Surf fishing is an exhilarating and rewarding way to catch fish on any coastline, and choosing the best type and size of surf fishing hook is crucial to increasing your chances of success in this often-challenging angling environment...
Through this in-depth article, written by a professional surf fishing guide, we'll lay out in simple terms what each style of hook is designed for and explore some of the best types and sizes of hook for surf fishing - including circle hooks, J-hooks, treble hooks, baitholder hooks, jig heads and weedless swimbait hooks - and their ideal applications.
We'll also reveal lots of bait, rigging and tournament-winning setup tips, a range of species including sharks, croaker / drum, surf perch, bass, corbina, pompano, redfish and more.
Types of Hooks for Surf Fishing Guide Page Index
Circle Hooks for Surf Fishing
Circle hooks, like the one pictured below, have a straight shank and inward-pointing finish to the hook point and bend. They're a popular and effective choice amongst surf anglers in lots of shore-based, bait fishing scenarios.
Benefits of circle hooks for surf fishing
The main benefit of using a circle hook is because of the inward facing point, which is designed to only hook the fish in the corner of the mouth or lip.
This design reduces the risk of gut hooking and ensures the fish's survival, if you decide to release it, and also offers easy unhooking for species with teeth, like a shark.
Check out the placement of the hook on this croaker below, caught on a size 6 Mutsu circle hook and Fishbites Sand Flea bait, for a typical hook hold for a circle-hook-caught fish. Easy for you to dehook, but hard for the fish to get rid of.
The photo below also shows a perfect easy-to-reach hook hold with a circle hook in the bottom lip.
The leopard shark below was caught on an 8/0 Mutsu Circle hook and Leopard Shark Pulley Rig - you can see the circle hook curve and shank protruding from the jaw on the right side of the shot, exposed for an easy and quick release. These features make circle hooks a great choice lots of surf fishing rigs that use fresh bait.
This ease of release is an important consideration around hook choice in many fisheries when targeting species with strict regulations around catch and release, and limits or slot limits, such as with striped bass, sharks, redfish, snook, and seabass species. Adherence to such local regulations often necessitates a circle hook.
Circle hooks are also known for their high hook-up ratio, meaning that fish are more likely to be securely hooked once they take the bait. You'll likely lose fewer fish using a circle hooks compared to a J hook.
Different types of circle hook for surf fishing
Circle hooks are available in a few different strengths and designs, with reliable standard offset Mutsu wire circle hooks good for lots of croaker, perch, bass, smaller sharks and inshore predators. Think Medium, Medium-Heavy and Heavy spinning tackle, such as a bait-and-wait rod for croaker, or a surf shark setup.
We use the Mutsu Circle Hooks below for most of our competitions and guiding, and highly recommend them if you're looking for tournament quality surf fishing circle hooks.
Extra Heavy Mutsu versions are designed for big game fishing and larger predators such as sharks, rays and tuna on heavy conventional tackle. Think Heavy-rated gear and larger baits, and kayak, drone or slider-deployed rigs for bigger fish, like a large shark, grouper or ray.
We use the Mutsu Circle Extra hooks below for putting some spectacular fish on the sand, if you're looking for an awesome heavy-duty big game and shark fishing circle hook with an offset.
Inline versus offset circle hooks
Another two types of circle hook design feature are offset and inline versions.
Offset means the bend and hook point are designed to be a few degrees off from lining up exactly with the shank of the hook. If you laid the offset hook on a table, it wouldn't lay flat because of the offset bend.
See the example below of the inline hook (light color, left) versus the shape of the offset circle hook on the right.
The offset circle design slightly increases hook up ratios, and is the favored hook pattern for West Coast shark and surf fishing.
For example, sizes 8/0 and 10/0 in a Mutsu Circle hook covers a wide range of surf shark fishing in California in our guiding service, with setups and baits like the mackerel bait below very effective for sharks and rays. The rigs below also use the Mutsu circle hook and are awesome setups for shark fishing.
However, in some states, offset circle hooks are not legal and an inline version (the type with a point and bend that would lay flat if placed on a table) is required, like the model pictured below.
This inline design can help to reduce hook-ups from unwanted species and wildlife on lost rigs, and further decreases the chance of deep hooking a fish you have to release, such as a large shark or game fish.
Inline circle hooks are more commonly used and legally required on the East Coast and Gulf Coast fisheries for sharks, pompano, drum, redfish and game species, and some salmon species on the West Coast.
