Creating new hooks is about more than just sharpening and bending thin pieces of wire. And with all the hooks already on the market, why would you even want to? Meet a man who saw a need and is working hard to fill it with some great new barbless hooks
[by Mike Cline]
THE BASIC FUNCTION AND DESIGN OF THE FISHHOOK WAS SETTLED MANY CENTURIES AGO. Like knives, forks, and spoons, there’s not a lot of room for change. Today, fishhooks are global commodities with at least a dozen major manufacturers in Asia and Europe. Some brands don’t even compete in the United States where companies like Eagle Claw, Mustad, Tiemco, Daiichi, Gamakatsu, and others hold significant market share. You’d think that an entrepreneur starting a new business wouldn’t choose fishhooks as a first product line, but Joe Mathis, of Firehole Outdoors, in Bozeman, Montana, disagrees. Unbeknownst to me, Joe and his wife, Deb, live just a few miles across town. Although I saw Joe’s hooks in local fly shops, I knew nothing about his company. He and I agreed to meet and talk about hooks. I’ve chatted with Joe many times since, but our first meeting was a real education.
When I first met Joe, we spent more than an hour talking about Bozeman and, more important, hooks. Joe, with a long beard and Montana State University sweatshirt, had this Duck Dynasty look. In his mid-50s, he started his career as a professional engineer working in production management and manufacturing for Dell Computers in Austin, Texas. Joe moved his family to Bozeman in 2009.
Early on, I asked Joe if he is a fly fisher; of course he is, but it is obvious that fishing is a secondary pursuit. Yes, he ties flies, has all the fishing gear, and gets out on the water occasionally, but at heart, Joe is an engineer. For that first hour, neither of us shared any fish stories or the inevitable parade of big-fish pictures; instead, we talked about hooks, and how he and his wife started Firehole Outdoors.
Why Another Hook?
I wanted to know more about the engineering aspect of fly hook design, so I sat with Joe in the basement of his home, affectionately known as “Firehole Central,” and he explained his story.
As Joe tells it, one day he walked into a local fly shop looking for barbless hooks. Although he found them, he couldn’t believe the price; he thought it was a lot of money to pay for a package of only 25 hooks, even if the quality was high. Walking out of the shop, Joe the Engineer thought, I can do this better. I can design and manufacture a barbless fly hook at a far more affordable price.
There is a reason barbless fly hooks tend to be more expensive than similar barbed models. Pure and simple, it is supply and demand. Twenty-five years ago, finding barbless hooks specifically made for tying flies was a hopeless pursuit, but over the last few decades, the pros and cons of fishing with barbed versus barbless hooks became well documented. Moreover, new federal, state, and local regulations mandating the use of barbless hooks drove additional demand. Even though barbs can be pinched down with pliers to make hooks comply with regulations, major hook manufacturers introduced more models of barbless hooks. The demand for barbless hooks, however, is still probably less than 5 percent of the entire fly hook market. For mainstream manufacturers, barbless fly hooks are only small niches of their businesses, so fly tiers pay premium for barbless hooks in the right sizes and shapes compared to the prices of barbed counterparts.
Sometime in 2014, Joe started designing a series of barbless hooks that might appeal to fly anglers. He consulted with more than a dozen manufacturers in Asia and the United States, seeking one to produce his hooks and ensure production quality, and consistently deliver his product in a timely manner at a price that makes economic sense for tiers. He settled on a small manufacturer in China, and outfitters, guides, and fly tiers rigorously tested the first samples.
How a Manufacturing Engineer Designs a Fishhook
Joe Mathis, the engineer and barblesshook entrepreneur, found a way to make high-quality, functional barbless fly hooks at a very affordable price. (In a quick internet search, I found various Firehole Outdoors trout hooks—the company calls them Fire Sticks—selling for $7.25 per box of 36. —editor) The more I talked with him about his hooks, the more curious I became about hook design. This is what he told me about designing barbless fly hooks.
MIKE I think you started with 12 different hook models, each in a specific set of sizes. What are the factors that go into deciding on a new hook model and what sizes you will offer?
JOE For the first dozen designs, it was important that I create a selection that broadly covered the basic styles of hooks. This, of course, had to include standard dry fly, nymph, jig, streamer, and beadhead nymph hooks. In addition, a selection of scud, emerger, caddis, and Klinkhammer-style hooks was necessary. I rounded out the offering with a heavywire, short-shank nymph hook and a unique extended-body dry fly hook. During the design process, I created specifications for sizes that ranged both larger and smaller than what would be considered standard for each hook style. I ordered wire molds for all the sizes as well as initial prototype manufacturing runs for each model. For the production runs, I narrowed the sizes down to those that would target the broadest audience; I could always add more sizes if the demand was there. While the initial designs reflected 12 different hooks, from the beginning there were about two dozen models in some level of development.
