The Snag

Posted on October 4, 2003

It’s the most distressing accident an angler can suffer, short of drowning, dumping, or dropping a rod in the drink. Call it snagging, hanging up, fouling; it happens to everybody who casts a lure in a river, but not as often for some. What follows is a discussion of the snag and some secrets to escaping more and snagging just enough.

First, it’s important to recognize that no snags is not necessarily good news. For the angler targeting cover and bottom-oriented fish such as smallmouth, largemouth, and walleyes, it is possible to avoid snags altogether, but at what cost? A guide friend of mine, describing a trying day of guiding neophyte spin anglers on a rocky and shallow smallmouth river, grew tired of rowing to retrieve hung-up jigs. The fish were cooperative between snags so the guide waited for a lull in the action then declared that the grub bite was off and the Tiny Torpedo bite was on. The clients still got some hits on their topwater lures, and the guide got to coast with the current for a while. You can choose to stay snag-free; it’s just not always the most important thing.

The jig is unquestionably the most productive smallmouth lure for spin anglers, and jigs operate best in the bottom of the water column-which is also where the snags operate best. Crayfish imitations such as jig-and-pig and tube lures need bottom contact to work best; crankbaits are very effective when they are ground along the bottom. Some snags therefore are inevitable and expected. Before the Tiny Torpedo bite kicks in, I usually told my clients that they weren’t likely to catch as many fish if they weren’t hanging up occasionally. The angler has to make a value judgment about tackle and accept the fact that some hanging up is the price of admission to that rich lower stratum where the big fish feed.

But all snags are not necessary, and in certain specific situations there will be a very sharp difference between the experienced angler and the beginner in the number of snags, lost lures, retrieve moves, and spoiled spots. That’s the substance of this piece: how can you benefit from the cover, the current, and the bottom composition without letting your lure become a permanent part of it?

First, let’s organize the problem. Snags fall into a variety of categories and the skilled angler will have strategies to fish among, and escape from, all types.

Hanging in a tree is a fairly common error on a smallmouth river. Thick tree cover provides shade, which is a critical fish-holding feature in summer fishing; high water drives fish to the banks and then fills up the space under the branches, encouraging the angler to take risky casts through spaces and slots in the overhanging branches. The best spawning habitat on many rivers is found behind rock cover that has trees on it. The maples, cottonwoods, and sycamores of the Shenandoah and Potomac have claimed more than their share of my lures, and I’ve found many a strange fruit dangling from their branches as I drifted down a shady afternoon bank.

Step one to handling a branch-hung lure is the freeze and dangle. Most lures, especially single-hooked lures like super flukes, grubs, tubes, buzzbaits, and jig-and-pigs, won’t actually hook the tree branch; they punch through some number of twigs and leaves then hang there, tantalizing you. When that happens, stop. The key move in this situation is to do nothing. The usual mistake is to yank indiscriminately, or to let a drifting boat pull the lure upward into the trees. If the lure wraps the branches or hooks them again, your only hope will be to go over there and unknit the thing or clip it off while the spiders run down your sleeves and the branches scrape your hat off into the drink.

At this stage you can still retrieve a lure by keeping it free-hanging. If the height of the offending branches keep the lure out of reach, then let it dangle and try to lower it to within reach so you can cut it free, pull the line through, and then retie. We don’t retie enough, anyway. A technique that will often free the line from lighter twigs and leaves is the water haul. Execute this maneuver by dropping the lure clear down into the water to as deep as you can, then giving the rod several sharp downward twitches. Water resistance will keep the lure from popping up into the branch again and will often disengage the line by simply overpowering the branch, flexing it downward, or even cutting through the leaves. A by-product of this is the strike indicator, in which a fish eats your lure and pulls it out of the tree for you. Or eats your lure and then jumps into the tree. That’s not necessarily better for lure retrieval, but it’s more entertaining.