High-carbon steel circle hooks
The material a circle hook can be made from varies, too.
Avoid models made with cheap, low quality steel that'll rust and break easily, and instead pick a brand that offers good quality, high-carbon steel hooks for most uses when surf fishing, where high-carbon steel hooks are legal.
Some East Coast states and others require inline circle hooks by law, or hooks made from certain materials (often prohibiting stainless steel hooks), when shark or surf fishing for certain species.
Always check what circle hooks are legal to use in your area before setting out, or buying or making a rig.
When to use a circle hook for surf fishing
The best situations, times, rigs and setups for surf fishing with a circle hook are:
On any sort of shark or ray surf fishing rig
Fishing for striped bass with bait setups and static rigs
Fishing for croaker, drum, pompano, redfish or whiting-type species with a static, fresh bait rig
Any sort of FishBites rig and bait setup
On Single or Double Dropper Loop-style surf fishing rigs
When regulations require circle hooks to be used for particular fisheries, such as for striped bass and sharks in certain areas
And the following are examples of when not to use a circle hook for surf fishing:
Halibut and fluke lure fishing rigs
Fishing with any sort of lure or artificial bait
For inshore rockfish and lingcod
Fishing for sturgeon
For surf perch fishing on the West Coast
Any sort of dropshot, topwater, weedless or sabiki rig
Setting the hook with a circle hook
When using circle hooks, there's no need to set or strike the hook - instead, simply reel in steadily when you feel or see a bite until you’re tight to the fish. This sets the hook in the corner of the mouth as the line and rig tightens, pulling the hook into position.
But, more often than not when surf fishing with bait and a circle hook, the fish will hook itself by tightening up to the sinker and taught line when it inhales the bait, and the circle hook finds a hold on the lip as the fish tries to eject the bait, or swims off with the bait in its mouth.
Tips for using a circle hook for surf fishing
The most common mistakes most people make when using circle hooks for surf fishing are:
Loading the bend of the circle hook up with bait so the circle shape of the hook doesn't work properly with a reduced gape, and then can't hook the fish, is a common error when using circle hooks. Keep the gape (the gap between the point and the shank of the hook) as open as possible, like the example of a small bloodworm and Fishbites Bloodworm combo bait mounted on a size 4 Mustu Circle hook for croaker fishing pictured below.
Setting the hook with a vigorous strike isn't necessary with a circle hook and will actually pull the hook out of the fish's mouth before it has a chance to move into a position where it can hook the fish. This is a common cause of missed hook-ups when bait and wait surf fishing using circle hooks. For most bait fishing with circle hooks, we fish the rods in a firmly-secured sand spike with a tight line and medium drag level - most fish hook themselves on the resistance from the tight setup when using circle hooks.
Use a Palomar, Uni, Snell or Knotless Knot to tie circle hooks to leader line, with the most effective knots being whipping or snell-style knots. Find a version that you can tie and has great knot strength, and practice it until you can do it in seconds on the beach.
For most surf fishing, matching a small circle hook with fresh bait and mono or fluorocarbon leader line is a great combination. We recommend fluorocarbon leaders and circle hooks for the more line-shy species, mono leaders for the less fussy critters.
Not choosing the right size of circle hook for surf fishing is also a common area where it's possible to negatively impact your chances of fish tacos for dinner that night. Here are two easy tables to refer to when deciding what size circle hook to use:
Standard Wire Mutsu Circle Hooks (offset) Size for Surf Fishing Guide
6, 4, 2 - Small croaker / drum, bait fish, mackerel, bonito
1, 1/0, 2/0 - Bass, drum, bigger croaker species, small snapper
4/0, 6/0 - Small sharks and rays on spinning tackle, larger snapper & catch-and-release small inshore game species
8/0, 10/0 - Larger surf sharks and big rays on spinning tackle, up to 100lbs
Extra Heavy Wire Mutsu Circle Hooks (offset) Size Guide
4, 2, 1- Small livebaits and cut bait for inshore game species (small tuna, yellowtail, seabass etc)
1, 1/0 and 2/0 - Medium size livebaits, cut bait for larger game species, larger grouper and snapper
4/0 and 6/0 - Small sharks and rays, pier and bass fishing for medium size game species with big live or cut baits, ideal for deep drop rigs for a mix of edible-size fish
8/0, 10/0, 12/0 - Sharks and big predatory offshore-grade game fish, big snapper and reef species
J-Hooks for Surf Fishing
Classic J-style hooks, with a point roughly parallel to the hook shank, and a U-shaped bend, are among the most traditional and versatile types of hooks used in surf fishing. They come in various sizes and shapes, making them suitable for a wide range of bait and fish species.
