You know the guy(s)....if you have observed "fishing" anywhere near a dam, for almost any species, but in our case particularly salmon or steelhead. You know..."that guy". Swing and a miss, swing-set-headshake-loss. Swing - snap!
Fighting fish is not as easy as it looks, but it's often made much more difficult than it needs to be. For some reason, and this is broadly speaking after observing countless hours and days of "fishing" at aforementioned locations, we see it all the time.
Hell, we see it on 16 foot flat bottoms with four guys in Carharts. Not to pick on Carhart guys, because Simms guys do it too. The Neanderthal method of fighting fish. It's not pretty, about 50% effective, and extremely abusive on tackle and gear.
The good news is, if you are reading this you are probably NOT that guy, but you likely know one.
It's the guy who feels a nibble on his line, sees a wobble in his float and WHAM with a force close to that of a Mack truck hitting an overpass at 80 miles an hour, he "sets the hook".
Now I am not going to get into bass fishing...that's an entirely different world. We don't bass fish and I don't know if all of that drama in massive hooksets is really all that necessary...but for what we do, it's not.
So to break it down we will focus on two key parts of the entire process...the initial bite, and then actual process of "fighting" the fish.
Initial Bite: So we are going to stay away from trolling or jigging for purposes of this discussion. Needless to say, trolling requires NO hookset as the fish "set" the hook on the strike which is greatly assisted by the fact that there is some tension already on the line (a release of some sort) and the fact that the boat is moving. This alleviates or completely eliminates "slack" in the line which is one of the most important factors of even getting to the "fighting" stage of the process. As direct of connection to the fish as possible (i.e. no slack) is always a great way to increase your probability of landing that fish.
So let's talk about "hook sets", again in particular regards to float fishing for any species, but certainly to salmon and steelhead. We are going to lay it right out here and say that by and large when an angler violently jerks upwards when they think a fish has taken the bait...they aren't "setting" shit. This goes for casting spoons, spinners, stickbaits...you name it. That fish has grabbed that bait and is hanging on by whatever it got stuck with, and the hook is not going any further in by violently jerking back against it.
Don't believe us? Take your favorite lure, or hook, and stick it just barely into the side of a piece of wood..on your deck or something. Then, while letting out line walk 100 or so feet away. Then, without becoming "tight" to the hook or lure, with a reasonable amount of slack in the line....jerk violently straight upwards as hard and as fast as you can. Again, don't reel in a bunch of slack and get tight to your lure before you test this...because that's not how you will be when a fish actually takes your lure. Reasonable or even excessive amount of slack to simulate real world conditions.
Lay your rod down and walk back to your piece of wood and see how far you penetrated with your hook. You are going to be surprised. And, even if you did get a little bit of penetration, remember you orientated yourself directly perpendicular (or opposite) from your "fish" and an optimum angle...which never happens when fishing. You are usually off to the side, or the fish is at a down angle away from you. You are rarely if ever completely squared up to a fish with the hook perfectly situated in their jaw. But go ahead and try it anyway in "perfect" conditions. Hope you don't break your rod! Then, try it from 200 feet, 300 feet...you get the picture.
Focusing on float fishing: First of all, the "bait" is probably several to many feet (vertically) below the surface. In this case, the only way you might have a chance at driving a hook further in would be to pull directly up against it. Well, you are standing a hundred feet away upstream, you are not positioned directly above your float.
Second, the distance to the float is generally not within 20 feet, and likely much further...even up to a hundred or hundreds of feet away. As a result, there is probably more slack in the line than as one might think, with the line laying on the surface of the water.
Third, yes even a fantastic fluorocarbon leader (ours included) has stretch.
Fourth, yes even a monofilament mainline (obviously) has stretch in it. Even if braided mainline is used, there are still three other points of flex (vertical, slack and rod flex) in the entire operation.
Fifth, a fishing rod likely (and presumably/desirably) has a decent amount of flex in it, at least towards the upper half of the rod.
So after ALL of that....the distance below the float, the slack in the line on the water, the stretch in the leader and mainline, the flex in a rod.....who actually thinks they are DRIVING a hook into the rock hard jaw of a spawning stage salmon? Having physically compared the softness vs hardness of a salmon's mouth/jaw between non spawning stage and spawning stage, there is a huge difference. If you have not done this comparison, salmon mouths and jaws are literally ROCK during spawning (river stage) in terms of penetrability as compared to when we catch them offshore (non river/spawning stage).
To cut to the chase, a "hookset" while float fishing isn't setting jack as far as hook penetration goes into spawning salmon. What IS happening when a violent and sudden jerk upwards occurs, is an excessive amount of force to remove slack out of the line to the fish, and once that slack is removed the remaining energy is transferred to the leader, line and rod blank....not to driving hook penetration. And what happens when that excessive energy is transferred to the line, leader, rod blank and even a hook shank? Excessive stretching and flexing which can lead to failure of those components. It might not be this time, it might not be the next time, but it will be some time.
