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How to Choose the Right Hook for Your Fly

Published: 14th December 2021 | Author: Tim Flagler

In terms of tying trout flies, choosing the right hook for your fly is important. This is not only for aesthetics, but also for how the fly will ultimately function. That said, if you don’t have the perfect hook for a fly you want to tie, simply go with the closest match you have on hand. That will usually work just fine. 

Most major hook manufacturers will give you some idea of the intended use for a particular hook. In other words, it’ll be labeled “streamer”, “nymph,” “scud/emerger,” “dry fly” or a variety of other types. This is generally a very good guideline. Within each of these hook types, there’s likely to be variability when it comes to overall size, shank length, eye orientation, wire type and whether it’s barbed or barbless.

When choosing the right hook for your fly, there are a lot of options.


The size of a hook is probably its most defining characteristic. With trout flies, hook sizes range from about a size 2 all the way down to a size 32, in even numbers. The higher the number, the smaller the hook size. If I were allowed only one sized hook on which to tie trout flies, it would probably be a 14. However, other tiers might go slightly larger or smaller. 

Shank Length

Dry fly hooks are specifically made to be used on flies that float on the water’s surface. They are typically made of fairly thin wire to reduce weight and come in a variety of shank lengths so they can best match the proportions of the natural insect the fly is supposed to imitate. A normal length dry fly hook usually is simply labeled a dry fly hook. If it’s shank is an eye-length longer than normal, it’s labeled 1X long. An eye-length refers to the diameter of the hook eye on that particular hook. A 2X long hook then would be 2 hook eye-lengths longer than normal. This continues with 3X, 4X, 5X, 6X and so on. The same nomenclature is used on nearly all hook types, not just dry fly. It also can be used to indicate that a hook is shorter than normal, in order words, 2X short. 

Dry fly hooks: 1x long vs. normal.

Nymph hooks are oftentimes made using heavier wire to help them sink faster. They can have straight shanks or curved to better imitate the shape of the natural insects in their nymphal form. Streamer hooks are intended for use on patterns that represent baitfish or leeches. In other words, things with relatively long, thin bodies. 3, 4 and 5X long streamer hooks are not uncommon. Scud/emerger hooks kind of go the opposite direction with much shorter shanks in order to better represent stout-bodied creatures. Examples of these are scuds, sowbugs, caddis larva, mayfly emergers and even eggs. 

2x, 3x and 4x long streamer hooks.

Barbed vs. Barbless

Within these groups, most manufacturers now offer barbed as well as barbless versions. It’s usually easier to keep a fish hooked during a protracted battle with a barbed hook. But, they’re also more likely to cause damage to the fish, which is obviously of concern when practicing catch and release fishing. Barbless hooks, on the other hand, have been shown to cause less damage and can make hooking the fish a good bit easier. 

If you want to read more on barbless hooks, check out our piece that explains their history and efficacy.

A barbed vs. barbless hook.

The Jig Hook

At this point, it’s worth mentioning a somewhat specialty hook type that’s become remarkably popular in recent years, and that’s the jig hook. Jig hooks have a 45 to 90 degree bend in their shank, a little ways back from the hook eye. They are most often used in conjunction with a slotted bead, usually made out of tungsten. When fished, the combination allows the hook to ride in a more hook-point-up orientation, thus reducing snags on the bottom. Flies tied on jig hooks also tend to have an enticing jiggy motion as they move downstream, which can be a real advantage. 

A variety of jig hooks with different bend angles, gap sizes and shank lengths.

Final Hook Details

In addition, there are some smaller details to keep in mind when selecting a hook for a trout fly. For instance, its finish can be important. You may choose a standard bronze-colored finish for a traditional look, gold or another bright color to act as an attractor, or black nickel for a more stealthy look. If your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, you might consider using hooks that have over-sized eyes. This makes tying them on with delicate tippets much easier.

Some different hook finishing options.

Hook gap can also be critical. This is the distance between the hook shank and the hook point. The gap is generally governed by hook size but several hooks are now available with larger-than-normal hook gaps to allow for more positive hook-ups with smaller flies. There’s also something to be said for tying classic fly patterns on classic hooks. A classic Catskill-style dry fly, say a Red Quill, to some looks best tied on a hook from the same era as when that pattern was originally tied. 

It’s Tying Time!

With the dizzying array of hooks on the market, from an ever-increasing number of manufacturers, choosing the right hook for your fly can seem overwhelming. Just keep in mind there is really no must-have specific hook for a specific fly. Simply go for the closest match you have or that’s easily available. Reliability is also important with hooks, as you don’t want a hook to break or bend out on a fish of a lifetime. A little extra money spent on a quality hook from a reputable manufacturer is quite often money well spent.

To see more from Tim, head to his YouTube page. He’s a master on the vise, and his tutorials are great for tying season.

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