Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

A well-heeled, older guy walks into a fly shop. The young, scruffy clerk behind the counter asks “Sir, how can I help you?”

“Well I am in town for a week and I hear they are biting on #12 Royal Wulffs with #16 Hare’s Ear droppers down on the Ole Mill Stream. I’ll need to pick up a few of those.”

With a smile the clerk says, “Of course, we’ve got those, they’re in the bins just behind you.”

“Oh yeah, I am supposed to get the ones tied on right hooks. I think I’ve written it down somewhere.”  “What do you mean, ‘the right hooks’?”

The guy, with some sense of authority says “Well I read a blog by a guy who fished the Ole Mill Stream once last year about this time and he highly recommended these hooks. Here it is. The Royal Wulff should be tied on a TMC 900BL barbless dry fly hook and the Hare’s Ear on a Daiichi 1710 2X long nymph hook. You have the Wulffs and Hare’s Ear on those hooks, don’t you?  I was told I could get everything I needed from this shop.”

The clerk, now clearly amused by the request couldn’t wait to inquire. “Did this guy, who’d only fished the Mill Stream once, say why these were the hooks to use?”

The older guy, now a bit worried that this fly shop didn’t have everything he needed to catch a fish on the Ole Mill Stream replied. “He said these were his favorite hooks and he tied all his dry flies and nymphs on these hooks.”

The clerk now understood the problem. “Well sir, I really have no clue as to what hooks our flies are tied on. They come from overseas and I doubt for the price we pay for them that they are tied on the premium hooks you requested. But, sir I can offer you a deal. We do carry both those hook styles in the shop. Come back tomorrow about this time and I’ll have a dozen of each #12 Royal Wulffs and #16 Hare’s Ear tied up on these hooks for you.”

“You can do that for me, much appreciated. How much will that cost me?”

The clerk was quick to answer. “Five dollars per fly or $120 for the two dozen flies, we have to cover the labor cost, rush order and the cost of the premium hooks, but I’ll throw in a couple of tippet spools as well.”

“That’s outrageous, I can get flies at home for $1.75 each.”

The clerk, now clearly in charge of the discussion says. “True enough, but according to your blog source, those $1.75 flies won’t catch fish on the Ole Mill Stream. Maybe you should take up tying flies yourself.”

“Well, maybe I will,” as the old guy huffed his way out of the fly shop.

A poor way to organize hooks
A poor way to organize hooks

Whatever got you started fly tying, you’re now “hooked” so to speak on tying your own flies. Whether for cold water, warm water, salt water, rivers, lakes, estuaries or beaches, whatever you tie requires a hook. The hook is the foundation of the fly and the choice of what hook to use, although not infinite, is extensive. There are dozens of hook manufacturers and hundreds of styles. Combine that with different sizes for each style and the number of unique hooks available for fly tiers is a big number. Since hooks are typically sold in lot sizes of 10, 12, 25, 50 or 100, over time you will accumulate a lot of hooks. Let’s say you want to tie that #12 Royal Wulff with the TMC 900BL. You’ll start with 25 hooks. If you want to tie #10 and #14 sizes as well, you’ll now have 75 hooks. Inevitably as you tie more and more patterns, the hook count and variety will mount. Some brands, styles and sizes will become favorites; others will languish unused for years.

My biggest mistake 50+ years ago when it came to hooks was the propensity to buy too many and failure to organize them when I did. Feathers, yarns, dubbing, threads, etc., were pretty easy to keep segregated and readily accessible. Hooks on the other hand weren’t. In my early days, I was buying Mustad fly tying hooks in those little red, white and gold boxes—100 hooks for a couple of dollars. By the early 1990s, I bet I had over 100 of these little boxes of fly tying hooks stuffed in various drawers in my fly tying space. To know what I had (or didn’t have) so finding a particular style and size was tedious.

