The big muskie ate my fly a foot from the rod tip. But the fight didn’t last long. I set the hook, the muskie shook its enormous head, the hook flew out, and I cursed so loud my ears rang.
I inspected my fly: 10 inches of black schlappen and gold flash. I knew that hard-mouthed species like muskie, bass, and tarpon have a habit of throwing hooks, but I wanted to check my hardware anyway. The feathers hadn’t fouled. I examined the 5/0 hook point, dragging it slowly across my thumbnail—the point slid without catching, the angler’s litmus test. Ten seconds of sharpening and I would have photographed that muskie instead of cursing it. I’d lost the fish in part because I’d failed to properly sharpen my hook. Call it user error, call it laziness—I had no good excuse. I changed flies, sharpened the hook with lethal precision, then casted for eight more hours without moving another fish.
Obsessive anglers like me agonize over lure and fly profile, color, weight, and action. Every season we’re presented with newer, supposedly better options: hyper-realistic swimbaits, soft plastics with lifelike movements, and undulating, articulated flies that big fish won’t resist. With such intense focus on lure and fly properties, anglers sometimes forget our most fundamental and essential weapon: the hook point itself. The concept is so basic—sharp hooks penetrate better than dull ones—that we often overlook its importance. We assume that laser- or chemically-sharpened means our hooks will get the job done, year after year, without maintenance. We present our favorite lures or flies but forget about the most vital point of connection.
Take the Time
“Even the shittiest hooks nowadays are pretty sharp out of the package,” Dana Eastman, long-time owner of The Tackle Shop in Portland, Maine, told MeatEater. “But that doesn’t mean you should trust them for very long.”
Eastman, an avid angler and former striper guide on Casco Bay, says fishing saltwater requires constant hook point maintenance. “If you’re getting your fly or lure in the zone, that means you’re inevitably banging rocks, wooden pilings, and sand. So, I’ll check my hooks all the time. I’ll stop fishing to sharpen them; it only takes a few seconds then I’m back in the game and fishing with full confidence.”
Eastman advises anglers to always resist the urge to rush. It can be really hard to not immediately start casting when you see trout rising or stripers boiling, but if you can develop the self-control to check your hook sharpness and your knot strength first, you’re going to land a lot more fish.
On a shelf behind his shop’s counter hang some of Eastman’s favorite striper and bluefish lures from seasons past. Some of the treble hooks are rusted, others bent to hell. “If your trebles are badly rusted or bent,” Eastman said, holding his favorite mackerel-patterned stick bait, “it’s best to replace them. Even if they’re not rusty, you should sharpen your hooks regularly, because saltwater corrodes metal over time.”
I’m reminded of an afternoon fishing with my good friend Rich, a tarpon guide in the Florida Keys. Setting me up to target snook and baby tarpon back in the mangroves, he selected one of his favorite flies—a simple, spun deer hair streamer in all-white that clearly had seen a lot of playing time. After he tied it to my leader, he pulled a file from his pocket and touched up the hook point until it was razor sharp. “Good to go,” he said. I realized that, like me, many guides return to lures and flies that have produced in the past. Past success and a pre-chewed profile create loyalty and good juju. But sharpening the hooks again allows the presentation to perform as if it were brand new.
Tools of the Trade
I recently bought a new, 4-inch Dr. Slick hook file for around 10 bucks. My old files had worn down or clogged up with metal shavings and I wanted to start this season off fresh. The highly portable, double-sided file features fine and medium grit surfaces along with easy-to-use sharpening grooves. Similar to sandpaper, the file’s grit options offer different levels of abrasion for various hook sizes. For thick-gauge saltwater hooks—like the one the muskie spat back at me—medium or heavy grit is recommended. For finer hook points—trout nymphs, for example—finer grit allows anglers to sharpen hook points gently without inflicting unwanted structural damage. Fixed with a high-vis lanyard loop, the Dr. Slick file attaches easily to my vest or tackle box.
As with most fishing accessories, the modern angler has numerous choices when selecting a hook sharpening device. Some popular models include the Lansky Multi-Groove Hook Sharpener and the Shirt Pocket Diamond Sharpener. The Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpener is great for your hooks as well as touching up your fillet knife and any other blade. Some anglers even prefer to use a good old-fashioned knife whetstone. Regardless of your preference, it pays to know the proper mechanics of hook sharpening.
How to Sharpen Fishing Hooks
Eastman tells me that when he’s sharpening his or customer’s hooks, he aims to create a razor-sharp edge similar to when he’s sharpening a knife. You’re trying to shave off tiny bits of metal from the hook tip to make it pointy as a needle, as if you were whittling a stick for marshmallows.
To achieve that needle-shaped hook point, apply pressure to move the hook over the file towards (not away from) the hook point. Filing away from the hook point accumulates micro-shavings near the tip and should be avoided. Different hook manufacturers produce different hook point designs, so try to sharpen back to the intended shape. In general, most experts recommend shaving the point to a roughly triangular tip, by dragging the hook at a 45-degree angle to the file, then tipping it over the other way. Many of the hook hones on the market are designed with grooves or channels to help create that triangular tip with ease. Finally, make sure to get the file inside the hook bend to hone the hard-to-reach top of the hook point, so there isn’t any metal curled over.
Experts like Eastman suggests filing just enough material to make the hook point sharp—shaving off too much leaves the point thin and vulnerable to bending or breaking. Short, exact strokes win over repeated scraping. You can test your hook’s sharpness by dragging it over your thumbnail with a little pressure. If it scrapes a groove, you’re getting there. If the hook point catches on your smooth thumbnail, you’re ready to fish.
A Mandatory Angling Skill
Eastman is quick to point out that hook sharpening is critical for all angling persuasions, not just those in the corrosive saltwater. Sweetwater brings rust and bent hook tips too. “Nymphing or drifting eggs for trout or salmon, you’re not-that-occasionally snagging bottom or hooking limbs or other river debris. It doesn’t take much to tip over the point of a thin-gauged hook.”
Hook files help straighten dinged hooks for proper penetration when you finally get the bite. “Think about it,” Eastman said. “If I’m throwing a plug with two trebles, there’s a good chance one of those barbs might stick. But if I’m throwing a single-hook streamer or tiny nymph, I’ve only got one option. It had better be sharp.”
Once these spring rains subside and my favorite muskie waters drop to fishable levels, I’ll head north with my fly and spin gear. I’ve got some new lures and fly patterns to test, but most likely I’ll return to my old favorites like the all-black streamer that tempted the one that got away. This time, with hooks properly sharpened, I’ll be cursing with joy when a big muskie hits the net.