Pictured above: Twisted Metal: A big striper used a rock to wrench open this bucktail hook.
“The Hook Mangler is back,” said Kevin as he took a closer look at his jighead. The once-perfect “J” had been gnarled into an unpronounceable symbol. This had been Kevin’s second go-around with the “Hook Mangler,” the name we’d given to the striper (most likely stripers) that had pretzeled several of our hooks over the previous two weeks.
My first dance with the Mangler happened on a foggy afternoon. The fish hit a bucktail jig and instead of running straight out, bee-lined for a cluster of partially submerged boulders. Fearing the line would be sliced by the rough-sided rocks, I jammed my palm against the spool and held tight. Within seconds, the rod snapped straight and I retrieved the jig with its freshly reconfigured hook.
When the Mangler struck again a few days later, I took the opposite approach. I let him run. The rocks were still a concern so I held my rod as high as possible, extending my arms over my head and bracing the butt of the rod against my chest in an effort to keep as much line out of the water—and away from the rocks—as I could. When the fish stopped, it shook its head a few times and locked me into a stalemate. I pulled as hard as I dared, and when it gave, though I still felt weight on the end of the line, I didn’t feel any life. The Mangler, it turned out, had buried his face in the rock weed and used the rocks and the vegetation to twist the hook out of his jaw. I sifted through the salad and found another bent bucktail to add to my collection.
Though straightening out hooks can be heartbreaking, unlike other “one that got away” encounters, at least they leave you with a souvenir. The first few times I opened up hooks on big stripers, I felt helpless—like I was simply overmatched by bass of that size. Eventually, I learned that most of the time, a straightened hook has less to do with the size and strength of the fish and more to do with how the fish was hooked or a mistake the angler made while fighting it.
The 6X Solution?
After straightening a couple treble hooks on plugs, it can be tempting to swap them out for heavier-gauge 6X hooks. Before doing so, keep in mind that 6X hooks carry significantly more weight than 4X, enough extra weight to alter the way some plugs swim.
I’m not convinced that 6X hooks are the answer. Even the wire of these hooks will bend (and in more cases, break), and a strong fish with good leverage is always going to find the weak spot in the system, whether it’s the line, the knot, the hook, or the fish’s mouth. Every year, I catch stripers with gruesome wounds from past encounters with heavy-gauge hooks.
One way to prevent straightened hooks is to get a good hookset. A hook that doesn’t fully embed in the hard mouth of a big striper is bound to straighten. Instead of the pressure being at the “J” in the hook, it’s concentrated at the hook point, which gives the bass the leverage needed to wrench it open. Setting your drag tight enough so it doesn’t slip on the hookset and keeping your hooks needle-sharp with a file are essential for burying the hook.
With plugs—especially long-bodied plugs like pencil poppers or needlefish—the lure itself acts as a lever against the hooks. With the bass pulling one way and the fisherman pulling another, the plug pivots against the striper’s head and wrenches the hook open. Some hooks bent in this way come in looking smashed, like they were steamrolled. One way to minimize the odds of this happening is to remove the tail hook or replace it with a “flag” or a hookless teaser. This way, at least, the hooks won’t work against each other as the fish shakes its head.
The main culprit in most hook straightenings is an overly tight drag or a nervous angler. Set the drag tight enough to get a good hookset and tire out a bass, but loose enough to let him run. I like to err on the loose side because it’s much easier to lightly palm the spool than it is to back down on a tight drag mid-fight. Some fishermen are content to fiddle with their drags while a fish is on the line, but I keep my hands away from the drag knob while hooked up.
It’s a tough balancing act, knowing when to put on the heat and when to let the fish run. However, if you do everything right and still find yourself staring at a piece of twisted steel that was once your hook, it’s best to remember that some fish aren’t meant to be caught. Just think how boring surfcasting would be without the Hook Manglers and the other great stripers that get away.