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Never fish with a broken hook!
Am I dumb or what? Who would fish with a broken hook? Well, a lot of people do, actually. I do now and then, although rarely on purpose.
I have fished with broken hooks many times! Not on purpose, mind you, but because the hook has broken while I was fishing, and I didn't notice.
I have lost a number of fish because of broken hooks or dull or bent hook tips. Not because the fish were immensely strong, but because the hook was either weak or because it was already broken when the fish took the fly.
This article will try to help you avoid that it happens to you.
The TAG hook
We all know the game of playing tag. You run after the people you are playing with, and a mere touch is enough for your to "score" - either stunning the victim or making him or her "it".
Many years ago the British hook manufacturer Partridge made a TAG hook as an April's fool joke. TAG was for Touch And Go, and the hook had no point! It had a ring eye in both ends, both where you tied it on the leader, and where the point would usually be.
If you were to tie a fly on such a hook, you could play tag with the fish. A fish could take the fly, but would very likely escape seconds after and never be hooked. Some people might consider that a caught fish, but most of us prefer to both fight and land the fish in order to say that we had the full experience of the fishing.
I have played tag
I have played tag with many fish, but not using a hook designed for the purpose. The reason my hooks were touch-and-go was because they were broken or dull.
Hooks do break, and in many cases we don't notice before we loose a fish, and inspect the fly in wonderment over this strange incident - and notice that it has no point!
The hook can break for many reasons. Oftentimes it's a combination of a weakened hook and a bad cast or a snag. Hook points also become slightly dull or bent, and however insignificant that may seem, it severely limits its hooking ability.
Hooks that have been in the water - fresh or salt - will start to rust. Fast if you fish the salt, slower if you fish freshwater. A damp fly in a closed flybox is a surefire way to weaken a hook, and once it's weak, it can easily break when being pulled out of a snag, hitting a log or a rock in the backcast or even enduring the strain of fighting a fish.
And it will of course do so unnoticed by you. No loud snaps or distinct feelings of breakage. One moment the point is there, the next it's gone. And you happily fishing on until the fish is lost and you are wondering how that perfect cast, that deliberate take and that resolute hook set could ever result in a missed fish!
You inspect the hook and Violá! The hook point is gone.
So how do you avoid this?
Several little things can ensure that this doesn't happen.
First of all: make it a habit to inspect the fly now and then. Simply pass it between your fingers every tenth or twentieth cast and look at the hook point. On rare occasions the whole hook point and barb will be broken off, and it will be very obvious that the fly is useless. But more often the hook point is slightly bent or dull, and it requires a close inspection to see that the point isn't good.
You can poke the point gently into the skin of a finger to feel if it's sharp. Some anglers use a fingernail. If the point can catch the nail when passed over it, it's really sharp, but even though the point can't catch the nail, it can still be sharp.
A couple of other ways to avoid broken or bent hooks is to keep the hook away from rocks, branches and other hard objects - especially in the backcast where you don't notice the potential damaging contact.
Also make sure your hooks are not rusty. And that's not just visible rust, but also the devious rust under the materials, which you don't see, but which can significantly weaken the hook shank. It's difficult to see, but sometimes there will be traces of color, and rust stains on the visible part of the hook can be a telltale sign of rust underneath.
Tie to last
Using stainless hooks might seem like a good solution, but much stainless steel is actually quite brittle and breaks much more easily than non-stainless steel, which is softer. Of course it can rust, but many of the modern hooks are treated in different ways, and will stand up to even saltwater very well.
If you fish the salt, it's a good idea to varnish the hook before you tie. Simply use head cement or nail varnish and cover the full shank and some of the hook bend and let it dry thoroughly before tying the fly. This little trick will make your flies last a lot longer - and make them more durable, because materials and tying thread will "bite" into the varnish and stick much better on the fly.
Keep them sharp
If the hook point goes dull or bends a bit on a perfectly good fly, you can actually save it by sharpening it.
Hook sharpeners come in many shapes and materials, and depending on the type and size of fly you are fishing you need different tools.
The heavy duty saltwater hooks can be sharpened using a file. There's plenty material to work with and no finely tuned, chemically sharpened hook point to mess up.
On finer hooks in the sizes ranging from #2 or#4 to about #10, most hook sharpeners will work. Some are quite coarse and will take off a bit of material, while others are fine and will just ever so gently add a point to an otherwise dull hook.
On the finest hooks - dries and nymphs - you have to be careful. You can sharpen them, but there's little material to work with and you need a really fine sharpener, like a smooth, ceramic tool.
Some hooks have intricately shaped points, which you cannot recreate with a sharpener, and others are chemically sharpened, and will most likely never become as sharp as they were when you bought them. But a good sharpener should still be at hand when you fish, to quickly restore a hook point when possible.
Used and unused
Take note that flies fished in freshwater also rust. Maybe not as quickly, but freshwater can also initiate the process.
You should also divide your fly stash in two: used flies and new ones. Or flies you fish right now and flies you intend to fish later.
If you reuse your flies as most of us do, keep the used flies separate from the unused ones. Use a sheep skin or foam patch to hold them until they are dry. I even know fly anglers who rinse their saltwater flies in freshwater and dry them before returning them to the box.
Damp or wet flies will rust, especially if they have been in the salt, but what's surprising is that they can start the rusting process in flies that have never been in the water, and a box of flies in a pocket or a bag can slowly deteriorate without you noticing.