In the natural progression of quizzing the crowd, I ask why almost no one carries a sharpener.
I do seminars from time to time: I love doing them because I get to meet so many STS readers and see their passion for our past time. No matter the subject—if it’s kokanee, steelhead, salmon or trout—I always ask this question: “Can anyone tell me what the most important piece of equipment you can have for a day’s fishing?” The answers are always never the right one…it’s usually, “My G.Loomis rod!” or “My Clackacraft drift boat!” or “My 96mm squishy expanding throbbing pegged fluorescent seven-color flashing detonating beads!!” Ahhhhhh… nope. The most important item an angler can have is a hook sharpener.
When I ask the attendees how many of you—honestly—carry one with you, rarely does anyone raise their hand, and if it happens at all, it’s one, perhaps two people in an audience out of 50. In the natural progression of quizzing the crowd, I ask why almost no one carries a sharpener. The answer is commonly, “Well, the hooks nowadays are pretty damn sharp out of the package, and I catch plenty of fish with them.” All well and good, and yes we have come a long ways from the early days of the ‘70s and ‘80s when some hook companies packaged their hooks as sharp as a bowling ball. But I will say this, even modern, ultra-sharp hooks will need a touch up to stay productive. All—and I mean all—chemically sharpened hooks are barely acceptable for use (check out the “points” under magnification), and only when you are hooking dozens of fish (this is 2020, folks, not 1955…) a day are these hooks usable straight out of the box.
When I’m asked “what is my most important tip to give someone on the water?” It’s always that I make every cast (I do space out once in a while, I blame the ‘80s for that, but I’m pretty good at frequent checking) with a deathly sharp hook. Here is the most important reason for a surgically sharp hook every cast… there is never a time when someone walks up to you, taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey man, that fish of a lifetime you are always hoping for, well, it’s gonna strike on this next cast.” No one knows when that 20-pound steelhead, that 40-pound Chinook or 10-pound trout is going to bite. With a dulled hook that only penetrates shallow at best results in that “twist, twist, SPIT” that we all loathe so very much. I will say all my trophy fish were landed not just by luck and experience but because I always presented the sharpest hook tine possible.
To avoid this sickening event, and I will admit I’m guilty of not doing this all the time, but if you check your hook point(s) every, say, 10 casts you up the percentage of that hook getting proper purchase by 1000%. Do it regardless if your lure/terminal drags cobble even for a nano second. Chances are very good if it touched bottom the hook point has been compromised. See how many times you will think after checking the hook, “damn, I’m glad I checked it…that s.o.b. was dull! Even after landing a fish, check the point (and re-tie your knots!!) as fish mouths are hard and chances are your hook is not quite up to standards. Get into the habit of frequent hook checks, no matter the technique of choice.
When you test your hook point to make sure it’s on point... sorry, low hanging fruit there…DO NOT shove the point of the tine into your thumbnail!!! I know this is the old way and Grandpa showed you this method of determining sharpness but think of this…your fingernails are hard, and any fine point that was on the hook is now compromised to some degree by ramming it into a hard surface. When I see someone on the water do this, I ask them if I can see their lure/terminal gear. I then bend over, grab a rock from the river and ram their hook point into it and hand it back. And I always get the same wide-eyed, profanity-laced surprised reaction…
“What the (blinkety-blank) are you doing!!!”
“Same thing you’re (bleeping) doing, criminally (bleeping) up your hook point.”
River Herzog and his fiance’ Madison with a jig caught Grande Ronde summer run. A sticky hook point keeps the jig pinned until hookset.
The proper way of testing degree of sharpness (which was shown to me by my Uncle so many years ago) is to lightly run the point onto your finger tip skin. If the point is “sticky” and immediately pokes skin (don’t worry you won’t bleed at all) the hook is fine for another presentation. If it doesn’t immediately stick on the skin, get to sharpening until it does. Fingertips are soft and will not compromise impeccable sharpness like a hard thumbnail. After a couple days of hard casting my fingertip looks like it has 100 tiny white dots on it.
