"When the fish takes the bait and the cork goes down fast, I wait until I lose sight of the cork before I strike the fish," Heaton says. "I want the fish to get the hook deep enough in its mouth and not in the lips. If the crappie is a good-sized fish, I don't want to lose it by trying to pull the crappie through the brush and having the hook tear out. The trick to setting the hook properly is to put enough weight on your line to make your cork sit halfway down in the water. Then it's much-more sensitive to a strike when it's floating higher in the water. You also can detect a strike more quickly and easily. If I see my cork, which has been halfway down in the water, floating sideways on top of the water, I strike the fish immediately. I know a crappie has taken the bait deep enough in its mouth as it swims toward the surface for me to get a good hook set."
Another hook-setting problem we've all encountered when fishing with a cork and a jig is when to set the hook if we're casting to the bank and retrieving the cork and jig to us. According to Heaton, "When I'm fishing a hollow, heart-shaped, tapered bobber, I drill a small hole in the bobber. I put three pieces of BB-sized lead in the bobber to give it some weight, which makes the bobber and the jig much easier to cast. Also the bobber is much-more sensitive to a strike because it sits much deeper in the water than usual - about halfway down. Then I seal the hole with silicone. As I start a slow, steady retrieve, I set the hook immediately if I feel or see a strike. Although I fool that fish into believing the jig is a live bait, the crappie won't stay fooled long. Once the fish feels that hard, lead jig, it'll spit the jig out if you don't set the hook quickly."
Yet another hook-setting situation that's difficult for most anglers is when they're fishing a deep drop-off for suspended crappie, using light line and little jigs and trying to catch the fish as the bait falls.
"When I'm fishing a small jig and light line in deep water, I usually see 75 percent of my strikes on the line before I ever feel them," Heaton comments. "To be able to spot the strike, I use a highly-visible line. When I see the line twitching, moving or jumping as the bait's falling, I set the hook. If the bait falls all the way to the bottom and I don't get a strike, I'll jerk the bait up off the bottom quickly to jump it 3 or 4 feet across the bottom. Then I watch the line for a strike as the jig falls back to the bottom. I'll strike the fish as soon as I see the line move, because I believe a crappie is more likely to spit out the artificial bait than it is a live minnow. To give myself more time to strike the fish, I usually put scent on my lures to help the fish hold the bait in its mouth a fraction longer and give me the time I need to set the hook and catch the fish."
In a scenario where Heaton is fishing a tight line with a jig in 8 to 12 feet of water in a stump field, he recommends you know the water depth through which your jig is passing to have a successful hook set. "If I'm fishing in 15 feet of water with a 1/24-ounce jig on 6-pound-test line, I assume the jig will fall at the rate of one foot per second. I count the jig down to about 10 feet and then start a slow, steady retrieve back to the boat. If I don't get a strike, I'll let the jig fall to 11 feet and repeat the process. When the jig's down to 14 feet, and I get a strike, I assume my jig's still passing above the stumps. After you've been fishing for awhile, you'll be able to feel the difference between a solid stump and a crappie strike."
I next asked Heaton when and how he sets the hook when trolling jigs or minnows. "I let the boat set the hook when I'm trolling for crappie," Heaton explains. "If I have a fish on the line, I sweep the rod or the pole forward when I see the fish on, but I'm not really setting the hook. All I'm trying to do is get the fish's head turned toward the boat to make the crappie easier to reel. Remember, you're not attempting to catch a marlin, a tarpon or an amberjack with hard, bony mouths. You're trying to take a papermouth. The boat delivers enough force to hook for a good hook set. Don't add any force to your strike, or you'll tear the hook out of the crappie's mouth."