If, after the lure dangles freely, the line still passes through too thick or heavy foliage to use the water haul, try the pendulum yank. Once mastered, this trick works nearly every time. If the lure is hung at a reachable level, try this before you move the boat over to retrieve the lure. First, wait until the lure’s motion is dampened down to very little swing. Second, lower the lure 18” to 36” below the point where the line passes over the last branch. Now pull gently on the rod to impart a swing in the lure that is in the same plane as the line and rod-that is, get it swinging back and forth, not side-to-side. Finally, as it swings back, or away from you, make a lusty accelerating yank. When timed properly, the backward swing combined with the pull on the line will cause the lure to lift above the branch as it hits the opening, speeding it out the same space it sped into. When executed properly, the lure will fly back to you in a high trajectory toward the boat. That’s how hard you should yank. Obviously, when working from a drifting boat, these steps have to be executed fairly quickly.

I’ve found that these techniques will do something else: raise your casting confidence when confronted with trees. If you know you can retrieve most errant lures, you will take more chances; more chances means more skill, more skill means more fish. I can remember summer afternoons drifting shady banks and punching buzzbaits through tiny little slots in the sycamores-hitting the mitt from a drifting canoe was almost as much fun as watching the bass clomp the lures.

Snags in wood are trouble, because the hook engages, or pierces, the offending object. That makes it tough to use tricks to disengage the hook and means that you have to get closer or change the angle or you won’t have a chance of retrieving your lure. One principle worth considering here is the Greatest Possible Force. Imagine that you’re fishing a jig and something happens – you feel that ambiguous momentary pressure, that unidentified bump, that change in feel for which good jig anglers are always alert. If you know it isn’t a fish, you do nothing; if you know it is a fish, you set the hook.

It makes no sense to apply any force between; either you’re working the lure or you’re setting the hook. A hookset – whatever your style from Bill Dance down to Izaak Walton – is the Greatest Possible Force you will apply to the mystery that has your lure. Until you’ve tried a couple of these steps, you should never apply more force than that necessary to set the hook. After you’re sure you’re hung up, there’s even less need for force – it is useful for almost nothing but breaking the line. A lot of people yank harder, way harder, than they need to. Even if you’re sure what you’ve hit isn’t a fish, don’t pull hard until it’s time to break the line.

Another consideration is what you do with your rod in the moment after you’ve set the hook. Drift-fishing in a rocky smallmouth river creates a calculus of confusion in that instant when you feel something at the end of your line. One key technique is what I call “hesitate at tension”. It’s easy to do, but not so easy to learn to do every time. Also, it’s more for the benefit of observers than for the angler himself; he who holdeth the rod knoweth the most. But if you’re trying to teach a person to be most effective on the river, have them practice freezing the rod with good tension against any unknown force – snag or fish. Don’t pull harder than the greatest possible force or you’ll bury your hook in the log; don’t slack off or you will give your lunker the slack she needs to quick-jump, throw your lure, give you the fin, and disappear forever into the Eddy of Regret. Just hold the rod still. If it’s a fish you’ll see the wobble; if it’s a snag you’ll be able to react to it quickly and effectively.

If that mystery turns out to be a sunken log, you should never exceed the force of a hookset until you have done a number of other things to extricate your lure. I have developed a middle ground hookset – a fairly sharp lift that (I hope) allows me to start the hook in a fish, but keeps me from hooksetting a branch. I live in Minnesota now and there are some new factors to contend with, including light-taking smallmouth and walleyes that take a jig with a subtle “tap” instead of the “tunk” that I’m used to. So when I get that ambiguous tension I lift into contact then hesitate at tension a moment before either slacking off or going with the full Bill Dance-style Yazoo Yank hookset. Sharp hooks help.

Many amateurs respond to the snag with maximum force, and do it several times; it it’s a piece of wood they’ve hooked they’re only engaging the hook further and making it less likely that they can retrieve their lure. (If it’s a rock they’re doing even less good; more on that later.) Train yourself to respond to unknown situations with a moderate amount of force, enough to set the hook on a fish, but no more. That skill will save you fatal hang-ups and spots and time.

In snags underwater, especially wood, angle is everything and force is nothing. Until it’s time to break the lure off, force is almost always your enemy. The exception is the branch that might break before the line, or the piece of wood that’s small enough to come to the surface, but the most effective reaction to a snag that might be wood is to back off immediately and try to get another angle. Yanking repeatedly – the usual first reaction – is the least effective strategy.