Just because you started with a surgically honed point does not mean you can cast seven dozen times without checking for that perfect sharpness. Steelhead do not come easily, nor often in this brave new world. When you spend so much money on gear, gas, etc., and spend precious time on the water, being lazy about checking your hook point may (and I bet it has for everyone reading this) cost you the only fish of the trip, and God forbid it was “the one.” We have all lost that fish after a brief series of head shakes, reeled in while weaving a tapestry of expletives and checked to hook to find that brief encounter with a rock a few casts before rolled the hook point over. Buh-bye.
What type/styles of sharpeners are out there? It’s nearly impossible to beat a flat diamond hone. Some love a grooved diamond sharpener. They both work great, find the one that you like and use it! There are degrees of surface you can find for sharpeners, from a fine surface for small hooks to a rougher one that removes more metal for larger hooks. I carry three—fine, medium and coarse flat surface diamond files for the size of hooks I am using that day. Even if you are using larger hooks, say 3/0 and up, start with the coarse file to get close to sharp enough, then use the fine file to “fine tune” the point, as it will not remove too much point like the coarser file would.
Sometimes, you can get a little carried away with sharpening and remove too much metal on the point, making it weak and easy to fold over on the strike. For this reason, using metal grooved files are not recommended as they remove too much material off tines and do not allow for a surgically honed point. Unless you are shark fishing with a 12/0 hook avoid metal files.
These diamond hook files have been in use since the early ‘90s...either the flat surface (my faves) or the grooved, I never go out to the river without one.
How you sharpen is the variable. There are those (like myself) who lay the tine on the flat file and stroke side to side, others stroke the point from the bottom of the tine towards the tip. Both work, use the way that works best for you. One constant is the 3 sided technique, where one side is sharpened, then the front, then the other side. After I do this, I give the hook a “roll” around the tine, making mini-strokes for fine-tuning for the ultimate sharptivityness.
Also, hooks are relatively cheap in comparison to all the other expenses and pieces of equipment with you. Hooks can generally be sharpened twice, after that the hook tine becomes “stubby” and difficult to set into the hard mouth of a salmonid. A longer, thin tine penetrates far better (easier) with half the force than a short, fatter tine every time. Keeping a longer, thinner sharp tine gets those “excuse me” Grandma hooksets to work. Once you have judged the tine is no longer holding its longer, thinner profile, scuttle the hook or change leader/lure for a new, fresh sharp one.
Case in point...sorry, did it again…a recent trip east to the Grande Ronde and its wonderful fall run of hatchery and wild summer steelhead. I took my son River, his fiancé and his soon to be father in law. He is a long time steelheader, but never tossed spoons before. He is also from the club of “hooks are plenty sharp out of the box.” The run last fall was meager, and fish were hard to come by, even with the drop dead ease of flashing metal. I watched him fish damned hard for two days without a strike, but I did notice he was hitting bottom every so often, a recipe for a dulled Siwash hook. I reminded him to check his hook point every so often, but as any multiple decade steelheader would do who is en-trenched in habit, never did. He finally hit a hot fish on the third day; it gripped the ¼ oz. BC Steel and ripped 20 feet of line off his Shimano…aaaaaand it’s gone. Shazbot.
Of course, I waded down to his location, asked to see his lure…the tine was as sharp as a peeled over ripe banana. I just gave him the “what did I say” look, re-sharpened his lure and reminded him how hard he worked for that grab, only to be disappointed by a dull point. Remember, that super sharp needle sticks momentarily in the mouth on a light strike, giving you the extra split second to set the hook, and normally that needle penetrates so much easier allowing the hook to dig in all the way to the bend, assuring you of good purchase and hopefully, a landed fish. River, of course, couldn’t resist the dig at his future father in law, held up his flat fine diamond sharpener and said, “Uh-huh…right here!”
He landed his next two strikes.
So what have we learned…just because you have a state of the art, spanking new G.Loomis E6X rod, Shimano Stradic spinning reel, Simms waders, a jar of ultra-super-secret cured roe and all that pimped-out tackle, it’s all basically worth-less without your most important piece of tackle…your hook sharpener.