(Author's note: This article was written a few years ago for young anglers. But the advice applies to anglers of all ages who want to catch more fish.)
You feel the fish bite. It even pulls the line and bends your rod. But you don’t catch it.
Maybe the fish was too small to get the hook in its mouth. Maybe it bit and spit.
Or maybe you didn’t set the hook properly.
Along with mastering a level-wind reel, one of the biggest challenges for young anglers is learning how to set the hook.
Remember when you first went fishing? When you saw your bobber bounce that first time, you were so excited that you started reeling as fast as you could. Probably your dad or your grandpa or maybe even your mother was yelling, “Set the hook! Set the hook!”
You just kept reeling. You didn’t know what “set the hook” meant.
Now, you know that it means to pull back on the rod when you see or feel a fish bite, and that’s what you do. But still you miss bass. What’s wrong?
Maybe nothing. We all miss fish occasionally--- even professionals such as Kevin VanDam.
But you definitely can improve your catch rate if you will listen and learn from the best.
“With a Texas rig, you have to drive the hook through the plastic,” says VanDam. “I like to do it with a little slack line. I drop the rod tip and hit real hard.”
Others say to tighten your line all the way before setting the hook. The problem with that is a tight line can make it easier for a bass to feel you--- and possibly drop the bait--- before you set the hook.
Whichever method you use--- tight or a little slack--- act quickly when you feel a bite on a soft plastic. And jerk hard.
With another single-hook bait, the spinnerbait, you should pull more than jerk. “Let the rod load up and pull into the fish,” VanDam explains. “Reel hard and pull.”
“Load up” means the weight of the fish is putting bend into the rod, especially the tip.
Topwaters and crankbaits, meanwhile, make it easier to connect with the fish because they have treble hooks. But be careful.
“You want to let the fish load up on a crankbait or topwater,” says Florida pro James Charlesworth. “And then you want to do a sweeping hook set. If you set too hard, you can jerk the hooks right out.”
VanDam adds, “Today’s hooks are so good, so sharp, that you don’t need to set the hook hard.”
With a topwater, the Michigan pro advises that you wait until you feel the weight of the fish pulling down before you react.
It’s tough to do that when you see a big bass wallowing all over your bait. Your first instinct is to jerk as soon as you see the fish going after the topwater. Setting the hook too soon, however, will just pull the bait away from the bass.
If you’re fishing with a spinning rod, light line, and finesse baits, you don’t want to jerk at all. Doing so might break the line. Plus, you don’t need as much force to stick a bass with a light wire hook as you do with a big worm hook.
Instead of jerking, use a “reel set.” When you feel the fish, reel as fast as you can, allow the rod to load up and pull straight up and back.
“I do a lot of smallmouth fishing with a spin rod,” says VanDam. “With this hook set, if you miss the fish, you can let the rod back down, and the smallmouth will be right there to hit the bait again.”