Tying is something I have always enjoyed, since the beginning of my fly-fishing journey. Even now, as I pare down my fly patterns to a handful of workhorses, I still enjoy tying, tinkering and experimenting. I don't think that will change anytime soon. As such, I am always on the hunt for the perfect hook. I think I am not alone in this quest. I find it comical that one can get obsessed over a bent piece of wire!
Hook shape tends to be the first consideration, and understandably so. While that is still a factor when I am choosing hooks, I have begun toying around with an added component: hook wire weight. This is nothing new or revolutionary, but I've noticed that discussions around "one-fly" or the like tend to revolve around size, shape, and color. In his book, Small Streams, author Dave Hughes advocates a "simplified" box of dry flies and nymphs, with each pattern tied in three sizes with #14 and #16 being the sweet spot. In my experience as well, one rarely has to go as large as a #12, or as small as a #18. Again, I am speaking about low pressured, Appalachian freestones, so your experience may be different. These fish rarely get selective, but they can become slightly fussy, and when that happens, one can usually err on the smaller side. I have landed on a relative size that I tie my tenkara flies and just go with that.
If one is going to fish a very limited number of patterns, it makes sense to me that maximum versatility is gained in each one. We focus on surface currents, looking for seams, tongues, eddies, and back-currents, which is of maximum importance; sometimes I think it is easy to lose sight of the third dimension of the water column level at which the fish are feeding. I like to figure this out quickly, so that I can make any necessary adjustments. On two or three-second drifts, to work from the lower column up, I like to use a heavy gauge wire hook. Thanks to the growth of interest in competitive fly fishing, we have access to some very interesting hooks. Heavy wire gauge, wide gape for better hooking, barbless, and dangerously sharp; these are the qualities I tend to look for. I am not suggesting that you ditch all your favorite flies and only use heavy wire. But I think having variations of you confidence patterns increases your versatility with minimal patterns; that versatility could be the difference between an average day on the water and an extraordinary one. Though I will always be on the lookout, here are a few hooks that are working very well for me.
From left to right: Owner Tenkara Main Stream No. 4, Umpqua/Hanak C260BL, and the Fulling Mill Heavyweight Champ No. 12.
The Owner Tenkara hook is a light to medium wire hook available from TenkaraBum. Chris equates the "No. 4" with being around a number 14 or so. This was my first "standard," and one I make most comparisons to as I move forward. The shape is beautiful, with a short-ish shank, wide gape and tiny barb. This hook makes for some beautiful, traditional Japanese tenkara flies.
The Umpqua/Hanak 260BL was a hook I found by accident, and it has since become something of a "desert-island" hook, in that, if my life depended on catching a fish, most of my confidence flies are tied on this hook. It has a similar shape to the Owner hook, but the shank is a little shorter, and the wire noticeably heavier. I like this hook for jun kebari. A number 12 in this hook produces a fly body that looks more like a 14 or 16. Unfortunately these hooks can be hard to track down at your local fly shop. Competitive Angler and the Tactical Fly-Fisher are good sources for Hanak hooks (and you might even find your own, new go-to hook.)
The final hook is the Fulling Mill Heavy Weight Champ which I picked up from Anthony at Three Rivers Tenkara. He sells them in sizes 10 and 12. This hook is similar to the other two, but with a further departure in the longer hook shank. I have been using this hook for sakasa and "regular orientation" soft hackles. The extra length looks more proportional with longer hackles, but more importantly, takes a traditional pattern and makes it a little more versatile while searching for fish.
I would like to share an anecdote that I hope illustrates my experiences using heavier wire hooks. In the past month I twice fished a stream in the Smokies. Though it was accidental, I fished the exact same stretch, with the exact same setup using the exact same fly both times. The fly was a takayama-style kebari tied on the Fulling Mill hook. On the first trip, I only became successful after I let the fly reach the lower depths. Of course, with the heavier hook this was quickly and easily accomplished. The second trip began with the same technique, but it was not producing fish. Instead of letting the fly plummet, I would let it attain middle-depth, and then quickly work the fly toward the upper levels. My catch rate skyrocketed for the remainder of the afternoon. On the way home, I thought about how interesting it would have been if the conditions from those two trips had been experienced over the course of a long morning and afternoon, something that is definitely feasible. I could have covered all my bases easily with that one pattern. Of course this is true for most patterns, but I think having that small amount of extra weight in the hook offers just tiny bit of versatility. And as we strip away all the clutter, asking to do more with less, that little edge might make a difference.