Why We Foul-Hook Striped Bass While Surf Fishing

Watch underwater video to understand why striped bass become foul-hooked when surf fishing with lures.

It’s pretty common to foul-hook striped bass while surf fishing. (For reference, to “foul-hook” is to accidentally snag a fish in the head or body instead of the mouth.) Although most anglers would assume that stripers get foul-hooked because they miss the plug, I’m convinced there’s more to it. I’ve had fishing trips when nearly every single striped bass was foul-hooked on the head or gill plate—suggesting it was something more than just a case of bad aim.

The Selective Striper Theory 

Thanks to hours spent preparing gear, scouting the best locations, and making countless casts, I’ve been lucky to witness breathtaking surface feeds. Seeing striped bass crash on baitfish while birds dive down from above is awe-inspiring and an all-out dopamine rush.

Even when striped bass are in a feeding frenzy, they won’t always hit a plug. Stripers are often keyed in on a specific baitfish shape and profile, and they can be very particular and selective. Stripers are naturally curious and will often follow a lure or bait before striking. I’ve watched them follow and rush at a plug, pushing large amounts of water with their powerful tails, only to turn away at the last second. Many times, I’ll swap out the plug until I find one that draws a strike—only to find that the striper is foul-hooked.

Of course, sometimes stripers will miss a topwater plug because of its erratic side-to-side motion. Generally speaking though, they’re extremely accurate when it comes to striking their intended targets. Consider how quickly squid and mackerel maneuver, and how bass can pick them off with relative ease.

Evidence: Underwater Striped Bass Video

Recently I was watching a video of my On The Water co-workers hand-feeding fresh squid to striped bass at a dock. The fish were stacked up, swimming back and forth, aware of the fresh bait being dangled above their heads. Every 5 to 10 seconds, a bold bass would come up to the surface and take a swipe at the squid, sometimes connecting, but other times turning away in a defiant manner at the last moment.

Watching the footage, I could envision a striper getting foul-hooked. Stripers often turn away at the last second because they see something is awry with the bait or plug. In that instant when their body contorts and they shift their momentum in the opposite direction, we snag them on their head, gill plate, or in the meat of their body.

Look at 1:40-2:00 and you’ll see exactly what I mean about the momentum shift. Several times, a bass comes up and touches the squid with its mouth but decides it’s not in its best interest to eat the offering. There are also a couple of bass (1:50-to-1:58) that come up, flare their gills, begin to suck in water, but ultimately choose to dart away. That’s the type of behavior that could elicit a foul-hooked striper. Finally, at 2:00, a brave bass comes up and takes down the entire squid.

When Striped Bass “Bump” Baits

If a selective striped bass uses its head and body to deliberately nudge a bait that it is not convinced is safe to eat, that could easily lead to a foul-hooked fish.

I’ve had trips where the bass strike without hesitation, and at times they can be downright reckless. At those times, the plug is almost always snuggly secured in their mouth or down the throat, all but confirming their intentions.

However, there are also outings when nearly every single bass is foul-hooked on the head or gill plate. The most common experience I’ve had with snagged bass seems to be when they “nudge” a fishing lure, and most often, that lure is a darter.

The scenario where I’ve most often foul-hooked stripers is when I’m crawling a darter, barely moving it forward, so it is just slowly wagging in the current. It’s easy to imagine how such an action would not produce a quick “reaction strike”. Instead, the bass are slowly approaching the plug, which appears to be struggling to swim and not in danger of escaping, and bumping it with their snout or body. With ultra-sensitive braided line, that nudge feels like a slight “tick” during the retrieve. A quick hookset upon feeling that slight “tick” often results in a foul-hooked fish.

Have you had similar experiences with foul-hooked striped bass? Please let me know in the comments below.

7 on “Why We Foul-Hook Striped Bass While Surf Fishing

  1. James

    I feel that bass also aggressively try to stun their meal before eating as if to hurt it so it struggles less upon eating. I’ve had bass “stun” my lure then I completely stop reeling and it’ll come back and engulf my lure

  2. APEX

    I used to fish top-water plugs a bit and had similar experiences of bass smacking the plug but not actually taking it. Sometimes this resulted in a foul hookup. I started putting a 12″ 50# dropper off the swivel with a fly imitating a bait fish. Very quickly I learned that 90% of the fish I hooked took the “teaser”. Many would whack the plug then a few seconds later inhale the teaser. I still foul hooked some so I removed all the trebles and moved the leader and “teaser” to the rear eye screw. This reduced foul hook ups to nearly zero and if the teaser was weighted a little, it reduced the annoyance of the teaser getting tangled with the plug and its trebles. Another benefit was a far faster and cleaner catch and release process.

    Since then, I have moved almost exclusively to fly fishing and adapted the same technique with a hookless popper and a trailing fly. One of my most successful combos is a red faced white popper trailing something that resembles the flesh flies used in Alaska for trout. I make these from marabou and they resemble a large worm or razor clam body. I frequently add a drop of “worm” extract to help close the deal. This can be a very effective technique in our local salt ponds, estuaries, or on the open coast if the ocean is calm enough..

  3. David

    One answer is, of course, to stop using treble hooks entirely and swap them for singles. I’ve done this on all my lures and it really doesn’t affect the catch rate of clean hooked fish, but it does stop maiming them.

    1. C Ball

      Where is a good guide to replacing the hooks? I’ve had trouble sourcing & sizing single in-line hooks

  4. RMayer

    I set up all of my plugs with only 1 treble belly hook and a single bard tailhook with bucktail. I have no problem catching and releasing shorts is easy and safer on the fish and myself. My buddy still uses plugs with 3 treble hooks and has hook himself twice this season.

  5. twisty

    Why does this happen? I believe they are called “treble hooks”.

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