Trolling is a fishing technique that is commonly used to target big game species. The fish will usually strike the baits hard and fast, so the hook becomes a critical part of the setup. A weak hook, or a weak hook eye could bend or break during the fight.
When trolling for large pelagic species, a heavy gauge hook will minimize any possibility of hook straightening. The hook point should be sharp and a long shank can prevent breakoffs from toothy fish. J hooks and circle hooks can both work, and circle hooks are recommended when trolling a preservation area which allows catch and release trolling.
A Mustad 7691 Big Game Stainless steel hook, or an Owner Jobu Trolling Hook with Rustop are reliable options for trolling hooks. In this article, you’ll learn what features to look for in a trolling hook and whether it matters for your target species.
J Hook or Circle Hook
A J hook is shaped like a J and usually requires the angler to set the hook. When trolling, the boat effectively sets the hook for you since it continues moving forward after a strike and the fish will pull against the drag.
A circle hook does not need to be set and can get pulled out of the fish’s mouth if an angler tries to set the hook. Since the boat movement during trolling is naturally setting the hook, using a circle hook will likely lead to missed fish.
J hooks also give the advantage of the hook point being exposed when using live or dead bait. Baits, such as ballyhoo are usually rigged with a J hook that reaches to about the midpoint of the fish. The edge point will stick out and hook the fish when it strikes. If the hook is too short, it’s more likely that a fish would bite off half the bait and get away. If the hook shaft is too long, the bait’s movement will be less natural in the water.
Some anglers prefer to rig their baits with double hooks. In the case of the double hook rig, one J hook is usually through the mouth or head of the baitfish, and a trailer hook is added to the tail end. This is an effective way of preventing a missed hookup due to a short strike.
The hook point should be extremely sharp when trolling. If the hook point is dull, it’ll have a harder time piercing the lip of the fish and the fish will have a greater chance of getting away, especially if the hook is heavy wire. A light wire hook can be a little more forgiving when it comes to the sharpness because the hook diameter is so small.
A knife edge point typically points slightly inward which helps ensure the fish isn’t able to slip off. An O’Shaughnessy tip points slightly outward which is helpful when the hook is through live or dead bait. When bait is rigged with a J hook, the hook gape is effectively shrunk by the body of the baitfish. An O’Shaughnessy tip can help ensure the hook point is always exposed to improve hookup ratios.
The gage of the hook refers to how thick the wire is. When looking at hooks, you’ll frequently see wire gages and strengths listed as thin wire, 2X strength, or even 4X strength. When trolling, a heavy gage wire is great when targeting sailfish, marlin, wahoo and large tuna with something like a skirted lure. Heavy wire can withstand a powerful strike easily. The down side of a heavy gage hook is that a thicker wire can make it more difficult for the hook to penetrate through.
Light wire hooks are thin and the hook point can get to a very small diameter when sharpened. Light wire hooks easily pierce the lip of a fish at strike. Also, when fishing live bait, a light wire generally helps keep a more natural presentation.
There are several different eye styles when it comes to hooks. Most of the time, you don’t need to pay too much attention to the hook eye, but if you’re targeting that once-in-a-lifetime big game fish, you’ll want to take a look at a brazed eye hook. The brazed eye is a circle-shaped eye that’s completely closed onto the shaft of the hook. It's a strong eye that won’t bend break during a fight and there’s no possibility of the line slipping out because the loop is brazed onto the shank.
When trolling in saltwater, corrosion resistance is necessary for the longevity of your hook. Trolling hooks for big game species are big and expensive and you’ll want them to last. I’ll usually try to use the same hook all day long, unless I need to change sizes.
The material of the hook and the finish are what gives it the corrosion resistant properties. Stainless steel is a great material to look for, although I have seen some unique material choices on the market. For example, the Owner Jobu hook with Rustop is made of a high carbon steel that would normally rust quickly, but the added Rustop anode keeps the main hook free from corrosion. The high carbon steel gives the hook higher strength at a smaller diameter than stainless steel would.
Longer Shaft Length or Wire for Toothy Fish
The shaft length can be important in trolling. When trolling with toothy fish around, such as barracuda or bluefish, a longer shaft can act similarly to a wire leader. A long shaft or a normal shaft hook paired with a wire leader, can prevent the hook from getting bit off.
