Six Tips for Better Bonefish Hook Sets

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Kent Hooks Up Photo by Louis Cahill

Kent Hooks Up Photo by Louis Cahill

So you’ve found a bonefish and fed it? Don’t blow the hook set.

The hook set is the decisive moment. The moment when most bonefish are lost or landed. Considering how much effort goes into finding and feeding a fish, it’s wise to have the skills to get a good solid hook set. There are a couple of things that often go wrong but if you know what to expect and what to do when things go wrong, you can make the connection you need.

A Proper Strip Set

A solid hook up starts with a good strip set. The most common mistake that anglers new to saltwater fly fishing make is lifting the rod when setting the hook. This is called a trout set and no matter how hard you trout set it will not give you the penetration you need. Saltwater fish have hard mouths made for eating food that fights back. To get a solid set you have to keep the rod pointing at the fish and set with your line hand.

For a proper strip set on a bonefish, you need the pressure of a raucous hand shake. The kind you might give a good friend you haven’t seen in years. When I teach bonefishing, I like to play the part of the fish and let the students feel the right amount of pressure. I think it makes a big difference, but for now let’s go with a really firm handshake. Strip the line quickly and be prepared to strip long. Move your rod hand laterally, to the outside without changing the angle of the rod as you strip. Once you feel the right amount of pressure, be prepared to let the fish run.

Fighting Muscle Memory

Knowing how to strip set doesn’t matter if you forget to strip set. This is the hardest thing for most new saltwater anglers. Thousands of hours of trout setting muscle memory are devilishly hard to retrain. I teach a foolproof method that, when applied, never fails. When the bonefish keys on your fly and starts to follow it, each time you strip the fly say, “Strip set” out loud. This simple device works wonders. When the fish eats your fly, you will instinctively strip set. Once you develop the new muscle memory you can stop talking to yourself.

Keeping The Slack Out

Slack in the line is the death of a hook set. Pay close attention to the attitude of your line on the surface of the water as you strip. If the line goes slack, appearing as anything other than a straight, tight line, you have slack in the system. Manage that slack by keeping your rod tip in the water and making longer strips. Be prepared for a big strip set.

The best way to insure that you come tight to the fish is to hold your rod as far out in front of you as possible. This leaves your full arm span available for the strip set. Even if there is not slack in your line from current or the drift of the boat, it may suddenly appear when the fish eats your fly. Bonefish will often pick your fly up and keep moving in your direction. You need to be prepared to take up a lot of line in a hurry.

Double Your Strip Set

Some times the simple act of setting the hook can get complicated by timing. Frequently, bonefish will pounce on your fly, right at the end of your strip when the fly pauses. In the time it takes to get your hand back into stripping position the fish will be gone. I missed a nice fish once because a strong side wind blew the line away as I reached for it with my stripping hand. These situations can be handled with what I call a right-hand strip set. If stripping with the line hand doesn’t do the job, lock down on the line with your rod hand and pull back. It can be a day saver. You can read more about this technique (HERE).

Too Much Of a Good Thing

A good firm strip set is a good thing but it can turn very bad. A lot of big fish are broken off on the hook set. A fact I was reminded of just last week. It takes the right touch and close attention to fish’s attitude and approach. I’ll use my lost fish from last week as an example.

The fish was at ten o’clock to the boat and moving in the opposite direction on a parallel course. He was a nice fish, in the double digits. I lead the fish and crossed him with my leader. When he saw the fly, rather than tracking and following it like you’d expect, he charged. He ate the fly and immediately turned hard away from the boat. I forgot I had downsized to twelve pound tippet. I used too much pressure and broke the fish off instantly. If I’d been prepared and let him run, I’d have a nice hero shot.

Give ‘Em a Little extra

It’s not uncommon for a bonefish to unbutton during the fight. They have a nasty habit of running straight at you and making it hard to keep tight. If you don’t have a solid hookup it’s easy for him to come off. Once the fish finishes the first run, it’s a good idea to hit him again to be sure you got good penetration. A couple of short, backwards tugs on the rod will do the trick. It’s a good habit to get into.

With a little practice and focus these skills will increase the number of successful hookups you get when bonefishing. It will increase the number of fish you land and quite possibly help you land a real trophy. Not that that numbers and size are all that matter. It will boost your confidence and make the whole experience more enjoyable. So get out there and get hooked up!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “Six Tips for Better Bonefish Hook Sets

  1. “When the bonefish keys on your fly and starts to follow it, each time you strip the fly say, “Strip set” out loud.”

    I love this idea!

  2. I can always find some useful info here on G&G. Hopefully I will get the chance to tell myself to “strip set” soon on some low country redfish. Thanks for the tips.

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