Making sure that your hooks are sharp is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of tackle preparation. Blunt hooks mean missed bites and lost fish.
Today most of the hooks we buy in the small to medium size ranges are chemically sharpened at the factory and come to us needle sharp and ready to use straight from the packet. Modern hooks of this type are generally cheap and reliable so I never attempt to sharpen them. Once they become blunt I just replace them with new hooks. (Pictured opposite is a top quality chemically sharpened hook, the Gamakatsu SL12S. This is one of the best hooks on the market for rigging small trolling lures for light tackle big game fishing.)
However, if we progress beyond the small to medium size ranges, into the big heavy gauge hooks used in big game fishing, the chemical sharpening process is rarely used by the hook manufacturers. These large lumps of metal are nearly always sharpened in the traditional way and are typically quite blunt when they first arrive from the factory. Many of the big game fish species have tough, boney mouths and the importance of having razor sharp hooks cannot be over-emphasized. Never use a conventional style, traditionally sharpened, hook straight from the packet. You must check it carefully and you will usually need to do some work to the point and barb to make the hook fit to put into the water.
At this point I could easily drift off into the realms of hook design as I feel that most of the large hooks currently on the market could be improved considerably. I also have some quite unusual and radical opinions on hooks, particularly for big game fishing, but I think this is best left for another time. For now, let’s just look at what we have readily available on the market.
The industry standards for heavy gauge big game hooks are the Mustad Sea Demon (7731/7732) and the Mustad Southern & Tuna (7691/7691S). (Examples of these two hooks are pictured opposite). There are also a number of almost identical hooks from other manufacturers, including my personal favorites from Maruto. In general these are all good quality, strong and reliable hooks but they are all uselessly blunt straight from the packet. There is one hook that I haven’t yet tried, but am keen to do so, and that is the Owner Jobu. This looks like a very promising hook and, if anything like other hooks from Owner, should have an excellent sharp point and a sensibly proportioned barb. Sadly, I think this hook is made in carbon steel, rather than stainless, so it may not make its way permanently into my tackle box. I have a strong preference for large, heavy gauge hooks to be stainless steel – the reasons for this have been discussed in a previous article.
The Sharpening Procedure
Let’s look at a typical hook straight from the packet, in this case the point of a size 11/0 Mustad Southern & Tuna 7691S. You will note that the only real attempt to sharpen the hook in the factory has been to grind a triangular section along the inside edge of the point. The point and barb feel dull and it would require considerable force to set this hook into a boney mouth.
I will now explain how I would go about sharpening this hook. There is some controversy regarding hook sharpening methods and the shapes, angles and cutting edges that are formed. Here, I am explaining the typical and most popular sharpening method for this style of hook, but I will discuss a few pros and cons along the way.
Firstly assemble the tools required. I sharpen these big hooks with a small file. By all means use a stone or one of the new diamond hones to finish off the hook, but the initial sharpening requires some metal to be removed and this is much easier and quicker with a file. Do NOT use any kind of mechanical sharpening or grinding machinery for hooks, e.g. a Bench Grinder, Angle Grinder, Dremel type Die Grinder, Power File, etc. These operate at very high speeds and it is all too easy to cause the metal to heat up to the point where the tempering of the hook is altered and damaged. Working by hand keeps the metal cool and does not change the tempering that the manufacturer went to such great pains to achieve.
It is much easier to sharpen big hooks if they can be held firmly. A small vice or drilling clamp is useful, or even just clamping the hook down onto the edge of a work surface with a pair of Mole Grips makes the job easier.
Working from the tip of the point and away from you use the file to sharpen and extend the existing triangular section on the inside of the hook point all the way to the back of the barb.
Once complete, tidy up any small burrs that have been created around the back edge of the remaining barb. This will create a cutting edge along the hook point and will also reduce the size of the barb. The theory here is that once the hook point has started to penetrate it will continue to cut its way in deeper with continued pressure. A smaller barb will then aid easier penetration. Both these practices are a little controversial and are worth further discussion.
Few will dispute the fact that having a sharpened cutting edge along the hook point will allow the hook to cut its way into the fish and achieve deeper penetration. However, once the hook has penetrated fully the sharp edge can then allow the hook to cut its way back out again if the fight is prolonged and heavy pressure is exerted. I cannot argue with this theory and it is one of the areas where I feel there is room for improvement in the design of large hooks.
I feel that the barbs are often far too large on standard hooks. The barb is intended to prevent the hook from falling out once it has penetrated into the fish’s mouth, the theory being that once hooked we don’t lose our fish should it jump, shake its head or the line go slack momentarily. However, the barb can also be the hooks worst enemy. To work as intended the point of the hook must penetrate fully past the barb. An over-large barb will act as a stopper that can actually prevent the hook point from achieving full penetration. This is the worst possible scenario and a hook that has only penetrated up to the barb, but not past it, will fall out very easily. I would much prefer a barbless hook that has penetrated to the full length of the point, than a barbed one that has only pricked the fish. There are actually a small number of extremely skilled and knowledgeable big game anglers who now completely remove the barbs from their hooks for this very reason. Barbless hooks also make releasing fish much safer and with less damage to the fish. You do need to be very brave and committed to use a totally barbless hook but reducing the size of the barb will help to improve penetration but still leave something to give us a bit of security, even if it is only psychological.
Remove a small amount of metal from the cheeks on either side of the hook, at the point where the barb first starts to split way from the main body of the hook. This is just to remove bulk and aid easier penetration.
Working back from the tip, on the outside of the hook point, create another triangular section – similar to that on the inside of the point, but on a smaller scale. This is intended to create a sharp four sided pyramid shape at the very tip of the hook point.
Check your work. The point of the hook should feel ‘sticky’ sharp and if you draw the point gently across your thumb it should dig into every ridge in the skin. You can put a final edge on the hook using a fine stone or diamond hone if you wish, but I find that the file usually does a good job on its own. After sharpening, the hook should be such that you are actually wary to put your hand into your tackle box for fear of serious injury. If you’ve sharpened a box of hooks and haven’t used several Elastoplasts by the end of it you’re either a very, very careful person or you haven’t got the hooks sharp enough!!!
The subject of circle hooks, and how to sharpen them, has just sprung to mind. That’s easy, DO NOT SHARPEN CIRCLE HOOKS. I must admit I don’t use circle hooks very often due to the fact that I focus very heavily on lure fishing and circle hooks do not work effectively with trolling lures. I had often wondered about the best way to sharpen them though and then I recently saw a reply that Capt. Peter Wright had given to this very question. He explained that having ‘sticky’ sharp points on circle hooks can actually prevent them from working in their intended way and could cause them to catch in the fishes throat or stomach, rather than the corner of the mouth as intended. Standard ‘straight from the box’ hooks work best apparently and if Peter Wright says don’t sharpen circle hooks, then don’t sharpen them!
Technologically Advanced Big Game Trolling Lures