Hook Sense
Let’s get right to the point regarding hook selection. Use these tips to choose—or create—the perfect hook.
by Bill “Bugs” Logan
Perhaps you’re the sort who is ahead of the game, taking time to tie flies well before you actually need them. I hope you have a little pile of finished nymphs and drys before your vise, ready to go to work. If so, you deserve to rule the river, and you just may! Most of us, though, aren’t that well organized. Regardless of better intentions, we find ourselves tying in the odd moments right up until we sprint out the door, with rod cases tucked under our arms and waders slung across our backs. That’s me, all right: I keep saying I will change, but we know the truth.
With all fly tiers in mind—but especially those among us who are fated to be last-minute hook wrappers—I’m going to pass on simple ideas regarding hook selection that will make a difference for your bread-and-butter tying and in your fishing. And we’re especially fortunate, for we’ll benefit as well from the wisdom and advice of Mr. Kenshiro Shimizaki, who just may be the most knowledgeable man on the planet regarding hooks and hook making. Kenshiro has designed all of Tiemco’s hooks. How is that for a résumé?
     So here we begin, with a common-sense approach that gets right to the point, even though it sadly leads to wicked thoughts bent toward innocent trout and the coming days of our great content.

Getting to the Point
The most important thing to remember is that if you find you’re splitting hairs between two or three models or brands of hooks, you are almost surely being too picky. Just ask yourself this: Which candidate has the widest gap, the most appropriate shape, and the best wire weight? Which is the least expensive? And which has the best point? Small chemically sharpened points and micro barbs are a good thing. Barbless points are also good if they don’t cost more, but a pinched barb leaves a little hump that may actually help hold fish.
     With respect to selecting hooks, Kenshiro adds, “Descriptions in the catalog are just guidelines. Try tying old favorite flies on different hook shapes. You’ll discover a lot of things, maybe even a fly that saves your day.”
     What is Kenshiro’s opinion regarding straight versus downturned eyes?
     “The advantages of a straight-eyed hook are structural strength, maximum gap opening, and more natural presentation.” Kenshiro calls this presentation free-swinging action.
     A downturned eye, however, is also mechanically better at hooking fish. Think about it: a fish pulls on the hook, and the pressure on the eye forces it to hinge upward; this pressure drives the hook point and bend home more soundly, and the fly remains better seated. Have you noticed that points on straight-eyed hooks are often bent up slightly to compensate, so they may act similarly?
     Until recently, it was thought that midge hooks should have straight eyes to maximize hook clearance. Lately, however, the trend has been toward wide-gap hooks with slightly downturned eyes in an attempt to combine the advantages of both hook designs.
     And what do we need to know about the gap of a hook? In theory, a standard hook’s gap is equal to half its length minus the eye. Ah, but with the trend toward specialization, there is hardly such a thing as a standard hook these days, and there is no universal standard for measuring gap. Kenshiro believes the roots of hook sizing may reach as far back as Isaak Walton’s time. The notion has certainly progressed haphazardly since. Tiemco’s sizing began with measurements taken from Partridge and Alcock hooks, but has been substantially tweaked.
     So, what’s the bottom line about hook gap? One manufacturer’s size 12 may well be another company’s size 14. Comparison is our only option. When selecting a hook, ask yourself this: Once I’ve tied the fly, how much gap will remain? Put simply, the more material you wrap around a hook, the smaller the gap becomes and the less deeply it will hook a fish. (Curiously, that may be another argument in favor of making sparsely dressed flies.)
On shorter-shank or curved-shank pupa-style hooks, it’s important to remember that what’s up front also counts. On such hooks, big thoraxes or bushy hackles reduce hook gap and thus their effectiveness.
How does Kenshiro feel about offset points to enhance hooking?
     “While in theory this should lead to better hooking, it’s not necessarily so. As offset increases, so, too, does stress through torque, in which case the wire must be strong enough to withstand the pressure. Fine-wire hooks are better left in-line.
     “There is also a problem with swimming balance. An early lot of Tiemco’s 2487 pupa and emerger hooks had an offset, which was removed in the next lot after anglers reported a skewed swimming motion as flies were retrieved. And of course, with a nudge, tiers can offset any hook while it’s in the vise. Structurally, it’s far better to modify a straight hook to be offset rather than vice versa. However, if you want to improve hooking ability, it’s often wiser to slightly open the point rather than offset it.”

Shades of Color
Have you ever noticed that not all trout hooks come in plain bronze? In fact, some anglers swear by hooks plated in various colors. Kenshiro (or Tiemco), for instance, prefers black finishes on some trout hooks. Why? Do they have any advantage?
     “In 1981, three years before the first Tiemco hooks became available, I designed two hooks for Partridge intended for the Japanese market. I wanted a special feature, and used a black finish, which is not uncommon in traditional Japanese hook making. However, black trout fly hooks were unusual and, as it turns out, were accepted only reluctantly by many tiers. This changed over time with the introduction of several black Tiemco models. Partridge certainly laid the foundation for this.
     “It’s often asserted that educated trout refuse a fly if they see glare from the finish around the hook bend. While I believe I’ve witnessed such refusals, it’s risky to impose our opinion on a fish’s behavior. In truth, I think it comes down to preference and aesthetics. Some anglers swear by the black finish, and others prefer bronze.”
Why is hook temper important, and what should we know?
     “Before it can be bent,” Kenshiro explained, “wire must be annealed [softened] through heating and slow cooling. Once a hook is formed, it obviously has to be retempered [hardened], again through heating and rapid, controlled cooling. The ideal hook is not so hard as to become brittle or so soft that it opens up once in use. Finding the right balance is a tricky business. So far as we’re concerned, the only time temper becomes a special issue is if we wish to reshape a hook. Then it must lean just a bit toward the soft side so the hook doesn’t snap. As you can imagine, selecting the appropriate hooks in this case involves a good deal of hit or miss even between different hooks within the same brand. Very generally speaking, Japanese hooks best fit the bill. And of course, Tiemco has the broadest, most easily attainable selection. Sadly, older models of Partridge and Mustad hooks have tended to be too brittle. I’m glad to say that with newer models, this seems to be changing.”

The Shape of Things to Come
Why should we consider reshaping a hook, and how do we do it? In some cases, the ideal hook doesn’t exist. Have you become aware of this, either while devising your own patterns or when something about a hook design has begun bothering you? There is no reason you can’t alter a hook to achieve the desired fly, so long as you remember it must hold fish.
     There are a couple of basic rules for reshaping a hook. To begin with, do as little bending as you can in a few planned moves. Kenshiro says that bending a hook more than twice in the same area may dramatically decrease its strength. Also, hooks smaller than size 16 are especially easy to break near the eye.
     To alter a hook, place it firmly in your vise. You’ll be surprised at how much bending you can accomplish with your fingers. Be gentle. If you must use needle-nosed pliers, never make abrupt bends that create angles; smooth, continuous bends are the ticket. Remember also that fish are much less apt to slip the hook if the point is bent slightly upward rather than being parallel to the shaft.
     Hooks, hooks—my kingdom for the right hooks. Fortunately, we have a lot of hooks from which to choose. And, by working slowly and carefully, we can alter manufactured hooks to meet our specific desires. Poor fish: they don’t stand a chance with the new flies we will tie.

Bill “Bugs” Logan is one of the most thoughtful and inventive fly tiers on the planet. In addition to tying and fishing, Bill is also a brilliant artist. He is a man of eclectic interests, and is in the final throes of completing a wonderful book about collecting fine art prints. Bill lives in New Jersey.
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