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How To Hook Fish On Tiny Flies

by Philip Monahan

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Question: How can I better set the hook when fishing size 20 and smaller hooks? I have such a hard time getting small hooks into fish—even small fish, especially when swinging emergers. I get frustrated feeling the tug, only to set the hook and pull the fly right out of the fish’s mouth.

Joshua B., Belgrade, MT

Answer: This is a very common problem, and I threw the question out to some guide friends who regularly fish with tiny patterns.

Jackson Hole-based guide, tier, and author Scott Sanchez notes that Joshua is facing more than one problem:

“There sound like two issues: Small hooks and swinging flies. Swinging soft hackles and wet flies is deadly, especially on fish that are feeding on caddisflies. Unfortunately, you will always get some strikes without a hook up. I think fish are following the swing and hit the fly, pushing at the hook bend and not the point. The point is away from them, and the fly is moving the same direction as the fish.

On small hooks, the hook-up rates goes down exponentially with size. The solution is to use hooks with bigger gaps. A Dai-Riki 125 or TMC 2488 are big-gap emerger hooks, and you can tie a size 20 fly on a size 18 hook. Tie the flies sparse, so that the body doesn’t block the hook gap. Beadheads can block the hook gap on small flies, as well. Use a bigger gap hook or a longer shank hook, to keep the hook point available.”

Brant Oswald—a Livingston, Montana, guide best known for his mastery of the Paradise Valley spring creeks—addressed Joshua’s question so fully that I won’t even try to paraphrase him. This is brilliant stuff:

“As I guide, I find that teaching people how to hook fish more effectively makes a big difference in the number of fish landed. Even experienced anglers who are well above average in overall skills have rarely thought much about this part of the game. Somehow, when clients measure up their success at the end of the day, they tend to forget the fish they missed or lost right after the hookup. I feel I have done the lion’s share of my job when I put a client in position to get the fish to eat the fly, but I won’t get credit for any help until the fish is in the net, so I work on this more and more.

Since Joshua’s question is about small hooks, I am assuming our arena of discussion is trout fishing in moving water. Let’s start with the issue of hooking fish—with any size hook. The first thing I would say is that most anglers are used to the idea that they need to plan their approach in terms of presentation—staying low enough to keep from spooking the fish, combining angle of approach with casting technique to minimize drag, etc. —but they rarely consider how those angles affect their ability to hook the fish.

So my first suggestion is just to include hooking angle in the factors that make up your streamside strategy. You have to think about the fish’s position and the combination of currents he is in when you are rigging terminal tackle and presenting the fly. The idea is to extend the visualization to what your response should be when the fish actually does take the fly. Most anglers have one method of striking—just yanking back or lifting the rod tip—and this works in lots of cases. As long as the striking action removes all of the slack in the line and leader quickly and the strike isn’t violent enough to break the tippet, the fish is usually hooked securely enough to be landed.

“A better approach is to try to plan the response. Maybe the best general rule is to strike downstream whenever possible. With the fish facing into the current, striking on a downstream angle will tend to pull the fly into the corner of the fish’s mouth, affording the angler a secure hookup.”

But a better approach is to try to plan the response. Maybe the best general rule is to strike downstreamwhenever possible. With the fish facing into the current, striking on a downstream angle will tend to pull the fly into the corner of the fish’s mouth, affording the angler a secure hookup. When you’re making a classic up-and-across presentation, the instinctive response of yanking back or up usually works okay. But if the fish is only slightly upstream, or is across or slightly downstream, striking on a steeper downstream angle with the rod tip will produce better results. Downstream presentations always create hooking problems because the natural striking response tends to pull the fly away from the fish, back out of its mouth. A good first step is for the angler to consider hooking angle as part of the whole fishing situation, rather than thinking a successful hook-set automatically follows a strike.

Getting better at anticipating the strike during a given presentation also makes setting the hook easier, but that’s another issue altogether.

Joshua’s specific question is about setting the hook with small hooks. With small hooks, the problems with hooking angles are exacerbated, and one first needs to realize that the percentage of successful hookups will go down with very small flies, even with the most thoughtful and skilled striking technique. If the angler is a fly tier (or is willing to order custom-tied flies), one solution is to use hooks with wider gapes (relative to shank length) to maximize a small hook’s purchase. Over the years, I have played with offsetting the hook point slightly on very tiny flies, but I confess I have never seen a systematic improvement in hooking ability.

