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The One That Got Away

Four faults that lead to lost fish — and how to correct them

A rusty hook will get bites and strikes, but a fresh, sharp hook will always get the fish.

That moment is clearly etched in my memory. It was early evening as my skiff softly coasted into a deserted shoreline. I was a long cast off a small tidal pond outlet at the first stages of a falling flood. Firing a top-water plug to just a foot or two off the sand, I gave the lure the slightest pop. A mighty swirl engulfed the bait, and my pulse went sky-high.
    Feeling immediate pressure on my line, I set the hook, and a large, powerful fish took off, sending its wake cascading along the shoreline like breaking surf. The reel drag started its song, and my rod bowed deeply.
    Then, inexplicably, the fish was gone. My heart plummeted. Reeling in the line, dejected, I had a strong suspicion of what had just happened. As I lifted the plug to my hand, my fears were confirmed. My line had fouled the front hook during the cast.
    Sometimes there is little you can do to prevent entangling the lure. But, minimally, keeping the lure steady and not tumbling during its flight can be critical, and not just for optimum distance. Avoiding excess wrist snap at the end of the casting stroke tends to produce a smoother, more controlled throw.
    If a multi-hooked plug tumbles in the air, there is a good chance the loose trailing line will foul, particularly on that front treble hook. An angler might not notice the problem during the retrieve, but it will most definitely impact the outcome of any rockfish battle.
    Since the line has become wrapped around the bend in the front hook and the front of the lure is, inevitably, the end a striper will attack, the pressure from the angler in fighting the fish will eventually pull that fouled hook backwards, out of the fish’s mouth.
    The next most frequent cause of losing a good fish just after the strike is slack line. This is particularly true of spin-casting tackle. If the arc of the line trailing the lure is excessive — either because of a high overhand cast or from the effect of a brisk wind — a large amount of loose line will be pulled off of the spool.
    Before the angler can again come tight to the lure and regain control of that slack, a fish may have struck and spit the bait. Even if the force of the fish’s strike sinks a hook without much angler pressure, that slack may have allowed only light hook penetration.
    The fight from a lightly hooked fish is usually short and not in favor of the angler. Keeping the casting arc low to the water during windy conditions and avoiding high-arching overhead casts minimizes this problem.
    Another cause of many lost game fish is the quality and condition of the hooks. Saltwater is relentless for encouraging rust. There are no remedies for hooks that become oxidized except replacement.
    Under magnification, a rusted hook will show a very rough surface requiring a much greater force than an unaffected hook to penetrate a fish’s jaws, particularly larger fish that tend to have age-hardened mouth structures. A rusty hook will still get bites and strikes, but a fresh, sharp hook will always get the fish: So goes the angling dictum.
    The last significant cause of losing a good game fish at any stage of the fight is rod-handling technique. Close syncopation with the rod and reel is necessary to bring a fish to hand. The key is gaining line by stroking the rod smoothly and forcefully back (preferably to the side), then reeling in the gained line while continuing to maintain pressure on the fish, especially while lowering the rod in preparation for another retrieval stroke.