure itself. Short points are not so prone to damage, but feel less sharp and don't penetrate quite so easily. Aim for something in between. Begin by filing the inside of the point, on two faces. Then file the sides. These two stages create the basis for the point's shape. The final two planes to be filed are the ones that are critical in determining the hook's ultimate sharpness - the top of the point. Long strokes of the file, moving towards the hook point are what you need. Two or three on each plane are generally sufficient. With practice, even the heaviest gauge hooks can be sharpened to such a degree that they will puncture the skin of your thumb under the weight of two ounce lure. You can tell when the hooks are sharp enough when you grip the lure lightly in your hand and can feel the hook points. It is a sort of 'sticky' sharpness, the points taking a slight hold no matter how lightly they touch your skin. The only thing that you might dislike about super-sharp hooks is that they quickly make a mess of the paintwork of your lures and do a lot of damage to wooden lures. They are also prone to sticking in the side of plugs when you cast, this either kills the lure's action and wastes a retrieve, or reduces the hooking capabilities of the lure. I quite happily put up with these two little niggles because I reckon they are outweighed by the overall improvement in hook-ups over un-sharpened hooks. If all you want are nice looking lures, then don't hone your hooks!

While chemically sharpened hooks have this sort of sharpness straight out of the box, they are prone to damage during fishing. These hooks are also rather more difficult to resharpen than hooks with traditionally cut points. I am sure you can guess which I prefer. Hooks should be touched up as soon as the points show the slightest sign of dulling, which means often during a fishing session. Don't leave home without your hook file!

A consequence of sharpening and re-sharpening your hooks is that the points gradually get smaller and smaller, eventually becoming too short. So, you have to replace the hooks from time to time. This means buying replacements. Go for Mustad or Eagle Claw bronzed patterns with straight points. Finding them in the right sizes is not too easy, but they are to be had. Try the sea fishing sections of tackle shops for sizes over 2/0. A few anglers I know opt for short shank trebles as their replacement hooks on big baits. These have two benefits. One is that on multi-hooked lures they don't tangle with each other as much. The other, so the theory goes, is that they lie closer to the lure and are, therefore, more likely to get inside the pike's mouth when it grabs the lure. This is supposed to reduce the instances of pike being hooked outside the mouth, and improve the hook-up ratio. I have no experience of short-shanked trebles, but the theory sounds plausible.

Once you start replacing hooks you will soon learn how quickly you can get through them, and it is worth buying at least fifty of a size at a time. Repeated opening of split rings does them no good, either. So buy them in bulk too. Strong ones, stainless steel if you can find them. Get yourself a pair of split ring pliers while you are about it, a these not only save your fingernails, but make the job of fitting or removing split rings much quicker. Failing that try the sea angler's oval shaped D.C. Easy Links which are very effective for use on spoons and might prove successful on other lures too.

Commercial hook file and one from an ironmongers, along with two types of split ring pliers. The custom made ones having smooth jaws which are ideal for crushing down barbs.

I have not discussed single hooks here as they are fitted to very few lures as standard. With the exception of spinnerbaits, buzzers and jigs I can think of none. The hooks fitted to these lures are moulded into the lead-head so you are pretty much stuck with what you get. Make sure you buy lures that have good quality singles in place, preferably stainless steel to give the lure a prolonged life span - and check them before use. I bought one buzzer that had no point whatsoever to its hook. No matter how I tried I could not get it to sharpen up. I should have sent the thing back before setting about it with the hook file. As for debarbing singles, I have to admit that I don't always bother, certainly not on spinnerbaits and other lures that might need a stinger hook fitting at some point. The barb will keep the stinger in place a little more securely. That said, I haven't had one fall off a crushed barbed single yet either. Single hooks usually seem to lodge in the scissors where they take a secure hold even when debarbed. Sometimes they manage to double through during the fight, and even without a rank barb prove tricky to dislodge.