Effective strategies: for a floating lure, slack off. A surprising amount of the time the lure will simply float free. (This works on rock, too.) If you have current between your position and the snag, slack off and drop enough line so that the impulse comes from a different angle – it’s a way to get angle without moving. The impulse against the lure won’t be very strong, but it will be enough if you didn’t drive the hooks deep with your frustrated, adolescent yanking. With wood snags, however, you’re probably going to have to get close, and even that won’t help much. As you approach, follow these steps to best success.

Slack off. Don’t keep continuous pressure on the lure. Don’t let it go so slack that the line fouls another object, such as other branches of the tree you’ve caught, but don’t pull continuously. Angle frees a hook, but the shift – the moment when the thing turns – helps a lot. You want the hook and lure to be oriented to where you were so that when you pull from a new angle the lure shifts the maximum amount – that will most likely lead to the hook coming free. It’s a leverage thing.

Get a 180. Hold off until you are on the farthest opposite orientation from where the lure was hung in the first place before you try to yank her off. Use your rod to maximize this angle. The further opposite you are, the better, especially if the water is deep. That’s just geometry. Or maybe trigonometry. Call it Snagonometry, call me Professor Dave.

Yank it hard the first time, and yank it from slack line if possible so the lure pivots sharply. Yank once at the new angle; if it doesn’t come free, patiently wait for a new angle. Get angle first, and remember that if your strongest pull doesn’t free a lure it is most likely engaging it more deeply. Besides, repeatedly yanking on a lure isn’t dignified. And by “yank” I mean something quite specific. I’ve learned that the most effective motion against a snag is a sudden pull from slack line – not a “sweep” or a “pull”, but a “yank.” Once you’ve tried all the angles you can get, or devoted all the time you can, a series of frustrated yanks isn’t a bad last resort before breaking it off, but in my experience it’s the one-time pull that will work against wood most often.

This advice becomes iffy with treble-hook lures, but it’s the most likely way to recover a lure from wood. If you give it your best angle-attack and it doesn’t come free, there’s one more black-belt trick that is tough to master, but worth the price of admission: the rod-tip poke-off. The poke-off only works on a snag within rod-reach of you, which happens to be a common situation in my typical rivers. Position the boat, and yourself, as close to the snag as possible. Reel up as much slack as you can and get low in a canoe or johnboat, go to your knees. Keep reeling as you push the rod tip into the water as far as you can reach. If you feel the rod tip hit the lure, stop. At this point you have an angle advantage, as described above, and it’s often fruitful here simply to sweep the rod away from the snag and pull from the most opposite angle. If you can’t reach the lure with your rod tip, that’s what you should do. If you can reach it, though, continue with these steps for a 90% effective extrication trick. Once you know you’ll be able to poke the lure with the rod tip, grab the line with your left hand before the first guide and continue pushing the rod toward the snag, pulling line back with your left hand the way a fly angler strips line. The object of this step is to keep the line tight from your hand to the snag. Move the rod independently from the line; let the rod slide on the now-tight line between the snag and your left hand. The guides will direct the rod tip right to the lure; follow through and poke the lure with the rod to push it off what it has hooked. As your rod tip hits the lure, let your left (line) hand move with your right (rod) hand so you aren’t pushing against yourself. Poke hard enough to push the hook off, but not hard enough to break the rod. If the rod is bending the trick is futile.

In the abstract, it seems possible to create a serious problem with this trick. It seems like treble hooks might foul the rod tip and connect you permanently to your snag; it seems like the rod might foul in the snag; it seems like the rod might overflex and break. So far, I know not ‘seems.’ I’ve done this trick a thousand times and never suffered any of these misadventures.

Breaking it Off
It seems fruitful here to digress upon the result of failure of these tricks: the need to break the line. Breaking the line seems simple; I frequently accomplish it without even trying, usually by hooking a large fish or a passing car (laugh if you like; I’ve twice hooked a passing car. Maybe that’s another piece.) Occasionally, of course, we need to break the line on purpose so we can go on fishing.

The loss ratio in wood is highest – maybe 30% of the ones you have a decent shot at retrieving. I lose far more in rock, but a lower percentage; that’s because we fish in rock most of the time. More on that later. So imagine a wood-hung lure that you can’t recover, so it’s time to break it off. It’s important to break your line properly.