Often times when rigging a dead bait with double hooks, there’s wire between the first hook at the trailer hook. This can make the bait stiff, but increases hookups by preventing a short strike miss. If you’re new to rigging dead bait, live bait, and skirted lures, be sure to read my article on Trolling Rigs.
Hook Size Depends on Bait Size and Target Species
The size hook you need for trolling depends on the species and the bait used. In general, the smaller the bait, the smaller size hook you should use. This will help give your bait a natural presentation and prevent a line-shy fish from getting spooked. When targeting tuna, I usually go for the smallest hook I can because of how rarely I’ll get strikes with a bigger hook. I’m sure it’s related to their exceptional eye sight.
The bait size can change when targeting different species. For example, you could use a small dead squid or live pilchard when trolling for mahi, but you could use a small bonita, which is much larger than a pilchard, when trolling for wahoo. You can see how the hook size is related to both the target species and the bait size.
When I’m out trolling for mahi mahi and trolling a small dead squid, I’ll use somewhere between a 6/0 and an 8/0 hook. I usually start with the small size until I get an idea of what size fish are biting. I prefer not to start big because sometimes you’ll miss the hookup completely if the hook is too big. In my opinion, it’s better to start with a smaller hook, get some fish in the boat and upsize if they’re looking big.
The table below shows recommended starting points for hook sizing for various species. These are meant to be a starting point. If you notice the fish aren’t biting, it may be that the hook is too big and you should downsize. If they’re bending your hook, upsizing is a good idea. I always recommend keeping a variety of hook sizes onboard so you can adjust as necessary.
To learn more about the species commonly targeted with trolling techniques, read my article on Trolling Species.
Trolling Hook Recommendations
Below is a discussion of a few reliable hooks on the market that I’d recommend for use when trolling. They vary in price based on the complexity of their manufacturing and their features. The links will take you to the respective product pages at Tackle Direct.
Owner has a long history of making high quality hooks that anglers trust. The Owner Long Shank hooks work well for trolling when using ballyhoo. The long shank allows the eye of the hook to come out the mouth while also letting the bottom of the reach to about the midpoint of the baitfish. The hook has 3X strength, which makes it a great choice for strong pelagics such as tuna, king mackeral, and wahoo. The hook points are extra sharp and the hooks feature a corrosion resistant finish.
The table below shows the sizes, quantity/pack and cost/pack available at Tackle Direct.
To learn about what baits are best for trolling and how to pair them with the appropriate sized hook, check out my article on Trolling Baits.
Another Owner hook, the Trolling Jobu with Rustop is a unique choice. The hook is designed to give you the best of both worlds: a small diameter wire with high strength. The small diameter helps minimize missed hookups.
The way Owner does this is by using a high carbon steel that normally rusts too quickly for saltwater use. Owner added a Rustop towards the eye that attracts the corrosion away from the body of the hook.
If a fish breaks away before getting to the boat, or the hook is not removed for some reason, the Rustop will corrode, breaking off the eye and allowing the fish to more easily shed the hook. This can decrease catch and release fish mortality.
Another well known hook brand is Mustad. Mustad hooks are used by charter captains and recreational fishermen all over. The Mustad 7691, Southern & Tuna Hook is a classic trolling hook. It has a long history of success which makes anglers come back and buy these hooks time and time again.
The 7691-SS Big Game version of the hook is extra strong and sharp. The wire is forged, which gives the hook serious strength. The hook point also turns slightly inward to help secure your catch. When targeting big game like tuna and wahoo, you can be confident the Mustad 7691 will perform well.
Recreational Regulations for Trolling Gear
It’s always a good idea to review the recreational fishing regulations before you go out and target a new species. Fortunately, the fish commonly targeted by trolling methods are surface feeders and fish that hang out in the middle to upper middle of the water column. These are not bottom dwellers which have quite a bit of regulatory requirements.
Mahi, Tuna, King Mackerel, and billfish usually have minimum slot size regulations, but are allowed to be fished with any type of hook. If you’re shooting for catch and release trolling because of minimum slot sizes or a Sanctuary Preservation Area, circle hooks are the best option because of the decreased mortality rate when using them.
An example of a Sanctuary Preservation Area where catch and release trolling is allowed is Alligator Reef near Islamorada, FL. There are several reefs in the Florida Keys with similar fishing regulations. Regardless of where you are, it’s always a good idea to make sure that you look up the rules governing your fishery because they change frequently.
I hope this article helps you select a hook for your next trolling outing. Tight lines, y’all!