Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
Why and How
Over the last three tarpon seasons I’ve been conducting an informal test of different tarpon hook types. The goal was to determine whether my fish retention rate (the proportion of tarpon that stayed hooked rather than threw the hook) differed between hook types. The results were conclusive enough that I now have a new standard hook for my tarpon flies.
I tied flies on four different hooks over the past three seasons: Owner Aki Hook (Model 5170-121), Owner All Purpose Bait Hook (Model 5115-121), Gamakatsu Saltwaater Series SC17 Tarpon (model 275412-10), and Mustad Ultrapoint (model 9175UPBLN). All hooks were size 2/0. I tied relatively equal numbers of my most commonly used fly patterns on each hook type, and fished them in no particular order. Each time I selected a new pattern while fishing, I used the fly I grabbed out of the fly box without prior knowledge of which hook it was tied on. Prior to tying the fly to the shock tippet, I noted which hook the fly was tied on. I used the same knot to attach the hook to the shock tippet, always used the same leader and shock tippet specifications, and fished the flies in the same manner. In other words, I tried to standardize all aspects of fishing. For flies that were eaten by a tarpon, I noted whether the fish stayed hooked or threw the hook.
The results were pretty striking, even early on, but I stuck with the experiment for two reasons. First, I had a bunch of the lesser performing hooks in the hook drawer of my fly tying desk, and I certainly wasn’t going to throw them out (they are way too expensive for that). Second, I was still catching tarpon, and I wanted to continue the comparison for a longer time to make sure the results were valid.
The lost fish rate was considerably lower for the Owner bait hooks than all of the standard J-Hooks. The overall retained fish rate on J-Hooks was 1 in 4, but was much better at 1 in 2 with the bait hooks.
I characterize the Owner bait hooks as semi-circle hooks – not true circle hooks, but with enough circle hook characteristics to increase chances of a solid hook set. The hook point is slightly curved inward, and the hook has an upturned eye, which assists the hooking ability. For me, this hook is a good compromise. Actively setting the hook is too ingrained in me to just hold on and let the fish pull the line tight to set the hook, which must happen when using a true circle hook. Plus, tarpon sometimes spit out the fly before the line can come tight (especially in situations with a head-on angle), and in these situations an active hook set is necessary. So the Owner bait hook is a good mix – I can set the hook, and the hook seems to set and hold better than standard J-Hooks.
I first picked up a package of the Owner all purpose bait hooks a few years ago when I was looking for a lighter wire hook that I could use for flies I tied for laid up tarpon. A lighter hook helps with a soft landing on the cast, but the potential with the thinner wire is that a large fish might straighten the hook. Thus far, I have not had any problems with this – no signs of the hook straightening, even after a couple of fish on a single fly – but it is something I will keep my eye on. Out of the box, these hooks are slightly offset, but I straighten out the offset in the vice because the fly rides more true with a straight hook.
Interestingly, a recent trip to El Pescador lodge in Belize, provided some corroborating evidence to my conclusions. I learned that many of the guides there are now tying tarpon flies on circle hooks, especially for newer anglers (who often miss the bite or have a bad hook set), but also for more experienced anglers. They report very high fish retention rates.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
Our sister site Tribal Bonefish is all about conservation through responsible fishing. Tribal Bonefish shows you how to become a better steward of our coasts to protect our fisheries today, and ensure future generations get a chance to experience these fisheries.