Hook-ups and holds: the impact of hook shape and size

I’ve been trying out different barbless hook sizes and styles to try and find an ideal hook for my two most used flies (Utah killer bug and soft hackle killer kebari). I’ve been using fulling mill 5065 Czech nymph hooks in sizes 10 and 12 for the past year. These work well for me with fish in the 10 inch and larger range, but my hook ups and landing haven’t been great for smaller fish (5-8 inches). I’d say I only successfully land about 50%-60%of these smaller fish; they often wiggle free a few seconds after setting the hook. Even for those that I get into the net, I’ve noticed that when I reach in to retrieve the hook, it’s often already out and lying in the net. It seems my hook sets have been precarious at best with these hooks on smaller fish. I love these smaller trout (I find they are some of the most beautiful I catch) and they’re the most common in my rivers. I tried going smaller with these hooks (size 14) and that seemed to help with smaller fish, but then I started losing some of the bigger ones.

I tried out a different hook type from fulling mill; the FM 5025 “grab gape” in size 10. It has a sproat bend and is 3x short, so the size 10 is overall closer to a size 12 in the Czech nymph hook type. I’ve set these hooks on about 20 fish now in various sizes and have been really happy with them. My hook ups and landing are close to 85%, and hook ups have been solid for fish ranging from 4 inches to 14 inches. What I’ve also noticed is that once in the net, I’ve had to really pull to get the hooks out of the fish’s lips.

I’m curious what everyone’s experiences have been with different hooks shapes and sizes. I’ve read/seen posts from Tom Davis that he prefers size 10 hooks because he gets better hook ups, but I haven’t seen much else about this and don’t know if that also applies to small fish.

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Try using smaller hooks and I believe you will have better success with smaller sized fish.

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I’ve spent a fair bit of time on this topic as well and I won’t claim to have any conclusions that are all that surprising or useful to others, but I’ll share what I’ve got so far.

  1. It seems to be fairly common to lose smaller fish, especially when fishing barbless beadheaded flies (I can see both sides of the penetration force with barb vs. barbless issue — I just think that it is feasible that the “fling” a fish can create when shaking quickly is quite capable of throwing a hook with a heavy bead on it based on how much of the time a fly is separated from the fish by the time I look into my netted fish). This might be how I lose more fish than any other broad category.

  2. Based on a bunch of testing I’ve done with my own knot strength / tippet ring vs. stopper knot/ vetting some knots against others, I have opted to go with finer wire hooks when I can get by with it (available fish are <20" --warmer months here). Even long-shanked (wholesale fly company model 22 is a favorite – 3x long nymph/streamer, barbless) hooks seem to offer good retention. I do like hooks with a good bend, though I don’t know how important that is – kind of a circle point to an extent (WFC model 14 buzzer hook is another favorite). What I found here is that within a range (depends on tippet, tippet ring, and hook), knots would almost always hold better on the hook if the hook wire was fat and round – fatter than the tippet ring. That is the opposite of what I want – I spent a great deal of time trying to find ways to predictably get the knot to fail at the hook so I don’t leave tippet behind if I have to break off a snag. I’ve seen very few negatives of going to thinner hooks for what I’m doing, but for sure they could bend out if I happened into a big fish and hit a hard bony jaw.

  3. I have had some problems with smaller nymphs just pulling out of larger fish mouths during a fight – This is probably partially technique and just the name of the game – hard to get some of those hooks around the jaw/lip.

I think that technique and experience in hooksets and playing fish count for more of my lost-once-hooked fish. I’m constantly trying to remind myself of the angles and still screwing it up, but at least trying to improve. I believe smaller fish are always going to be more prone to be lost, but that’s how it goes. I will probably stick with the trend of thinner wire hooks for better penetration when I can get by with it as it seems to be broadly beneficial.

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Try fine wire! The thinnest you can find. A small fish has very little mass to resist the pull of the hook, and will be so easily pulled through the water that a normal hook wire diameter cannot penetrate much.
Think about it this way. When you Dr pushes a micro fine needle into you it’s nothing, but a big one he has to give a vigorous push.
As soft as the tips of tenkara rods are you’re really not getting much of a “hook set”. You’re really not doing anymore than just coming up tight, and even that isn’t much force.
Lastly, here’s a trick an old saltwater fishermen showed me for wahoo… a notoriously hard mouthed incredibly fast fish… after he watched me whiff a few times. Put a little kirb into your hook when it’s in the vise, and I mean really more than you’d think! He bent my big stainless steel hook until the point was 30° off the plane of the hook. I was stunned looking at it. Worked like magic and it used that trick out in the Pacific Ocean for years. ALL my trout flies now are kirbed, but only about 20° because the thing that improves hooking fish also improves hooking rocks, branches, everything, and it seems to be as effective as 30°.
Tie up a few and see what that does for you… works for me.


Thanks for the suggestions all!

