These curved pieces of metal serve as the fundamental tool of anglers the world over, yet fish hooks often suffer from the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: Despite their importance, they get no respect because flashy new rods and reels grab the spotlight. But talking to hook manufacturers reveals a dynamic market dependent upon constantly evolving technology and closely guarded company secrets.
"Mustad is the only hook producer in the world that has its own wire-drawing mill, allowing for strict quality control from the very onset of the manufacturing process," says Jeff Pierce, sales coordinator for Mustad USA. "We start with steel wire about as big around as your pinky, then use our special machinery and expertise to draw it down to all the different diameters required to make anything from a tuna hook to a size-28 dry-fly hook."
Machines draw the wire to a specific diameter, cut and bend it into shape, then form the hook point. Pierce explains that, except for its stainless-steel models, "Mustad uses basically the same type of high-carbon steel when shaping all the different hooks because from that point on we can customize the products for any particular purpose."
Determining optimum carbon content presents a challenge because, as Pierce explains, "Too much carbon makes the steel brittle, causing it to snap rather than flex; too little carbon results in weak hooks." Most hook manufacturers employ very similar grades of high-carbon steel in their products, tweaking the formula (and guarding the recipe) to achieve specific results and differentiate themselves from competitors. Daiichi's saltwater products manager, TJ Stallings, explains why his company incorporates 80-carbon steel in its hooks: "High-carbon steel allows us to make hooks from smaller-diameter wire without sacrificing strength - and tests show diameter represents the single most important factor in hook penetration."
Watch Your Temper
"I can put several hooks on the table, all made from the same-diameter wire yet presenting distinct characteristics," says Pierce. "One may bend under pressure and open up, another may flex then spring back to its original shape and a third may not bend or give at all. The difference lies in the tempering process."
Tempering involves a series of heating and cooling treatments that affect the metal's performance. Manufacturers maintain proprietary tempering processes as jealously guarded secrets because these procedures ultimately define hook qualities such as strength, flex and brittleness. Pierce identifies tempering as the most critical step in making reliable hooks: "You can have the best machines in the world for forming hooks, but if the product isn't properly tempered it will be useless."
Explaining the need for computers to precisely control the degree and duration of heating and cooling phases, Pierce says, "There's very little leeway in the tempering process. If you're off by a hair, it has a major impact on hook quality. Too much tempering leaves hooks brittle."