First, recognize that breaking a lure off is a good opportunity to test your gear. Use it to model a big-fish moment. Will your knot hold? Will the drag function properly? Time to find out. I use the first snag of the day as an opportunity to teach novice clients the little skills that help keep the guide sane. There are several distinctive little moves: Set the Hook, Rod Up, Pump and Crank, Don’t Reel against the Durn Drag, Hesitate with Tension, Side Pressure, Swing Her to the Net, Tip your Guide, etc. Eventually, though, you have to let it go; you have to say goodbye. Follow these steps to a proper break-off:

Take the rod out of the system by pointing it at the snag. The rod is a shock-absorber and a lever, and you need neither here. If you stress your line to the breaking point across the guides of the rod several bad things can happen: the rod can break, the line can be frayed by rough guides or reel parts, the line can break at the reel or guides (instead of at the knot, where you want it to), or your grip on the rod might slip and the rod will then spring high in the air like a marlin shining in the sun, then dive friskily into the river where it will hang patiently until some bohunk with a bank sinker and a treble-hooked chicken liver recovers it and fails to appreciate it for the rest of his life. Bitter? You bet I’m bitter.

Point the rod at the snag. This will calm the system down and focus the force gradually and steadily on the place where you want the line to break: the knot. If you’re in a drifting boat, let her drift away. If you’re stationary, lean or gradually pull backward with your body, not your arms. You want a slow accumulation of force. The drag should pull at some point; assess whether it’s properly adjusted (another piece, later). Don’t change your drag setting. Palm the spool to slow down – not freeze – the drag. This is also good practice for that 20-pound carp you hook who wants to avenge himself on you for all the derogatory comments you’ve made about his species and so sets a course for Portugal with the current on his side.

Hold still. Try to let the pressure mount very gradually. It’s here where you want to hope for a couple of positive outcomes. The hook may bend out – especially if you’re using proper jigheads for rocky fishing (more on that one later, too.) If it bends, you can bend it back. If it breaks you know it’s not prime and maybe you should look at the rest of them for rust. Your snag may shift, weeds pull out, branches break, rocks shift. If not, the line will break and should break at the knot. Reasons to want this are obvious. You lose less line, and less line is released into the environment to foul and disgust.

Smallies relate to rock because their world is mainly rock-walled and floored, and because crayfish favor rock. If you want to catch river smallmouth you’ve got to throw that crayfish lure and you’ve got to throw it in, on, or near rock. Furthermore, the best action on such lures is less lateral and more vertical, so your lure is going to encounter rock at an angle and motion that will encourage the snag. Finally, though level rocky flats are good bass feeding areas, they are also fairly rare river structures and so you’ll find yourself casting into the most erratic, variable, and tortured topography that a river has to offer. Voila! Snags.

Rock snags are the most common and the most necessary kind of snags. They’re also the easiest to recover from a mobile boat. I recover about 90% of snags on rock, more if I’m fishing with experienced anglers. Here are the rules we’ve developed over a long history of hard lessons.

Rule 1: Upstream Cast is Jig Death. A jig thrown upstream falls with the current. This puts the lure out of the control of the angler and makes it plummet to the bottom. Even if you swim your jig it will run deeper on an upstream cast. Once it contacts rock the following current will tumble the lure and dump it into a crack more often. Finally, a lure hung upstream is much more difficult to get to and tend to be more securely hung. I also believe that an upstream presentation is less effective with many lures. Just don’t do it.

Rule 2: Keep Jigs Close. It’s a touchy question-there’s a bubble around the boat where fish won’t bite well, but there’s another bubble outside of which the line angle makes jigs snag more. Depending on the water depth, I try to keep jigs within about forty feet of the boat, and thirty feet is even better. This improves sensitivity to light bites, sensitivity to the bottom, hook angle, lure action, and hookset effectiveness. It also makes it easier to avoid and retrieve snags.

Rule 3: Don’t Be Afraid. Just as with the trees and logs, confidence to fish in the rock is the key to hooking more fish. If a fish eats your lure, you’re a lot less likely to get snagged. Once you’re skilled at extricating snags, you can afford to be less worried about hanging up.

