Feeling Fish Bite
If you're fishing a tight line, the line will usually transmit the action to you when fish bite, even if you don't use a cork. Learning how to interpret what you feel through the line and rod will tell you what's going on at the bait end and help you know what to do. There's no real way to practice learning what a fish feels like; you just have to get on the water and experience it.
Feeling the Bite on Live and Prepared Bait
When a fish takes live and prepared bait, it tastes and feels natural to them and they're likely to hold it in their mouths and even swallow it. Some fish will just suddenly show up and start pulling hard on your line, especially when you're fishing for carp with worms or corn. In salt water many fish hit live and prepared bait so hard all you have to do is pull back; there's no decision when to set the hook.
A fish doesn't have hands and the only way it can hold your bait is in its mouth. If a fish is moving your bait, you can be sure the bait's in the fish's mouth, right where you want it. If the bait is in its mouth the hook should be, too.
If you put your rod in a rod holder, fish will often hook themselves. But it's still smart to take the rod out of the holder and set the hook hard if you're fishing for big fish like monster cats or fish with hard mouths. Even though they pull hard, the hook may not go in far enough to hold, so set it again to make sure.
Keep an eye on your line whenever you're fishing live and prepared bait. If your line moves, that's an indication a fish is hitting your bait. If your line goes tight, set the hook. If it goes slack or moves sideways, set the hook. Don't wait too long or the fish may feel something it doesn't like and spit out your bait before you can hook it.
Another problem with waiting too long to set the hook with live and prepared baits is the fish will swallow it. The hook will be back in its throat or even in its stomach by the time you hook it and impossible to remove without killing the fish. If you're planning to release any fish you catch, don't use live and prepared bait for this reason.
When planning on releasing fish, use a regular steel hook, not a stainless steel one. If the hook is way back in the fish's throat, cut the line and leave it there. The steel hook should rust and give the fish a chance to survive. Use artificial bait to lessen this problem.
When fish take artificial baits they may spit them out quickly, so it's best to set the hook as soon as you think a fish is biting. Artificial baits resemble live bait so the fish are not likely to try to nibble on it like they do prepared bait. They are more likely to take the whole thing into their mouths quickly. Set the hook hard as soon as you feel the fish.
With crankbaits it's a good idea to jerk on them every few seconds during a retrieve even if you don't feel a bite. It's hard to believe that a fish can take a plug with two sets of treble hooks into its mouth and spit it out without getting hooked, but it can. Set the hook hard if you feel any resistance or if the plug stops vibrating. That may mean it's in a fish's mouth.
Bass fishing with plastic worms is famous for the difficulty in knowing when to set the hook and doing it effectively. With billfish in saltwater fishing, waiting until they take the bait but not waiting too long is a difficult decision. A good captain can help you learn when to set the hook on billfish.
Fish are more likely to hold on to soft-plastic baits a little longer since they feel more natural, but you should still set the hook as soon as you feel anything different. This applies to all kinds of worms, lizards, soft-jerk baits, and tube baits. Watch your line and if it jumps or moves sideways, set the hook. It doesn't cost much to set the hook, so do it if there is any doubt.
You can't learn what a fish bite feels like off the water but you can learn what nonbites feel like. Rig up a soft-plastic bait and cast it across different surfaces. Moving a plastic grub across a paved driveway will show you what a hard shell bottom feels like. Cast across gravel, rocks, grass, or brush and you can see what you are feeling.
With top-water plugs you can see the bite and, as a result, the biggest problem is setting the hook too fast. Because of the way the fish takes a top-water plug, it's best to wait until you feel the weight of the fish to set the hook. If you set the hook when you see the water moving, but before feeling the fish's weight, you may pull the hook away from the fish before it is in the fish's mouth.
With spinnerbaits, jigs, and other baits that swim in the water, set the hook any time anything feels different. You may feel a hard pull or you may just lose contact with the spinnerbait when the blade stops turning. If your line goes slack when fishing a jig, a fish may be swimming toward you with the jig in its mouth, and it's time to set the hook.