Let's then talk about steelhead, who's mouths/jaws are never hard at all. Even then, given all of the other points of flex (vertical below the float, slack on the water, line stretch, rod flex)...very very little hook penetration occurs due to the violent and sudden upheaval of a fishing rod at the initial bite. If that WERE the case, given the ferocity we witness in such hooksets (which is all the time) how in the hell could anyone ever lose a fish? I mean, a guy NAILS the hookset, and still loses the fish.
That is because the "hookset" isn't setting jack, all its doing is quickly removing slack from the line, pushing through all of the flex and stretch in the setup, and then transferring the extra energy to those components leading to immediate or eventual failure.
Here is the thing guys, picking up slack and moving through all of the flex and stretch of your setup is key. Once you are "tight" to the fish, what the fish does AFTER that actually drives the hook further into the fishes mouth. The sudden violent jerking upwards in excess of removing the slack and flex does not. That breaks rods and tackle.
The guys who rarely if ever lose fish (or break rods and tackle), are the guys who quickly but not excessively remove slack from their line. Nothing excessive, just a quick snap/lift, tight to the fish and then.....correct rod angle for the remainder of the fight.
Which brings us to the second stage of fighting fish, the actual fight.
99.99999% of guys who fight fish have the butt of the rod low or below their waist, with the bottom section of their fishing rod pointing almost completely vertical...straight up into the air. And they keep it like that the entire time. If you ever wondered what "high sticking" was...that's it. And those guys lose fish. Alot.
Watch a guy who is really good on a rod, rarely if ever loses fish, and 99% of the time his rod tip is laying parallel to or sometimes even pointing into the water. It's all about rod angles.
Hooks can continue to penetrate into a fishes mouth/jaw throughout the fight. Again, that just doesn't happen on the initial strike, it happens throughout the fight. And this is accomplished through appropriate rod angles in orientation to the fish.
Simply speaking, fish is running or hanging over to your right, your rod tip should be parallel to the water on the left. Fish is running to the left, your rod tip is parallel to the water laying to the right. You always have OPPOSITE leverage against the fish throughout the entirely of the fight.
When a fishing rod is pointed straight up into the air, that fish can literally go anywhere...left or right, and you have ZERO leverage against it. You can't even control it to keep it from going where you don't want it to go. When you lay your rod parallel to the water in the OPPOSITE direction from where the fish is you are accomplishing two things. First, you are driving the hook further into the fishes mouth as it is pulling directly away from you. Second, you are using the power in the rod to bring the fish back to center and towards you, away from logs, snags and other places you do not want it to go. You want that fish coming right at you, and right into your net.
What about fish running straight away from you? Same thing, only you can now decide to lay your rod parallel to the water either left or right, opposite from where you DON'T want the fish to go. If you see a possible obstruction further down to the left, lay your rod parallel to the water on the right and steer the fish back towards center if it decides to go left. Opposite is true.
This "leverage" technique is crucial as well when trolling. Once you are hooked up and tight to a fish, you have to control that fish and keep it directly behind the boat. You don't want it running to the left into your planer boards, or swimming to the right up underneath your divers. You have to have that fish directly behind the boat at all times, swimming directly at the stern.
You do this by pointing your rod tip flat to the water, directly at the fish and cranking if it is swimming directly away from you or directly at you. If the fish is to the left, you are on the right side of the boat with your rod tip pointing even further right, trying to bring the fish to center. Opposite is true if the fish is running to the right. Never ever fight fish trolling or in any other situation with your rod tip pointing up. We keep it a 9 oclock and below, even with the tip in the water. It keeps the fishes head down, keeps the hooks in the water, and keeps the fish coming directly at you. The last thing you need is a fish thrashing around on the surface with hooks dangling and no water pressure against the fishes head/mouth and the hook within it. Use water pressure to keep that fishes head in the water, and the hook stuck right where it is.
Use leverage and the power of your rod to your advantage, and control the fishes head and direction by dictating its course of travel. Don't keep your rod pointed straight up and the air and let the fish run wherever it wants to run. Control the fish by leverage, you have it, the fish doesn't.
Next time you are out, look for the guy who's landing more vs the guys who are snapping rods and equipment. Watch how they "set" and "fight". If you are paying attention, you will see the difference.
No excessive energy is needed, don't blow your gear up for no reason. Quickly get the slack out of the line without unnecessary excessive force, and play the fish with leverage throughout the fight. 9 times out of ten you are going to be that guy that everyone is then watching.