Rule 4: Feel the Fall. This is less a snag-avoidance and more a catch-more-fish rule, but it works both ways. Crayfish imitations – which account for more big smallies than anything else – fish best when they are falling. However, free-falling lures tend to fall too far and tumble around in the rock. Not only is this a bad idea for snag avoidance, but it diminishes the lure’s effectiveness a lot. Crayfish don’t tumble bonelessly, buffeted by currents. When fishing in rock, keep your rod fairly high and be very alert to line angle and tension as the lure falls. It is possible to be tight to your lure as it falls normally. I can’t exactly explain how to do it – there’s a bend in the line, you’re watching the line, you’re moving your rod downward as it falls, other stuff is happening; trust me, it’s possible. A corollary to this rule is the Anticipation Factor; I hang the rocks less often because I am experienced at reading the water and I can anticipate the bottom contact. If a tube or grub bumps or ticks the rock then is immediately jigged upward, it will hang up much less often; if it falls into the rocks and tumbles sideways, well, sayonara.

The Bail Snap
The Bail Snap is the coolest, most effective trick I know. Frankly, I believe that a good bail-snapper is a much more happy and attractive person. Many people know something about bail snapping; you see a lot of wrong technique and misguided attempts, which of course just make those of us who know how more cool and more smug. If that’s possible.

The bail snap works most of the time for lures hung in rock. If you are oriented cross-current and not terribly far from your lure, and the lure is a single-hook lure on a proper river jighead, it works better than most of the time – maybe 80% or better. Add proper approach technique and the other tricks described above and you have a 95% recovery rate.

The bail snap works by flexing the hook-tip against the rock then suddenly releasing the tension so that the hook actually springs or snaps, which reorients the hook. Since in a rock snag the hook isn’t engaged, a re-oriented hook can be recovered, if you do the right thing next. If you don’t believe it, try it on dry land. This and all the tricks here can be recreated and practiced in your backyard or in a park or for that matter on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol. Another piece.

Properly execute the bail snap in these steps:
1. Open the bail and put your finger on the line as if you’re going to cast.
2. Put a steep bend in the rod-up to max force. Freeze.
3. Allow the line to take a straight angle from the snag to your rod tip.
4. Allow the line to pop off your finger. As much as possible, let it go from maximum tension to absolutely slack instantly and completely.
5. Check the spool for fouls; reel up smartly; twitch or lift as the line comes tight.
6. Repeat at least three times, even if you are drifting away.

It’s critical that you don’t make these common mistakes:

1. Pull or move the rod as you’re releasing the line. To make the hook flex the tension should be released suddenly. Pulling the rod away may make more tension but it also dampens the impulse and maintains the tension on the hook a bit.
2. Bail snap to a closed bail. Snapping to a foot or six inches of slack does nothing; your monofilament line will stretch much more than that. Pulling a yard or two of line off the reel and snapping into that slack is only marginally better.
3. Snap before the line has come straight to the rod tip. Water, especially flowing water, will distort the line angle slightly. The trick works best if the impulse is as direct as possible to the hook.
4. Reel up the slack without checking your spool. One drawback of the bail snap is that it invites snarls in twisted line. After the snap your next step is to glance at the spool to make sure the line is clear before reeling up. To maximize the chance of freeing your lure, reel smoothly up to the snag, but include a set of twitches or jiggles as the line comes tight. This will shift the newly re-oriented lure slightly and improve the likelihood that it will swim up and away from the snag.

There are several factors which influence the effectiveness of the bail snap. The character of the rock you are fishing in is important. Here in Minnesota, virtually all of the rock is rounded glacial boulders – very little bedrock anywhere, very few sharp edges. Bail snaps work virtually every time in this environment. However, there are a few places I know of where the rock character changes, including one notable creekmouth on the St. Croix where the opposite is true. This area is paved with blocks of freshly broken, sharp-edged shale, and it is a snaggy spot. Add to that a stiff current and a deceptively smooth flat, so the water seems deeper than it is, and it becomes a jig graveyard.

The type of jighead and hook you use makes a huge difference here. Store-bought jigheads, whether for jigs, tube heads, collared grub heads, or any of the other commonly used types, tend to be fairly small in gap – they follow the standard formula which makes a 1/16 ounce head about a 4, a 1/8 ounce head about a 2, and a ¼ ounce head about a 1. These are way too small in gap, both for catching big fish and for bail snapping. The bail snap will work for this tackle, but it will work better if you acquire some specialized river smallie jigheads.

