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Expert hook sets and broken rods: A cautionary tale


My brother-in-law came back from trout fishing on year-around waters in the Sierra Nevada this past weekend with a broken fly rod. Since the rod is a G. Loomis and costs more than some used cars driven by kids who go the local high school, this is a major financial event.

I have seen R.G. set the hook on all manner of fish species, so a broken rod does not surprise me. On a trip to the Sierra couple of falls ago, I watched him launch a six-inch golden trout out of sight back into a canopy of spruce. The hapless fish had thought the artificial fly was something to eat, and within about one second flat had found itself on a bed of pine needles, and then about a second after that it had been scooped up and run back to the bank of the small stream and released. We stood there and watched the trout get its bearings for a second and then swim wildly up the creek and under a deep cut back. We decided the fish was fine, and that it would have tales to tell its offspring about flight.

Since I am a bit of an expert on breaking rods, averaging a couple per year, I assume that R.G. has spent too much time around me and adopted some of my hook-setting traits.

With today's ultra-sharp hooks, stiff graphite rods, and no-stretch fishing lines, a quick flick of the wrist is all that is necessary to set the hook into the mouth of a trout or even a bass. But anyone over 40 probably grew up fishing with dull hooks, soft fiberglass rods, and stretchy monofilament nylon fishing lines. With this tackle, you had to SET the hook. A hook-set with that tackle meant that you ripped the rod back hard, with all of your strength, and hoped the line didn't break so you didn't fall out of the boat backwards.

Some of us still set the hook that way.

Since I float back and forth between the world of fly-fishing and more conventional spinning and baitcasting tackle, I sometimes startle fly rod chums with my hook-sets and heavy leaders. I don't like to lose fish, so I am never one to be gentle about setting the hook or using too light a leader. That can cause some problems with fly tackle.

I remember breaking a fly rod at Lake Mead when about a 10-pound carp came up and actually ate a maribou streamer I had tossed in front of it as a joke. The fish thought it was a piece of bread. Since I was using my usual 30-pound test hunk of leader, I broke the rod when I sunk the hook into the carp's mouth with a heavy-handed strike. But breaking the rod ended up serving a function: after fighting the big fish up to the boat, I simply lifted it into the boat with the stump of a rod.

Another time, again using just a shred of a leader butt-section that probably tested close to 25 pounds, I was fishing the East Walker River with a big, black streamer and about eight split shot to get the fly down into the heavy current. I thought felt a strike and set the hook. Hard. The line throbbed and started to move downstream, and I hauled back on the rod even more. There were fleeting thoughts that it was a monster brown trout in that current, but it was steadily going 'round the bend. I pulled harder, trying to stop the trophy fish. I heard the rod crackling just as an entire willow plant surfaced where my line angled out into the water.

I was able to land the snag, even though the rod was permanently damaged. But I can tell you that about $50 worth of flies and lures were hanging on the branches of that willow, which had probably fallen into that pool as an undercut bank caved in. Other anglers, those who used lighter leaders and didn't set the hook so hard, had merely snagged and broken off their lures. I was able to uproot that plant from the bottom of the river with a powerful hook-set.

A lot of bass fishermen justify those monster hook-sets by saying that it moves the bass away from cover, allowing you to get the fish headed in the right direction and land a fish that otherwise might get back into heavy cover and escape. Since most bass fishermen let all their fish go, anyway, you can see that is a pretty moot point.

If you fish plastic worms with the hook point buried in the worm to make it almost completely weedless, you might suggest that a powerful hook-set is necessary to pull the hook through the plastic and then stick it in a bass' mouth. Back when plastic worms had the consistency of a Ticonderoga pencil and hooks were about as sharp as a ball-point pen, that was true. But today, the plastic baits are so soft and the hooks so sharp, I can hook myself when swinging a bait up to catch in my hand to make sure it's rigged correctly.

Most fishermen are pretty agile athletes, in spite of our reputations, and I suspect this comes from dodging 1/2-ounce leadhead jigs, four-ounce Kastmasters, and big plugs adorned with mutilpe treble hooks. You see, when there is no resistance when you set the hooks hard, the lures flies directly back at the angler, and we can make some pretty incredible manuevers to avoid hooks and lead now hurling at us at 80 miles per hour. Most of us carry scars a permanent skull knots for those times we didn't quite dodge our own lures.

Saltwater anglers have the most powerful hook-sets you'll ever see -- and justifiably so. Most of this fishing is still done with nylon monofilament lines, live bait, and often the bait is well away from the boat. The angler has to not only rip all the stretch out of line, but also try to bury the hook in a fishes' mouth that is generally much tougher than a trout or largemouth bass. You will see these anglers hammer and crank and hammer again, repeatedly setting the hook with all of their strength.

This can have disastrous consequences if you employ this technique when the fish strikes right on the surface. I was on a yellowfin tuna trip and we were fishing with very stout fly rods, in addition to conventional tackle. Switching over to the fly rod, I was fishing with a big streamer and stripping it in as I would for bass, my rod tip right over the surface of the water. A five-pound skipjack took the fly just four feet off the end of the fly rod. Forgetting which rod I had in my hands, I set the hook viciously, the line clamped firmly against the cork grip.

I can still see this almost in slow motion. The fish hung in the water for a brief second while the rod flexed into a full parabolic bend, and then the little tuna was launched into the air, over my head, and right through the open window into the wheelhouse. Thankfully the fly had popped out of the fish's mouth, and I quickly flipped the lure back out on the water. The skipjack landed just behind the skipper and quickly got his attention as it drummed its tail on everything in sight, creating a huge mess. The skipper never knew who did it.

Looking at the broken fly rod my brother-in-law brought back, I thought again that I need to work on my hook-setting skills. Obviously, he does too.


Public land quail and chukar hunting

and scouting seminars at Raahauge’s

There will be a pair of quail and chukar hunting seminars held over the coming two months at Mike Raahauge’s Shooting Enterprises in Corona that are designed to help upland hunters find more public land places to hunt these popular gamebirds and become better hunters. The first seminar will be from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 24, and the second is also from 10 to 12:30 on Sunday, May 22. Cost for either seminar is $50.

While the opening of quail and chukar hunting season is six long months away, long-time WON writer Jim Matthews, who is conducting both seminars, says that now is a perfect time to start your fall scouting and learn how to become a better hunter.

Matthews said the 2 1/2-hour seminars will focus on five things: First, learning how to find public lands where it is legal to hunt. Second, the importance of water sources on these public lands and how to find them, especially man-made guzzlers. Third, you will hear Matthews’ four keys to successful quail and chukar hunting. And, fourth, he will provide hunters with detailed information on the best places in the southern half of the state to hunt quail and chukar. In addition, these two spring seminars will have an additional focus on spring and summer scouting and use of quail calls to find more birds.

The $50 cost of the seminar includes a special two-issue trial subscription to Matthews’ Western Birds hunting newsletter, the “most detailed scouting report published in the world,” as Matthews likes to say. The fee also includes a resource package and inclusion on the e-mail list that will receive Matthews’ special dove issue of the newsletter right before this year’s dove opener (you can see last year’s on Matthews’ website). All members of the same household can also attend for the $50 fee, with kids or spouses encouraged to attend.

You can get more information about this year’s seminars and the Western Birds newsletter on Matthews’ Outdoor News Service website at Registration forms are available on that site. You can also call Matthews office at 909-887-3444 or e-mail him at with questions.


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