J-hooks can be used with both live and cut bait, or lures, making them a reliable choice for many surf anglers, but most ideal applications for J hooks in surf fishing involve some sort of actively-held rod and artificial lure.
The surf perch pictured below was caught on an artificial grub bait and small J hook - you can see the round bend protruding from bottom lip. They're the best choice of hook for surf fishing with plastic and artificial baits like sandworms, curlytail grubs and dropshot-rigged baits.
J hooks are particularly effective when targeting game fish close to shore like Spanish mackerel, surf perch, saltwater bass, bonito, corbina, trout, bonefish and yellowtail / kingfish with lures and live baits, with the angler actively working the bait or holding the rod, and then feeling when the bite occurs and it's time to set the hook.
Small baits and lighter rigs also lend themselves to surf fishing with a J hook with the shape well suited to a wide range of species - whereas a circle hook is deadly for some (often larger) species.
The small sand crab (sand flea) hooked on a size 8 J hook below is a good example of a corbina, surf perch or croaker bait for light line surf fishing.
Different types of J hooks for surf fishing
A few different style of J hook are useful for surf fishing. Here are the ones we rely on and recommend to cover a range of beach casting applications.
Straight point, round bend, long shank, slightly offset traditional J hooks
The standard J hook is a good all-rounder for lots of lure and some bait fishing scenarios. For example, certain species such as surf perch on the West Coast feed in such a way that makes them hard to hook with a circle hook, so a J-shaped hook is best for this type of fishing.
The pattern below is a great example of a reliable, sharp and straight-pointed pattern of J hook we rely on for surf fishing.
The artificial sandworm surf perch bait below is a good example of a soft plastic bait and J hook rigged for surf fishing, with the body of the bait neatly hiding the shank of the hook, and the bend of the hook fully exposed about two thirds down the bait.
Some bass, rockfish and flatfish species also feed in such a way that requires a J hook when bait fishing, such as the setup below with mussel meat on a small Tanago hook (size 1) for bait fishing close to rocks for a mix of species with a Single Dropper Loop Rig and small sputnik sinker.
When to use a J hook for surf fishing
The best time, situations and setups to use a J hook for surf fishing are as follows:
On any sort of lure or artificial bait setup that's being actively fished by the angler
For certain species such as surf perch, corbina and some saltwater bass that aren't easily hooked on a circle hook
For bait fishing for species with small mouths; smelt, mackerel, sardines, mullet, shad
When not to use a J hook for surf fishing
For most types of shark and ray fishing
Where the use of J-style hooks is prohibited by local regulations
When catch and release is a primary consideration
How to set the hook (strike) with a J hook
To set a J-hook, a fast and sharp hookset motion with the rod is often required to ensure the fish is securely hooked and the hook has penetrated.
Unlike the technique of setting the hook with a circle hook, you have to actively set the hook with a J style - this is sometimes called striking or a strike, as in: "Strike, you've got a bite!"
The video below shows the swift flick of the wrist-type action used to set the hook using a small lure rigged on a J hook in the surf.
Baitholder hooks for surf fishing
Baitholder hooks are J hooks designed with small barbs on a long shank to help keep the bait or lure securely in place. They're a good choice for surf fishing hooks in some situations.
This style of J hook, like the one pictured below, are particularly useful when surf fishing with soft natural bait, such as shrimp, worms, squid, or cut fish - or soft plastic grubs for fish like surf perch, croaker and corbina. You can see the small metal barbs on the shank of the hook that prevent the soft bait or lure from sliding off so easily.
The corbina below was caught on a small baitholder hook and grub lure combination. You can see the round bend of the hook nestled in the corner of the mouth - a textbook hook placement.
The barbs on the shank of a baitholder hook ensures that your bait or lure stays on the hook, even in strong surf conditions and with a long cast. Baitholder hooks come in various sizes, allowing you to adapt to the size of the bait or lure you're using and the target species you're pursuing.
The photo below shows a correctly rigged lure and baitholder hook combination for surf fishing, with the size of hook matched to the size of the lure. This will stay in place for dozens of casts without slipping.
