Several factors are at play when a fish takes a bait. Fish species, hook type, bait, water depth, and pure physics all play a part in deciding when and how to set a hook.
SPECIESSaltwater fish can be generally divided into two categories. They are either nibbler/crunchers or they are predators. Predators can be further delineated to identify the billfish as a separate category. Nibbler/crunchers include the Atlantic sheepshead and members of the porgy family.
All of these nibbler/crunchers have small mouths and all of them tend to peck at or crunch the food they eat. Sheepshead and porgies tend to take their food into their mouth and crunch or grind it before actually eating it. Their mouths are lined with crusher teeth that they use to chew or crunch their prey into small bits. Sheepshead got their name from the upper and lower front teeth that so closely resemble those of a sheep. They like to eat crustaceans – crabs, shrimp, barnacles and the like. he bite from these crunchers tends to be light and subtle. Setting the hook when you first feel a bite will leave you with a bare hook. Try to picture the fish taking your bait into its mouth and then slowly crushing it. These guys will sit in one place crushing your bait, usually without you even feeling them. A slow upward pressure of the rod will tend to make the cruncher pull back or swim away from the tension of your pull. This is where physics plays a part and this is when you need to continue lifting and start reeling. Only after you feel the full pressure of the fish should you actually set the hook. Sheepshead and porgies are known as bait stealers. One old timer says he sets the hook before they bite. Knowing how these fish take a bait will help you increase your hook set ratio.
I break predator fish into two categories – eaters and runners. Some fish, like a snapper or seabass will readily eat the bait in front of them. Others, like a grouper, take a bait and then run to the nearest hole or rock.
If you are pursuing the larger fish, like a good red snapper or grouper, be prepared to be surprised. Snapper often have a subtle ‘bump and swim’ type of bite. Don’t set the hook on that first bump. Wait until the fish is moving with the bait and then set the hook hard and swift.
Grouper present a unique problem in that they tend to grab a bait and run hard to nearby cover. Anglers refer to being “pinned to the rail” as a grouper takes their bait and heads off. Light line and light drag settings will usually result in lines being broken off in the bottom structure by grouper who have made it to cover.
Some grouper anglers tighten the drag literally with a pair of pliers. A good stiff rod, heavy line, and a heavier leader are the order of the day when bottom fishing over structure for grouper. Hook setting is almost automatic when your bait gets eaten. Many anglers simply lay their rod on the rail of the boat, point it at the fish and reel. Sometimes it’s the only way to keep the grouper out of the bottom.
Billfish present another even more unique problem. Their feeding habit is to swat a baitfish with their bill and then come back around to swallow the dead bait. Hook setting with billfish takes place only after the fish has come back and swallowed the bait. Sometimes billfish get “bill hooked” when swatting at a trolled bait, but most often, they will hit the bait with their bill, pulling the line from the outrigger clip. As the bait drifts down, the fish eats and swallows the bait.
The thickness and size of a standard billfish hook requires that significant power be applied to bury the hook.