One thing you’ll find in common with most of the best big gamefish anglers in our sport today is they generally all have a great hookset. What’s the opening shot on most TV show intro’s? What’s the feature shot in most fishing related commercials? What’s the visual image that really captures the true excitement of a big fish battle? It’s a power hookset, of course.
The actual mechanics of a good hookset start with correct body posture and rod positioning. Poor body posture alone negates the potential of any decent hookset. It always amazes me when I observe an inexperienced angler retrieving his lure with both his rod and body positioned 90 degrees from the lure. It’s almost impossible to generate any degree of hookset speed or power from this exaggerated bad angle since both your body and rod are completely out of position. I have always failed to understand why some anglers stand like this to begin with since there is no advantage that I know of in doing so.
Always try to face your lure as you retrieve it, whenever possible. Not only does this posture provide you with better vision and awareness of your lure, and the targets you are trying to hit, but it also puts you in the optimum body position for power hookset “swing”. The “swing” or rotation is absolutely essential in order to generate a true power hookset. Without it, you will only be able to access the speed and power of your arms not to mention, you will not be able to pick up nearly as much line.
Proper leg stance and feet positioning are also a key factor. You have to stagger your leg/feet positions in order to generate the swing properly. Simply put, if you are right handed, or at least cast and retrieve in a right handed fashion, you need to position your right foot further back than your left; and vice versa. This is critical because you actually pivot off your back foot when making this all important hookset swing. The hookset swing is nothing more than rotating your entire body and the rod to the right in one quick powerful motion. If both feet are positioned equally apart and parallel to your upper body, you can not perform this swing without a major back step beforehand. The staggered foot positioning also provides you with more stability.
If any of you have ever had any training in martial arts or boxing, you will surely understand this even better. However, those who have played football, basketball and baseball have been taught similar lessons in how a proper stance provides you with both stability and leverage. Look at a boxer’s typical stance. He’s always facing his opponent, but his leg stance always puts one foot behind the other. Defensively, this staggered leg stance provides stability and mobility. Offensively, the staggered leg stance enables the fighter to generate tremendous leverage and power on a punch. The combination is lethal.
I was very fortunate to be able to fish extensively for many big salt water gamefish at an early age with my grandfather. When I was barely a teenager, Grandpa Bucher took me on all of his fishing trips to SW Florida where we tangled with snook, cobia, drum, king mackerel, barracuda, redfish, grouper, amberjack, and even sharks. Most of these fish were at least as big as most of the muskies we catch up here, and many were actually bigger and much more powerful. Looking back, the lessons I learned from all those charter captains have served me well in the muskie arena.
One of the things I was taught early on was the secret of the body “swing” in terms of generating pure hook set power. During those first early saltwater excursions, I was a “lightweight” in both experience and actual body size. Weighing less than 140 pounds at that age, didn’t provide me with the ballast needed to go toe-to-toe with these big critters of the sea. So, I had to compensate with good form right out of the blocks. These experiences did teach me the value of utilizing good form and body weight for both the hookset and battle. But, body “swing” was key to the hookset; especially when dealing with monofilament lines and excessive line stretch. The body swing also kept me from being jerked out of the boat by the really big ones – like sharks.
Another underrated/overlooked hooksetting fundamental is rod angle and motion initiated on the hookset. Most anglers mistakenly set the hook straight up against their chest often on the same side as their rod hand. While this type of hookset might be fine for many bass and panfish applications, it simply doesn’t “cut the mustard” with muskies. Yet many muskie hunters strictly employ this kind of hookset. It’s a good bet that these same anglers loose a much larger percentage of fish. You simply can’t pick up enough line nor generate enough power on a hookset like this to effectively deal with a muskie strike at any distance from the boat.
Always drive the rod towards your opposite shoulder (from the one holding your rod) during the actual hookset motion. In other words, the rod would essentially cross in front of your face during the hookset process. This automatically creates some body rotation increasing your overall hookset power. It also generates a lot more leverage as your body rotates to the right and begins to push against that back foot. A hookset performed in this manner produces so much more power than a straight up hookset, and immediately puts you in a far stronger battle position.
A musky that strikes your lure at the end of a long cast immediately demands the utmost from both your tackle and your technique. This is when you need that low stretch line more than at any other moment. This is also when you need extra sharp hooks. An extra long rod length helps to sweep up slack line. Combine this with a full body rotation hookset and you’ve generated an incredible amount of speed, power, and inertia. However, you can even take this one more step. I like to call it a “back step”.