To summarize, bait holder J hooks are the best hook choice for surf fishing when you're using a small soft plastic bait like a curlytail grub - or fresh bait like shrimp and squid, often for smaller edible species where catch and release is not a factor.
A good tip is to add a couple of wraps of Light bait elastic to the hook to really secure the fresh natrual bait on the cast (mussel meat, clam, squid, shrimp, worm etc), or if your bait is getting stripped by lots of tiny fish or crabs every cast.
Lure fishing hooks; Jig Heads and Weedless Swimbait Hooks
A commonly-used type of J hook used for lure fishing for species such as saltwater bass, California halibut, fluke, founder, white seabass, big croaker, yellowtail and similar predatory surf fish is in the form of a jig head, which allows you to mount a soft plastic bait on a weighted hook.
The jig head below is a basic model made from lead and a J hook. You thread the plastic bait onto the hook with the lead at the head end, and work the bait fish-imitating lure back through the surf.
This is a great way of lure fishing in the surf for any species that eats baitfish imitated by a typical soft plastic bait like the one below.
We like using 1/2oz, 3/4oz or 1oz jig heads (especially if the jig head has an underspin blade for extra attraction, like the version above) on a Medium spinning combo combined with bait fish-imitating plastic baits in light and bright shades for a range of species in the surf and off rocks.
The ultimate evolution of the jig head type of hook for surf fishing is made by War Baits and has a weed guard for fishing in heavy cover, underspin blade, and a range of eye and head colors, too. Check out the photo below. Great for halibut, fluke, bass and stripers with a 3 to 5-inch plastic bait.
Using a specialist weedless swimbait J-style hook is another effective way to fish in areas with heavier vegetation, reef, kelp, piers, seaweed, underwater structures, or rocky terrain without constantly getting snagged. The picture below shows a typical weedless swimbait hook.
This syle of hook is designed to keep your soft plastic swimbait securely attached - either via the small metal spiral like the one on the hook eye above, or by threading directly onto the hook shank - whilst minimizing the risk of snagging on weeds, debris or reef. They can also come with a built-in weight and underspin blade (like the jig head).
The example below shows a typical California halibut and bass setup for surf fishing with a wide-gape weighted weedless hook with underspin rigged on a 5" ribbed white swimbait.
A weedless swimbait hook works by concealing the hook point within the soft plastic bait, making it less prone to snagging on underwater obstacles. This design allows anglers to effectively fish in weedy, rocky, or structure-filled areas while presenting a lifelike swimbait to entice strikes.
You can see the recessed weedless hook in the photo below. The force of a bite from a fish releases the hook from the recess, allowing you to set the hook free and unhindered.
Properly rigging your soft plastic bait on a wide-gape, weedless hook matched to the size of the bait is key to maximizing your success with this type of hook. Remember that fishing with weedless swimbait hooks requires patience and precision. Be prepared for strikes, and when you feel a fish bite, set the hook firmly.
Treble hooks for surf fishing
Treble hooks are characterized by their three sharp points and are often used in surf fishing on artificial lures for targeting species such as bluefish, mackerel, bass and halibut.
The hard bait below is equipped with a pair of treble hooks - small jerkbait and lipped crankbaits like this are commonly equipped with two or three treble hooks for surf casting for predatory species like bass and flatfish.
Treble hooks work best with plugs, spoons, spinners, lures and artificial baits being actively fished by casting and reeling in. When using treble hooks, be cautious about gut hooking as they have multiple points. To minimize this risk, consider de-barbing the trebles, or swapping out the treble hooks with a single hook.
Aside from lure fishing with hard jerkbaits and stickbaits in the surf for halibut, bass and similar predators, and for some livebait rigs, we rarely use treble hooks. A properly setup J or circle hook rig is usually just as effective and easier to unhook.
However, treble hooks are highly effective on lots of types of lures, such as the small stickbait used to catch the California needlefish from the surf in the photo below. This is the best use for them in surf fishing terms.
To summarize: selecting the right hooks for surf fishing is essential to improve your chances of success and ensure the well-being of the fish you catch. Each type of hook has its unique advantages and is suited for different scenarios and species.
As a curious surf angler, it's essential to experiment with various hook types and sizes to discover which ones work best for your specific fishing conditions and goals. Remember to always practice ethical, legal and responsible fishing practices, including catch and release when necessary using circle hooks.
Thank you for reading this guide to the best surf fishing hooks - we hope this information will help you get even more bites next time you hit the surf!