I primarily use fulling mill hooks, along with fire hole sticks. In general, I prefer smaller hooks with finer wire for small fish. I also like the heavyweight champ hooks when I want a bit more weight or expect bigger fish. I see a higher loss rate with barbless hooks in general, but I do think small fish come unbuttoned a bit more often. That could be due to the amount of wiggling, less “meat” to get a good bite, or perhaps lower line tension since they are lighter.


I’ve seen discussions elsewhere about fish seem to come unbuttoned more often with Firehole Sticks hooks. Also there have been discussions about higher fish mortality; i.e. bleeding from gill and eye trauma, from hooks having a wide gape, and possibly circle hooks (the “kirb” @jamezu mentions?). I’m not categorically stating these things are true because I have not personally tested or experienced them. But be aware.

It would be a great if anyone has some empirical observations that they would post them here.

If anyone tells you circle hooks are more harmful to the fish you know they know nothing. I spent two years tagging yellowfin tuna for a Scripps science project and the ONLY hooks the Drs would let us use were circle hooks. They set in the corner of the mouth 100% of the time. Perfect for fish carrying $1500 electronic tags when released.

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Thanks for the correction to my faulty memory-understanding. I went back to the local-regional-global western ff forum and looked at those discussions. (which may still not help my understanding :confused: )
The issue with Firehole Sticks seems to be perceived as their extra-sharpness and barbless hook may make it easier to throw the hook than a sharp pinched barb hook if there is any slack in the line.
However anglers making that statement indicate a sharp snap of the wrist to set the hook and get penetration into the gape seems to mitigate lost fish, especially under an indicator.
*My observation is fish stay hooked with a T-rod or western ff gear on any hook brand or type if I do a 2nd deliberate but controlled hook set.
Also FS hook sizes (gape) are not standard, but other mfgs (Gamakatsu saltwater) are also mentioned for that issue.
Longer shanks may give a fish more leverage to throw the hook.
Also a bass fly angler states the FS jig hook with the kirb point (and 60° jig eye angle) does not hold bass as well as a wider gape hook (with a 90° jig eye).

However the wider gape and larger hooks may be more likely to cause eye, gill, and tongue trauma (especially) in small salmonids.

In regard to the comments made above on the merits of Offset Hooks, please take a look at Daiichi’s 1140 Midge Hook, which are only available in sizes 18, 20 and 22s. This is a barbed, fine wire, up eye hook to maximize hook gape, with a 20 degree OffSet Hook Point, so in spite of being so small it is good at hooking large fish on small Midge Patterns.

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Here is a short video on what constitutes Legal and Illegal Circle Hooks for some species of fish. How tenkara relative this information is I do not know but, for those who fish saltwater with fixed-line rods and target the bigger species of fish it may have some applications and shows what Offset Hooks are very well…Karl.


On the matter of using Circle Hooks for Tenkara fly fishing, circle hooks are designed for bait fishing, where the fish takes the bait and holds on to it. The angler does not strike with circle hooks, but slowly tightens the line so that the hook will slide back into the corner of the fish’s mouth, where the odd angled point will then take hold nearly 100% of the time. If an angler sets a circle hook as is the usual fishing practice, the circle hook will usually just come out of the fish’s mouth with out hooking anything. Most anglers cannot break the hook setting habit and give up on using circle hooks very quickly.

Most circle hooks that are sold are pretty big but, circle hooks are made down to size 20. A Tenkara application for fishing circle hooks might be when fishing slow 5:5 action rods with very soft tips, especially when fishing flies deeply. Under those conditions when the angler sets the hook, nearly all of the rod set motion is taken up by the rod just bending and the hook is not driven home. If the fly is tied with soft materials that fish will keep and hold in their mouths, the circle hooks could be used and be highly effective in fishing soft, slow action Tenkara rods. So if you are having trouble hooking fish on slow, soft rods, tying soft flies on circle hooks and slowly tightening the line may solve most of your problems…Karl.

Here is a video showing what was explained above:

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When I first saw the the Moffitt System back around 2009 it looked interesting. However if the fish does not take the hook or hooks voluntarily in(side) its mouth, it is considered “snagging” and is illegal in Washington and Oregon.

I gave my observations of wide gape hooks for small trout in

As I understand it, initial Crisp Solid Hook Sets are in effective with flies tied on Circle Hooks, because it just pulls the fly put of the fish’s mouth with out making contact with the point of the 90 degree angled in hook point.

However, if the line is slowly tightened until resistance is felt, the fly may be pulled back into the corner of the fish’s mouth where it will catch, and then the hook can be set to get the usual and desired results. The natural pull of the current flow may be all that is needed to move the hook into the right alignment. The line tightening will be the signal to set the hook.

The problem I see is in the fish rejecting the fly before it goes that far. Ways need to be found to tie flies that are soft enough and feel real enough that he fish will hold on to the fly long enough to get the desired results. Thick wool bodied Killer Bugs and Killer Kebari would probably be good patterns to start with. Open celled foam, which sinks as opposed to closed cell foam that floats, might be another good possibility for making flies the fish will hold on to rather than rejecting immediately…Karl.

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