On the Hook

Axel Wessolowski delves into the boundless world of fly hooks

Some say it is one of the most important tools of all time, or one of the gadgets that changed the world. In use for millennia, the hook is perhaps the piece of equipment that gets the least attention from fly fishers, although so much depends on it. In 1666 the great fire of London destroyed much of the city, including one house on Harp Alley, where Charles Kirby (in 1650) had opened his shop for angling hooks. At the time, London had become a place of pilgrimage for fly-fishing devotees thanks to Kirby’s hook-making talent. Unfortunately, his disappearance in the fire left a void, but as the principles of metal working, including the crucial process of tempering, became common knowledge this void started to close. Now, in the 21st century, we enjoy an enormous variety of hooks, all the result of trial and error, success and failure. Under the pressure of commercial competition, many different styles and sizes have been released to the fly fishing market. It’s a fun fact that Mustad & Søn has manufactured 13,800 hook varieties! Certainly, not all meant for fly fishing, but still… Why so many hooks? It all begins with the hook wire — thin or thick? Dry-fly or wet-fly fishing? How long is the shank and what is the shape of the creature being imitated? What does the hook point look like? How wide is the gape, which colour?… Shall I go on? Just for a single type of hook of one size, thousands of variations can be calculated based on the number of alterable characteristics. TENACIOUS OR BRITTLE Kindly enough the manufactures have mercy and don’t spoil us with too many choices, although I recently counted 52 different models in a catalogue from Japan, which is still a large number. Do you actually care, or is your choice of hook the random result of availability and perhaps price? One thing’s for certain: today’s hooks are far superior to the antique ones. But there are quality differences in modern hooks. The good news to begin with: in my personal experience the hook quality of well-established manufactures is consistently good. They all use iron with carbon; some other formulas demand nickel, chromium, manganese or cobalt. Still, the art of forging hooks is always a tightrope walk between a tenacious, tough metal and a metal that is too brittle. SHARPNESS The second good piece of news: these days all hook points are chemically polished, hence they are sharper and penetrate better. To form the hook point the metal wire needs to be shaped and ground. During the final step the point will be polished and smoothed. Whether it be a knife, a needle or just a hook point, there will always be rough edges — tiny metallic fragments and bumps.After chemically deflashing with the aid of acids, the final result is smoother than a baby’s bottom. Warning! Don’t experiment at home — the chemical reactions can release energy explosively. A rather harmless way of sharpening, which is especially useful for large streamer hooks, requires nothing more than a sharpening stone (e.g. Arkansas, Belgian Blue, Ardenne). Beware! The grain of the stone is important: 80–200 for thinning, 800–2000 for fine sharpening and 3000–8000 for polishing. FISHING TOPLESS A few words about the point and spear, respectively. Hooks with the best ability to puncture possess needle and hollowed (curved) points. The simplest variant is topless, so no barb has been formed. In recent years and in the wake of catch-and-release, more and more hook models are offered barbless, and hence there is no need to crush the barb. In terms of modification, I was never a big fan of altering the hook with flame and pliers. Remember the first years when the Klinkhåmer popped up? To get the right hook shape it was necessary to heat the metal and bend the shank. But you were messing with an already tempered piece of metal and not for the good… Thanks to all the manufactures that made this technique obsolete by producing special Klinkhåmer/emerger hooks. Straight or kirbed? Obviously, the manufacturers employ hook designers who are capable of looking beyond the basic ‘recurved length of metal wire which terminates in a sharp point’ and hence released hooks in the shape of a swimming nymph for instance. Over the centuries many shapes and styles of hook bend have been tested and, to this day, three positions for the hook point persist: straight, reversed and ‘kirbed’. Straight means the hook bend and point is parallel to the hook shank; a reversed point is bent to the right, and a kirbed one to the left. The latter was designed by — guess who? You can buy all variations, but the benefits of straight, reversed and kirbed are more a matter of faith. Fact is, a straight point functions as a keel and thus a wet-fly will swim more steadily, whereas the other two variations will lead to a more wavering way of swimming — perhaps a desired effect! Eyes front! The positioning of the eye of the hook affects the hooking capabilities, because an eye that is bent upwards results in a wider space between hook point and shank — an essential factor for heavily dressed flies. An eye that points downwards reduces the point-shank gap, however, it brings the hook point closer to the ideal line, thus piercing