Joshua’s question also mentions swinging emergers. This fishing situation—fishing small flies, fishing downstream, and fishing on a tight line—is a worst-case scenario for successful hook sets. When the fish moves to a swinging fly and opens its mouth and flares its gill covers, the tight line presentation may prevent the fly from being flushed into the fish’s mouth. A related problem is that the small flies are being fished on light tippet, and a solid strike (by fish and/or fisherman) may just result in a break-off, anyway. One trick is to not set the hook at all, as the fish may come back to grab the fly again if a violent hook set doesn’t take the fly completely away from the fish. Like a strip strike when fishing a fly on a retrieve, let the fly come tight before you react, even if you feel the fish whacking at the fly. But fishing downstream, on a tight line, with tiny hooks means that coming tight may not happen all that often, as Joshua has discovered.

If I were trying to give Joshua some concrete advice, here is what I would say:

1. Strike on a downstream angle, when possible. (But not possible, when swinging a fly downstream.)

2. Use flies tied on a wide-gape hook, if available.

3. See if you can present the emergers on a different angle.

4. Accept the fact that the hooking rate will go down in certain situations. And this situation is one of the worst.”

To learn more about Scott Sanchez, visit To book a trip with Brant Oswald surf over to

Note: Near as I can tell, the terms “gap” and “gape” are used interchangeably to describe the distance between the shank and the hook point.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • Castaway Rick

    Make sure that your hook is very sharp. If you can skate the point across your thumbnail it needs to be sharpened.

  • Nptrouters

    Both of these comments on this subject show as aspect of fishing, expecially trout fishing, that is rarely discussed or considered. 

  • Hgseay

    Try tying your #20 midge on a #16 scud hook, but tie the fly as if was a size #20 and not a #16.

  • Stonefly

    Well stated…setting the hook on an angle is the way to go and gently at first hookup.

  • I always missed fish on hook size 20 and smaller my first few fishing seasons. I found the faster I set the hook the more fish I caught. Now I hardly miss fish on 24 and 26 hooks. Fishing with a BARBLESS hook will also help.

  • No Slime Slinger

    Very good and thorough coverage of technique. –The best of all the advise in my experience is to let the fish hook itself. Works for me.  Try to tie #20’s only on  XL designated hooks.

  • eternal optimist

    I love swinging soft hackles, some quite small.I like the 102y Tiiemco hook with its wider gap, but my success has gone up since I carefully adjust the drag for small tippet (nice size fish eat tiny flies) and then keep a short amount of leader in my line hand for the fish to take. I feel the take and give a foot or two of fly line to the fish before tightening, then a set. Seems to have helped

  • Tim Linehan

    Terrific conversation and suggestions. The importance of waiting a moment before actually and affirmatively striking to set the hook when fishing any method with tiny flies is critical. I teach people the Sloppy Strike. The Sloppy Strike essentially picks up the extra slack in the line or leader (often associated with fishing tiny flies) and gives the hook a little longer to get a bite. It’s simple. After you feel the bump, if you’re swinging soft hackles, or after the fish eats your dry fly, simply lift the rod slowly and keep raising it until it’s above your head. Don’t be in a hurry. Trust your instincts. The first part of the Sloppy Strike is obviously a version of the “god save the queen” technique. But the second part, employs a bit more body english. Keep the rod tip rising with a steady motion and you will see your hooking percentage increase when fishing tiny flies.

  • Coogyman

    I think this is a great discussion on a topic rarely talked about by the media. I fully agree with the downstream strike whenever possible. I learned this method the hard way when fishing sockeye salmon in Alaska. I missed most of the strikes when applying my normal hook set, but once I went to the downstream hook set my hookups increase dramatically. I now employ this method in trout fishing and river smallmouth fishing when using ANY size fly. Additionally when I am swing fishing, the slightly downstream but mostly across stream set has improved my hookups.

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  • Everett Hall

    put droop in line in slower water hold rod at 45 deg. upstream from line tip rod up 20 to 30 deg. this allows line to have slack fish will turn and hooksets will be in side of mouth. for sippers hold line in hand with 2 feet of slack when feeling resistance drop line from hand and lift rod.

  • Jim,

    I just went fishing on the blue river, I had this issue with 2 fish

  • Roger W

    I have found fishing upstream has the highest hookup rate for dry’s and nymphs. This fish is between you and the hook and it’s moving upstream into the hook. Just take out the slack and let the fish do the work to hook itself. Too many people try to overset the hook and yank it out( at least 50 percent of the time). Also if you want to net the fish give it the proper time and be gentle. Don’t rely on the drag of the reel and your tippet strength to do the work, learn to give slack when needed and feel the movements with your hand on the line! Side presentations are always low percentage.