Get to the Point

How to hook your bait to catch more fish

By Chuck Garrison

There’s more to hooking live bait than just sticking a hook point into a little fish. Where you place that point, the size of the hook, the strength of your fishing line and at what depth you think the game fish are swimming all play a part in properly hooking your bait.

First, before even reaching into the live bait tank, you need to consider what type of bait you’re using and the feeding mood of the game fish you’re trying to catch. That’s going to determine the size of your hook and strength of your line. A smaller hook and a lighter line have less drag in the water, because both are of smaller diameter than larger, heavier hooks and line.

The first rule, then, is to match the size of the hook and the line to the bait, not the game fish you are targeting. A small, "pinhead-size" anchovy, for instance, is not going to swim naturally, energetically or for very long if it’s wearing a big hook and pulling thick fishing line through the water. So-called "live bait" style hooks, short-shanked and drawn from thin wire, are ideal for live baits like anchovies, sardines, squid and mackerel.

As a general guide (there are always exceptions), here are the recommendations for matching baits and lines with hooks sizes, which I’ve listed in my book "Offshore Fishing: Southern California and Baja":

Bait Type: Hook Sizes: Line Strengths

Anchovy (small): 8, 6, 4 : 10 to 15 pound test

Anchovy (large): 4, 2, 1/0: 15 to 30 pound test

Sardine (small): 6, 4, 2: 10 to 20 pound test

Sardine (large): 2, 1/0, 3/0, 4/0, 5/0: 15 to 40 pound test

Squid: 1, 1/0, 3/0, 4/0, 5/0: 15 to 40 pound test

Mackerel (greenback): 3/0, 4/0, 5/0, 6/0: 20 to 50 pound test

Mackerel (Spanish): 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0: 15 to 40 pound test

One factor that can affect hook and line selection, however, is the feeding mood of the game fish. Occasionally (but never often enough), albacore, bass, barracuda, bonito, yellowtail, white seabass and other local game fish go on apparently wild and reckless feeding sprees, casting caution aside and gobbling down just about any size bait, hook and fishing line. That’s when you can get away with using bigger hooks and stronger lines. OK, but where to hook that bait?

You’ve got several choices, depending on whether you’re going to present your live bait on or near the surface, or farther down in the depths. For most fishing with live anchovies, sardines, mackerel or squid, if the game fish are swirling or "boiling" on the surface, you’ll want to tie the hook directly to the fishing line and not use any sinker, thus "fly-lining" so your bait swims just below the surface. For fly-lining, anchovies and sardines are typically nose-hooked, with the hook inserted crosswise in the nose. Take care to hook the bait lightly and as far forward in the nose as possible, without the hook tearing out; this hook position will produce the liveliest swimming action.

Anchovies and sardines can also be "gill-hooked," when fly-lining. The hook point is inserted very lightly and just beneath a toughened ridge of skin behind the bait’s gill cover, called the gill collar. This hooking method is best used when fishing on or near the surface and with smaller hooks and lighter lines; the gill-hooked bait will experience more drag in the water than the nose-hooked bait.

A variation on hooking when fly-lining with mackerel is hooking the mackerel just forward of its dorsal fin, across its back, thus called "dorsal" hooking. A mackerel hooked in this manner will tend to stay from a few feet to a few yards from the surface.

Move the hook backward, however, so that the mackerel is hooked at a point about two-thirds of the way along its body toward the tail. Even without using a sinker, the mackerel will have a tendency to swim downward, deeper than a nose-hooked or dorsal-hooked mackerel. The drag of the line from the rear of the bait, as the bait swims, "tips" the mackerel’s nose down and sends it into an angled dive.

A different technique is used to make an anchovy or sardine swim downward, without using a sinker. It’s not going to reach the bottom in 80 feet of water, but it can swim down -- depending on line size, current and other factors -- to a 20 or 25 foot range. This method is called anal or "vent" hooking. The hook point is inserted in the bait’s anal opening or vent and is then turned to expose the point again.

An alternative to vent-hooking is hooking the bait crosswise in the lower part of its body, near the tail. This hook position will also tilt the bait’s head downward and cause it to swim deeper.

Often, when using a sinker weighing 3/8-ounce or more, it’s best to nose-hook your bait. That way, when the weight of the sinker pulls the bait down into the depths, the fish sinks head-first, which is its natural orientation when swimming.

Hooking live squid is easy. Whether you’re using a sinker or not, the squid is hooked in the tip of its tail, with the hook gripping just enough tissue so that the hook won’t tear out of the soft-fleshed squid when casting, or when the squid is sinking. Some anglers like to double-hook the squid by its tail, running the hook point in, out, back in and then back out again. Think of it as threading the squid on the hook.

Remember, the key to catching game fish on live bait is to be sure it’s alive and lively. Once hooked, if bait appears sluggish, toss it overboard as chum, and select another bait from the bait tank. It’s also a good idea to change your bait often, if you’re not getting strikes. "Often," when the fish are close to the boat and biting well, means at least every three or four minutes.

Even if your bait looks good to you, the fish you’re trying to catch may see something they don’t like.

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