Second, if I did have a favorite style and size then the little boxes didn’t reveal that I was running low on any particular hook. Plus trying to extract a few hooks from the box sometimes resulted in hooks dropping to the floor and tangling in rugs or disappearing completely only to be recovered when you painfully step on them. As I began to tie more and more flies in the 1990s, I found this arrangement to be less than useful. For a variety of reasons (none truly logical), I decided to switch to TMC hooks for most of my flies, although now I have equal numbers of Daiichi and Dai-Riki in my stash.

hooked 2
A better way to store and organize hooks

At the time I made a clean break with the little cardboard Mustad boxes selling all of them in one lot on Ebay and adopted a new method of storing my hooks—clear plastic bead storage boxes. Although I acquired mine from local craft stores, most fly tying material retailers have similar fly hook storage boxes. Most have compartments that will hold 50-100 hooks (a few less in the larger hook sizes). They are clear, can be labeled easily and it’s easy to spot when you are running low on any particular brand, style and size of hook. With any given style you can store different sizes side by side for easy comparison. The rounded bottoms make taking one or two hooks out the compartment easy. With multiple boxes you can separate dry fly hooks from nymph hooks or any other organizing scheme you chose.

The only problem with hooks, one I’ve not solved quite yet, is there are too many choices. How many dry fly hook styles do you need?  Does it matter whether you tie your Woolly Buggers on TMC, Daiichi or Dai-Riki or some other brand of hook?  Does a straight eye, upturned eye or downturned eye make a difference in catching fish? Do I need to have both barbless and barbed hooks?  Should I buy pre-bent hooks such as the Dai-Riki 700-B or just bend the old Dai-Riki 700 myself. Making these decisions in the fly shop is very much complicated by that wall of hook packages and boxes of every brand, style and size imaginable staring you in the face. If you haven’t really done your homework, you are more than likely to acquire a few more hooks than you really need. Of course asking the fly shop guy to make a recommendation is an invitation to stock up on hooks you don’t really need as well. I can imagine the conversation goes something like this:

“What hook should I use for if I want to tie some stimulators?”

“Well I recommend the TMC 200R in size 8 and 10. We have a lot of those in stock.”

You ask, “Couldn’t I just use the Dai-Riki 270?  It seems to be the exact same hook and it’s less than half the price. I even think I have some at home.”

Now the fly shop guy knows his customer has done his homework. “You are right, the 270 is a good hook for stimulators and in fact one of our most popular sellers. I think we’ve only got one package each of #8 and #10 left in stock.”


Labeled, accessible and easy to find
Labeled, accessible and easy to find

I won’t begin to recommend with any authority one hook over another for any given fly pattern. There are just too many options and I can’t come up with any precise logic that would say one hook is better than another. We all have or will have favorites. However, the hook is the foundation of our flies. If you are or choose to get hooked on fly tying, then you will accumulate hooks in prodigious quantities over time. Organize them and make good buying decisions as you do.

1 Comment

  1. But, Mike, which is the BEST hook?

    Seriously, good article. I think a lot of us sometimes wonder whether a pattern tied on a graceful nymph hook or an identical tie on a more hunched emerger shank would really produce noticably different results…or whether a turned-down or turned-up eye matters more to the fish or more to the fingers trying to hit it with a piece of tippet. I guess for every idea there’s someone who has turned it into a product…and such is the nature of our perfection-chasing passion.

    I once bought a dozen #18 Elk Hair Caddis flies off eBay. Good deal…well, good price anyway. Now, a guy oughta be able to get a 1x tippet into a #18 hook, what with the diameters of fluoro these days. But on receipt of those flies I tried to get 3x, then 5x, tippet through the eyes. One out of twelve, even at 7x! I had to sharpen a nail on a stone, center it in the hole of each hook’s eye, and “pound” it with a little hammer to open up the eyes a bit. Needless to say I learned my lesson about flies tied on no-quality-control third world hooks…and it’s so hard to trust the smoothness of the doctored-up eyes now that I never use those flies.

    I too bought a ton of Mustad hooks long ago…still have hundreds. I think their hooks have gotten even better in recent years with their Signature line, but I still try to use the old ones, even if a pattern insists on something else. “The hook you have in stock will always catch more than the one you don’t!”

    Thanks again for talking sense and for the useful hook storage ideas. But…really now…which is the BEST hook?

    – Mike : )

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