Circle Hooks for Catch and Release
Notes on our use of Circle Hooks
When fishing with bait, dead or live, traditional methods have entailed using a "J" hook and allowing the fish to swallow the bait. This is great if you're going to keep the fish, but what if you intend to release the fish? The intent behind releasing a fish is that it survive, as unharmed as possible, after release. A fish that has swallowed a bait with a J hook is likely to either be gut-hooked, or damaged internally by the hook as it makes its way out of the body when the angler applies pressure with the rod and reel.
A gut-hooked sailfish or marlin doesn't often jump, but when they do they are often coughing up blood, and sometimes throw up their stomach. Check out many of the photos of jumping billfish in the fishing magazines, and look for a telltale pink or red mist around the head of the fish as it jumps. This fish is most likely history.
There are a number of important differences to understand between the use of J hooks and circle hooks. First, notice that the point of the barb of the circle hook is pointed towards the shank of the hook and is not exposed along the lateral path of travel like the J hook. The J hook is designed to snag anything along its path of travel, while the circle hook is designed to snag in one place and one place only: the corner of the mouth.
Which brings up another difference between the hooks: fishing method. For the experienced angler, the use of circle hooks involves forgetting almost everything they know about baiting and hooking fish. The J hook must be set by pumping the rod and reeling, either on the strike, to try and hook the fish in the mouth, or after a dropback, which allows the fish to begin swallowing the bait. More skill (and sport) is involved in trying to hook the fish on the strike with a J hook, whereas practically anyone can drop back a bait and set up on the fish after it has swallowed the bait. The latter method (which is the traditional method of fishing) often leads to a gut-hooked or internally damaged fish. You may catch more fish this way, as you may not lose fish during jumps, but you will almost certainly damage or kill more.
With a circle hook, the angler drops the bait back to the fish for a short count, keeping the rod pointed at the fish. The fish is allowed to start swallowing the bait. The drag is then smoothly set, but NO motion is made to set the hook. The ONLY way the circle hook can work is if it travels SLOWLY. Once the drag is set, the forward motion of the boat will begin to pull the bait out of the fish. If the bait is moving slowly, the circle hook will pivot at the corner of the mouth and hook the fish there. Any overt movement of the rod tip or reel will pull the bait out too fast for the hook to pivot and set.
One of the things we've seen after extensive use of circle hooks is a radically reduced incidence of foul-hooked fish. The J hook, if it fails to snag anywhere inside the fish, will often hook the fish elsewhere on the body, such as on the shoulder, in the dorsal fin, somewhere on the face (the eye socket is a common area to foul-hook), on the belly. The exposed point of the hook makes it prone to snag practically anywhere. The design of the circle hook on the other hand, with the semi-protected point, makes it less prone to damage the fish.
Another difference between circle hooks and J hooks is one of size. Both hooks come in a wide variety of sizes, but we have found that in most cases we use a much smaller circle hook than a J hook in a given situation. Our ballyhoo rigs for sailfish, for example, use a circle hook that is half the size, or smaller, than the J hook we would use with ballyhoo for sailfish.
Altogether, we have found that we have a more successful hook-up rate, and better catch rate with circle hooks on large variety of species of fish. At the same time, we have noticed fewer injuries to the fish we catch, and believe that the fish we have released, which have been caught on circle hooks, fare better after the release.
One final note, for those considering changing to the use of circle hooks: when you are selecting hooks to purchase, make sure to avoid offset hooks. Offset circle hooks have a barb that is slightly offset along the lateral line of the hook, which makes it exposed and prone to snag inside the fish, defeating the purpose of circle hooks in the first place, which is to hook the fish in the corner of the mouth.
Packages photo courtesy Scott Hartley