The Back Step
After performing a proper hookset rotation, add an additional step or two backwards in order to pick up even more line and add additional power and momentum into the whole hookset process. If a muskie hits and then swims toward you, this little additional back step maneuver might spell the difference between a hooked or lost fish. Essentially, what I am implying here is to employ that full body hookset rotation plus a back step or two immediately afterwards.
The goal here is to generate tremendous hook set power and momentum quickly and efficiently with no slack. This all becomes necessary on strike that occurs at the end of a long cast, or if a fish runs towards you. It also neutralizes the effects of a fast drifting boat towards a fish upon the strike. Some anglers make the mistake here of “double setting” from a stationary location. I am never a fan of “double setting” no matter what the circumstances since this creates a momentary gap after the first hookset, while the next one is being generated. The gap occurs when you drop your rod tip to pick up line and engage the next hookset. That slight gap opens the door for the fish to throw the hook. Generally, you will lose more fish by “double setting”.
Instead of “double setting”, set once correctly using the proper form I just outlined, and then step back a few feet to generate the additional power needed or to close the distance quickly on a fish heading at you. This step back trick or “stepping into the hookset” is one thing I learned from the salt water guides years ago. You will be surprised at how much more power you can generate with that extra step or two backwards. I can guarantee you that you will generate a lot more power this way than by double setting the hook from a fixed position.
A simple test in your own backyard will convince you of this more than anything else. Simply tie your line to a small tree, push the free spool on your reel and walk back a long cast length. Now engage your reel, face the tree, and set the hook straight up. You’ll make that tree bend a bit, but that’s as far as you will go, even if you reel down a few turns and “double set”, you’re not going to move the tree any further. Now repeat the test using the method I suggested. This little backyard test will convince you forever. The difference in hook set power is astounding.
Boatside Battle Tactics
Short range, boatside hooksets are an entirely different ball game, and they require a completely opposite approach. In this case, you don’t need incredible power and line pick up. What you do need is control. A straight up hookset, again, serves no purpose here and encourages fish jumping and surface thrashing both of which promotes higher losses. The body rotation hookset is still the better way to go with one wrinkle.
Instead of an upward rotation on your rod tip, a better approach here is to rotate the rod tip downwards as well as sideways. This forces the fish’s head down instead of up reducing head shake and surface thrashing. Stepping back in addition to this motion will force the fish in a directional path instead of allowing it to stay in place and head thrash. You will find that this approaches sets the hook superbly and keeps them hooked on a short line battle. This is also where a long rod of 7 feet or more is a huge ally. Simply utilize the bend of the rod to battle the fish on the short line and maintain a solid consistent pressure.
It almost goes without saying that stiffer action rods of longer length generate more power. Whenever possible use a longer rod in order to maximize your hookset efficiency. The new 8 foot rod craze has merit. These extra long rods set the hook better, fight fish better and figure 8 better. High speed reels pick up more line quicker – making it easier to set the hooks at longer distances and stay with a fast running musky. A low stretch super braid definitely responds much faster and stronger at the business end. Sharpened hooks help to set the hook from the moment a fish engages. All of these things are vitally important, but many of them you already know. It’s the actual physical mechanics of setting the hook that is the most underrated part of this whole thing.
A Setting Summary
Summarily, sheer body size has very little to do with your ability to set the hook with power and speed. It’s all predicated on technique. Correct body poster – facing the lure – including the staggered leg stance is the first step. As soon as a fish strikes, rotate your body while simultaneously driving your rod towards your opposite shoulder. This is the power hook set “swing” I spoke of earlier. Finally, never double set a hook. Instead, step into that hook set by backing up to create even more power and line pick up. Once you master this method, you are sure to see an immediate improvement in your hooking percentages as well as your overall power. Speaking of power, don’t be surprised if you start experiencing hook bend-out on smaller lures with short range strikes. Especially when utilizing any of the new super braids and a longer rod with a heavy power action rating. You will quickly develop a power hookset worthy of even the biggest saltwater fish. And, if it can drive the hooks into a 200 pound grouper, it goes without saying that it will do the job on any muskie that swims!
Hall of Fame angler Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at JoeBucher.Com