I began pouring jigheads about ten years ago, but I stopped when my children were born – I wanted them to get their lead the old fashioned way. I used standard Hilts molds, but took the hook size as far up as it would go, usually going to 2/0 #571 Eagle Claws for 1/8 ounce heads and 3/0 hooks for quarters. When I was feeling flush I would buy the Owner or Gamakatsu hooks. The larger hooks didn’t create a problem with strikes – if anything, I believe they hook up better, and there’s no question the premium hooks, with their tough chemically sharpened points, take more fish. What’s best is that the long, light hooks with broad gaps will bail snap nearly every time.

While I’m on the subject, I’ll describe the perfect jighead because I know where you can buy them. It’s a 1/8 or ¼ (we’re not afraid of snags, remember, and are fishing lift-and-drop; therefore heavy is good) on a collared ball jig with a single coated-cable style rockguard. I use these for grubs and tubes (and small plastic worms, too). Premium hooks always – it’s well worth the extra money. For bucktail or craft-fur jig-and-pigs I’ll go with fiber weedguards and the horse-head style jighead, but for the bulk of my fishing needs I use ball-heads. The rock-guard works fairly well – reduces some snags and doesn’t interfere with hookups. For tubes I fish them as is; for grubs I’ll powder paint them white, black, or chartreuse, maybe paint eyes on. That’s it. These can be had from John at; his brand is “RAB”. He also has all the tubes you’ll ever need.

Wild Cards
I should mention that some snags fall into categories I haven’t listed here. I’ve twice hooked myself seriously with barbed hooks, and both times were the result of underestimating a snag. Whenever you hang up, you’re interrupting a flow or a routine and that might lead to pain or real danger, so be careful and be mindful that the price of a lure is negligible compared to the other charges that Fate can levy on the unwary.

I first learned this lesson when I put a heavy crankbait into a maple tree. Way up in a maple tree. I pulled very hard, which as we all know creates a significant amount of energy focused along a very specific vector, and that vector was aimed directly at me. When the crankbait tore out of the tree branch it was bound by the laws of physics to fly right at the rod tip; I was of course bound by the laws of flinchics, and the law of Murphy, to hunch up and turn my back, and more specifically my right buttock, toward the missile. A bit of windage and I had two trebles hilt-deep in my sit-upon. I didn’t learn the Double Mono-Loop Trick that day; the brave Asian gentleman who performed it on me couldn’t describe it – he had no English – and I couldn’t see it, being prone across the seat of a jonboat at the time. Lesson: yank away at an underwater snag, but spare yourself and your companions the trauma threat of the uncontrolled yank attack on a flexible tree-branch snag.

The second was potentially more serious. One evening I was casting a small rattletrap – you know, the one with the nasty sharp hooks – along the bank of the Potomac, and doing very well for largemouth bass. I hung my lure on a log buried in sand right at the water’s edge, and it wouldn’t come off. I could see it, so I just buzzed in with the trolling motor, leaned out of the front of the boat, grabbed the lure body and popped the hook out with a casual flick of my wrist. Except it didn’t come out; it wasn’t a log, it was a sandbag made of woven nylon mesh. The hook stayed engaged, the lure body slipped out of my hand, and one hook penetrated my middle fingernail clear to the bend.

The only worse thing is to be connected by hooks to a big, angry fish; that is probably what awaits us in Hell if God turns out to be a fish. As it was I was in serious trouble; the boat was drifting, and I found myself leaning out of it, holding desperately to the sandbag with my left hand and just trying to keep my right hand less than one rattletrap-length away from shore. I couldn’t get the hooks out of the sandbag, I couldn’t reach my tools. Finally, I managed to slither out into the river and got close enough to pull the sandbag out of the beach. Once I had it on the bow of the boat I could reach my cutters and release the sandbag to fight again. I clipped down the hook (very much pain) myself, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the ER docs to come up with the proper anesthetic and a pair of pliers.

So that’s all I know on the river snag. This set of strategies has always made my fishing and guiding more comfortable and less frustrating.

by Dave Motes

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