FAVORITE BARBLESS HOOKS
In addition to Firehole Outdoors, several other companies also offer barbless fly tying hooks. This list is far from exhaustive, but it will get you started when selecting the types of barbless hooks you want to add to your fly tying bench. —David Klausmeyer
MIKE Can you explain how you design a specific hook model?
JOE After extensive research on existing hooks, and with the models that I have already designed, it is simple to create a new hook. I decide to bring a new model to market because there is a lack of a barbless hook of that style, or I decide to directly compete with a traditional model of barbed hook. I generally stick to the following steps when designing a new hook. First, I make preliminary drawings of what I want to see in the new hook. I define any changes I want from what is currently or similarly available in other hooks. Do I want a larger gap, longer or shorter tying length, or changes to the angle of the eye? It’s things like that. I take the measurements and analysis of similar models: shank length, hook length, gap, point length, the termination of the point with respect to the shank, wire diameter, bend shape, and more. Next, I incorporate all this analysis into the final hook measurements based on my design criteria, have prototypes manufactured, and go! For a hook like the model 718, there really isn’t anything standard about it; it doesn’t fit into any of the traditional standard categories. I specifically designed this hook to compete in the market with barbed nymph hooks featuring slightly bent shanks. As with my initial designs, I measured, charted, and analyzed shank length, hook length, gap, point length, termination of point with respect to the shank, wire diameter, and bend shapes. I studied as many similar hooks as I could find. This gave me the basic metrics and shape that tiers see in this style of hook. The overall length is within a couple hundredths of a millimeter of the same numerical sizes of those hooks, but the wire of my hooks is slightly heavier and the shanks are slightly more curved. The difference in the curve allows for a smoother transition, and it accommodates a larger gap and an extended retention point. The hook is also forged way up into the shank to ensure against bending.
MIKE At one point in the initial development process, you asked some prominent tiers and other industry experts to evaluate prototype designs of your hooks. How did you incorporate that feedback from an engineering perspective?
JOE I sent sample hooks to tiers around the country. The difference in feedback was amazing depending on where the each tier lived. They tied different flies, different sizes of the same flies, experience different water conditions, and cast to different species of fish. They often loved or hated the exact same models of hooks, or they would say to change nothing or change everything! I charted each model to the varying conditions and saw a pattern develop based on the type of hook— dry fly, nymph, curved-shank, and so on. I changed the designs of three of the initial hooks, and about half of all the hooks received a change in wire size.
I must admit that, from an engineering perspective, I got one model significantly wrong with respect to who had more leverage during a fight—the fish or the angler. No one landed a single fish on the first prototype on one of my hooks, so I changed the curvature of the shank, the depth of the bend, and the angle of the retention point.
Even my manufacturer made contributions to the final designs. Using proprietary hook production techniques, which the manufacturer can’t reveal, he generated recommendations that resulted in better designs and lower production costs.
MIKE As an engineer, how do you judge the performance and quality of a fly hook? And what should a tier look for when judging the quality of a hook?
JOE I think there is not as much of a difference in how I judge the performance versus how a tier judges performance and quality. I tend to be concerned with more things than the consumer is, and if I do my work correctly, he shouldn’t have to be concerned with anything but catching fish. When I hear from someone who dislikes a hook, it is almost always because he was unable to land a fish with a barbless hook. As you can imagine, this is a delicate conversation to have because it almost always involves their “fish of a lifetime.” Generally, folks have become used to hooks with barbs, and fishing barbless requires a little more finesse.
Poor quality is almost always reflected in broken hooks. In the first year, I cataloged as many of these problem hooks as possible from anglers who contacted me, and a very distinct pattern emerged. Without fail, hooks broke at the spot in the bend where they would have been placed in a vise. When viewed under magnification, most of them showed evidence of the imprint of overtightened vise jaws. This is also a delicate conversation to have with most tiers.
MIKE Is hook design an art or a science?
JOE It is a bit of both. I worked hard to incorporate as much engineering into the designs as made sense. I was able to take the necessary time when I didn’t know if this little basement experiment would be anything more than just that—an experiment. At some point, I had to tell myself that a dry fly hook is just a dry fly hook, and a nymph hook is just a nymph hook. I wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel, I just hoped to make it roll a little better.
Mike Cline is a retired United States Air Force officer and business consultant. He caught his first Firehole River trout in 1972, and has since fly fished throughout the world. Mike lives in Montana.
To see the entire line of Firehole Outdoors hooks, go to J. Stockard Fly Fishing; check out the company website at www.jsflyfishing.com. This is an edited version of an article that appeared as a blog on its website.