As the saying goes, if you’re not snagging occasionally, you’re likely not putting your bait where the fish are. What that means is that most fish prefer to be near some sort of structure to relate to, such as sunken trees, flooded brush, submerged weed-beds, rocky rip-rap, underwater humps, flooded stump fields, or docks, especially now that the spawn is approaching and fish are moving shallow. All these obstacles offer shade, protection, and attract baitfish (and the gamefish that follow), as well hanging-up the hooks that anglers drop into the water. If your hooks are not getting fouled or embedded in something from time to time, you probably aren’t placing your baits and lures close enough to the structure that holds the majority of the fish.
That said, what you do once you have a snag determines how much trouble the situation represents.
The first and most important step is to resist the urge to set the hook or pull hard on the line when a snag first occurs. An immediate yank may free a few snags in very weak cover such as grass or weeds; however, an aggressive tug often only serves to bury the hooks even deeper, possibly making the hook irretrievable, or breaking the line, rod, or both.
When you find your self “hung-up,” the first thing to do is try to determine how deep underwater the hook is snagged. If it’s less than six feet or so, you can usually bring the boat right up to the snag and reach the rod tip down into the water all the way to the hook while reeling in the slack, and shake or poke it loose. Even if you can’t reach the hook, sometimes the angle achieved by reaching as far down under the water and pulling gently from different directions will allow you to pull the lure or bait free of the snag.
No matter the depth, sometimes simply moving to the back side of the snag is enough to make it come out. If these methods don’t work, there are some tricks anglers employ to free snagged lines.
One tactic is to “shoot” the rod at the lure to knock it free. To use this rather radical method, you remove the reel from the rod, reel the line—which remains in the rod guides—tight, and hold it in one hand. With the other hand, you hold the rod and chuck it like a spear down the line and into the water. The line will guide it to the lure, which it will hit and hopefully knock free. When it goes right, the lure catches on the tip-top guide—and you reel in the rod and lure and reassemble the rig and get back to the fishing. When it goes wrong, the rod breaks the line at the knot and slips off into the depths.
In deep-water situations and for the most persistent snags, a lure retriever will pay for itself after the first few uses. A very cheap—yet effective—lure retriever is a simple four-ounce bank style sinker. Simply attach a large paper clip or shower curtain ring to the end of the sinker, and then slip the paper clip or ring onto your line. Get directly over the snag and hold your line tight—the impact of the sinker sliding down to the lure frees most baits and you reel the hook and the sinker up together.
Impact alone won’t free baits that are tangled in fishing line or brush, situations in which commercial lure retrievers can pay for themselves after a few outings. Most consist of a large weight connected to a stout line, a wire loop to fasten on the line, and mesh or chain on the end. If the impact of these heavy retrievers doesn’t free the bait, the wire loop or chains tangle with the lure’s hooks and the angler can pull it free and hoist both up with the tether line. Some anglers fasten their lure retriever to the end of a 30-foot retractable dog leash to keep the line neatly stored.
Some companies like Frabill make a lure retriever, which is a wire spiral on the end of an extendable, telescoping pole. You slip the spiraled wire on your line to guide the wire down to the hook, which can be knocked loose—or other hooks on the lure will catch the wire and allow you to pull it free.
Sometimes the “bow and arrow” line-snapping technique will free a hook from an underwater snag that you can’t reach with any other method. With the rod and reel in your left hand in the 9 o’clock position, draw back about two feet of line in front of the reel with your right hand, making the line almost tight. Next, let go of the line in your right hand and simultaneously snap your rod from the 9 o’clock to the 12 o’clock position. This creates a shock wave down the line, often releasing the hook. It takes a little practice to get the timing down, but once the line snap technique is perfected, you may be surprised at how well it works.
If nothing else works, you may have to force the issue, risking breaking the line to free yourself from a tough snag. To break free, wrap the line between the reel and the first guide a few times around your hand, which should be protected with a glove or towel. Point the rod directly at the snag, point your face—and those of any other passengers who may be in the boat—away from the snag, and pull back steadily either manually or using the boat until the line parts, the snag breaks off, or the hook straightens and comes free.
The latter is a best-case scenario, and why I recommend bait anglers especially use light wire hooks, often gold in color, when fishing in snag-infested areas. Not only does the thinner-diameter wire allow live bait to live longer and swim more naturally, but wire hooks will usually straighten out and pull free with steady, direct pressure. That way, you simply bend the hook back into shape when it’s reeled in, allowing the angler to get right back to the fishing without having to re-rig.
Image courtesy Dan Armitage