To get a powerful set, keep the elbows tight to the body to move the rod, line and ultimately the hook.
Properly setting the hook is a skill all anglers should strive to master. There are many rod movements anglers need to learn, like jigging or twitching, but when it's crunch-time you'll lose fish if you can't properly set the hook. Part of getting good at hooksets is practice and time on the water, yet there are some fundamental elements needed for hooksets to be successful.
The proper form for setting the hook mirrors the often-described sports stance, so forgive me if the following echoes advice from a former little league coach. Before setting the hook, you should be in a stable position with your legs about shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. The reason for this stance is balance and stability. When setting the hook you often need to torque your upper body and aggressively snap the rod — if you're not stable at your base, you can knock yourself off balance or are not in the right stance to exert enough force.
Your upper body should be relaxed, but ready to spring into hook-setting form at any moment. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes novices make is not keeping their elbows tight to their sides. It may sound trivial, but if you keep your elbows out when you set the hook you lose a lot of power and leverage. The result is one moves their arms and elbows more than the rod, equating to a less powerful hookset. To get a powerful set, keep the elbows tight to the body to move the rod, line and ultimately the hook.
Setting the hook is a relatively simple motion once you get the hang of it, and fairly universal; however, factors like fish species, timing, and bait presentations require you to customize the action and intensity of a set. Let's deal with the basics first.
When a fish strikes snap the rod up, over your shoulder or off to one side (sometimes called a side set). If doing the latter, you can twist at the waist to increase the power of your hookset. Before setting the hook it is critical to reel in slack line and point the rod towards the fish before snapping it back. Without doing these two steps, you'll decrease the effectiveness of the set. As you reel the line in and move the rod towards the fish, you should feel the fish's weight. Once the slack is gone and you can feel weight, keep your elbows in and quickly snap the rod up and over your shoulders using your forearms.
Immediately following the set, keep steady pressure on the fish and drive the hooks home by cranking the reel a few turns. This is an important step when fishing in heavy vegetation or for toothy fish, as the rod snap is sometimes insufficient to bury the hook's barb through the fish's mouth and you'll need to crank the reel a few turns to finish the hook set.
How hard you set the hook and how fast will depend on the fish you're targeting and your presentation technique. Soft-mouthed fish (such as crappie) or light biting ones (such as certain trout) only need a steady, sweeping hookset, especially when using ultra-light gear, to ensure you don't pull the hook away from the fish. Conversely, you'll need a hard hook-set if fishing for hard-mouthed pike to ensure you bury the hooks into the fish's mouth. When hooksets need some extra-punch, try taking a half or a full step back. This gives you more leverage but also quickly retrieves slack line to give your sets more power.
Some Hook-setting Rules
Wait to feel the weight of the fish — perhaps one of the most common rules to setting the hook. This is particularly applicable to topwater fishing as the surface explosion startles many anglers into setting the hook before the fish has actually taken the bait. When a fish hits a topwater bait wait until you feel weight, then set the hook.
Yet every rule has an exception and sometimes you won't feel the weight of a fish when it strikes. A good example is when fishing with jigs. Many fish hit jigs on the fall. In this case, the best thing to do is watch the line on the surface for a tick or an early stop in the jig's fall. If this happens, quickly reel in any slack line and set the hook once taught.
Remember, when fishing wait until you feel the weight of the fish before setting the hook.
Timing is everything — can be the biggest loophole when describing hooksets. When targeting aggressive fish that are hitting baits hard, a good rule of thumb is to set the hook fast. On the flipside, if fish are in a neutral or negative mood and hitting baits lightly, it's better to wait, let the fish take the bait, and set the hook after you feel the weight of the fish.
This does not necessarily mean going easy on them. Walleye are notorious for being light biters and sometimes a subtle tick is the only indication you'll get that a fish had taken your bait. Respond to these light bites quickly, with a fast snap before marble eyes spits out your bait.
Get rid of slack line to ensure proper sets — I've already alluded to this, but it's a common mistake. It's critical to keep the line tight at all times. Taught line increases sensitivity and helps you feel strikes, as well as increases the power of your hooksets. Keeping a tight line ensures that when you move your rod, you'll be moving the hook too. A slack-line set doesn't move the hook with much, or any, force, but rather simply mends slack line. This is why it's crucial to reel in slack line before a set to ensure you really are burying the hooks home.
Don't wait if using livebait — A common culprit of gut-hooked fish are anglers who wait too long to set the hook when fishing with livebait. Unlike the unnatural taste of artificial lures (which fish will quickly spit out once they realize it's not edible), livebait is food that fish will swallow if given the time. Granted, neutral or negative mood fish will rarely take baits aggressively, but it's better to set the hook sooner and lose the odd fish or piece of bait, than wait too long and gut-hook a fish, limiting its chances of post-release survival.
Do I need to set the hook trolling? — The fishing jury is out on this question. If you are quickly trolling and have the reel's drag set tight, odds are the momentum of the boat will set the hook for you. Any additional sudden force on the fish may widen the hook-hole tear in the fish's mouth, increasing the chances of them throwing the hooks during the fight. If trolling slowly with a loose drag you will likely need to set the hook. In this case, it's a good habit to set the hook before stopping the motor to ensure the line stays taught.
These are just some of the basics of setting the hook when fishing. Ultimately, the species of fish, their mood, and your lure presentation will impact the intensity and force needed behind your hookset. Remember, when fishing wait until you feel the weight of the fish before setting the hook, but when in doubt set the hook otherwise you'll lose a lot of fish.