should improve — theoretically. On the other hand the type of knot used also has an impact on the overall hook position. Quite frankly, from my personal experience I can truly say that the hook eye position has never been a crucial element. A quick look through my fly boxes — yep, my flies possess all kinds of hook eye positions! Far more interesting is the positioning of the hook eye in jig-hooks so they swim with the point upside-down and hence can be fished very close to the bottom without too much snagging. Another aspect is in covering the hook point — e.g. in streamer fishing — a reason for some anglers to fish exclusively with jig-hooks. Even the eye itself comes in different shapes. How could it be any different? A rather forgotten shape is the needle eye. Not really a surprise historically, as needle and hook manufacturing developed simultaneously. But most anglers found these eyes to be too awkward to use, and hence the round eye shape we see today. Its task: to establish a strong connection between the hook and the leader without damaging the latter. Be careful with ringed eyes with wire-ends not flush with the rest of the wire, hence a small opening remains (open ring). The leader might chafe there. Actually, an open ringed eye usually indicates hooks of lesser quality. Rising pike Hooks are the foundation of nearly every fly (apart from tube flies). Over the years, hook wire became circular in cross section. The diameter alone varies due to the many different hook sizes. For example a hook #18 may have a diameter of delicate 0.4 mm and weigh just 0.0062 g. In contrast a streamer hook of the same brand not only displays a larger diameter (1 mm) but it also weighs much more (0.51 g). The rule of thumb: dry-flies and emergers demand hooks as light as possible and any other fly can use some extra weight. Naturally, the hook diameter needs to match the target fish and the thicker the hook the greater the lifting capacity, thus the bending or even breaking of the hook can be avoided. Which reminds me — once a rising pike mistook my dry-fly for an ideal appetiser. So I had to play the almost 50 cm long fish on a thin leader only equipped with a #16 fly. I managed to do so and the leader didn’t break, nor was the hook deformed. Mental note: it’s possible, but not to be recommended! Camouflaged hooks The subject of hook colour triggers many discussions. Theoretically, every colour is possible, and just recently a salesman revealed that his company is going to release some camouflage-coloured hooks. Until then we can choose mainly between black, gold, silver and bronze hooks. Again, there is no clear line between religion and fly fishing and there is no report that clearly states that one colour is superior to another. Personally, if I had a say in this matter, all my hooks would be deep black. Why’s that? Because it matches the colour of my soul! No — joking aside — there is actually no objective reason. I just have more confidence in black hooks. That’s all. When small means large Since the first hook was made from a needle there has been a problem with the size nomenclature. Early fishing authors spoke already of ‘intolerable confusion’ and of ‘the old-fashioned, crude and illogical method of numbering…’ Today, it’s no better and manufactures use numbers to their liking. Yes, the hook size increases with their numbers getting smaller (18, 16, 14, 12, etc.), but suddenly it’s 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, etc. To date manufacturers have been incapable of setting a common standard, so it’s always important to state the hook type and brand for a particular fly recipe. Even within a brand’s hook portfolio a #10 is not always a #10 with the same dimensions. Three important points The subject of hooks in a nutshell! Actually almost impossible, but personally I would pick the following aspects as the most important: quality, size and shape. Quality: established manufactures such as Mustad, Tiemco, Gamakatsu, Hayabusa, Kamasan, Partridge and Daiichi make flawless hooks. Size: all brands combined offer so many sizes, therefore covering any imaginable fly fishing situation in fresh or salt water. Shape: far more interesting, and so I always try to imagine what I’m going to imitate — how does the natural exemplar look and move? Once I have considered these three aspects I don’t really care much about the other characteristics, as I have already caught so many fish with all kinds of hook varieties. The art of love I can only encourage readers to delve a little further into the subject. The history of fishing hooks alone is quite fascinating. A final piece of advice, from the Scottish crest of Anstruther, is always valid: Semper tibi pendeat hamus – always keep your hook hanging. Although the Roman poet Ovid was aiming his book Art of Love at a different target group, another fine motto for the fly fishers is: Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect, there will be fish. Perhaps he was a kindred spirit? Thanks to M. Hamnett (Partridge of Redditch), R. Heger (Tiemco, Waddington), N. Folmer (O. Mustad & Søn), D. Lösel (C. Jul. Herbertz GmbH), Thum Galvanotechnik GmbH, Poligrat and above all Bill Chase (Daiichi).

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