I’m not a big fan of circle hooks. There, I said it, and those who believe circle hooks are the do-all, end-all for fishing can begin throwing stones. Still, I’ll stand by my statement. I believe in conservation and protecting our fishing resources, but I just don’t see using circle hooks in every situation as the absolute best way to do it.

I’ll give credit to circle hooks; a great majority of the time, they hook fish in the corner of the lower jaw, just as they are designed and touted. What is my issue? The harm many fishermen do to fish they intend to release that are caught on circle hooks.

Circle hooks are designed to be self-hooking and will hold fish for hours on long lines and other such gear. If a struggling fish can’t throw them, they have a pretty good hold. Unfortunately, they are also difficult to remove when you want to. This isn’t an issue with fish that are going to be kept, but it creates a problem with fish that are going to be released. 

I have a friend who prides himself on using circle hooks whenever he fishes with live or otherwise consumable bait. He catches a lot of fish and releases a good number of them. But I question the survival rate of the fish he releases. I believe he tries really hard to do the right thing, but there are times, especially with small, soft fish like speckled trout, that he damages the jaw getting the hook out or drops the fish a time or two trying not to squeeze it too hard. I also see fishermen grip fish very tightly or use a rag to hold them, and I can’t help but question if they are doing more damage than would be done with an occasional deep hooked J-hook?  

I’ve asked a few biologists about this and some stammered about a bit and admitted there were issues, but said it is the best we’ve got right now. Others had opinions, but weren’t willing to talk “on the record.” I didn’t find any that disputed my concerns with fishermen injuring some fish removing circle hooks, but several said they believed it was minimal.

How about it? There is a lot of variation in removing hooks, whether they are circle hooks or J-hooks. Sometimes, they are deep or have taken hold in a manner that causes a lot of potential to harm the fish by removing the hook than by leaving it in. Sometimes, fish learn to deal with hooks left in them. I have been on a boat when a dozen or more fish that were caught still had hooks in them in, and they obviously were continuing to feed. Several were certainly on the fat side of healthy.  

One extreme example was a very healthy, 50- to 60-pound wahoo that had an Ilander lure with an 8/0 hook and a short piece of 150-pound fluorocarbon leader stuck in its gullet. The lure was red/black with a chrome head, if you were wondering.

None of us saw the lure when we removed our lure (a blue/white Ilander also with an 8/0 hook) and threw the fish in the fish box. Later, while cleaning it, the head was very tough to remove.  A few minutes later, we realized we had been sawing on the lure, not the backbone. The hook was discolored but not eaten away, and the lure’s hair hadn’t been worn by stomach acid, so we thought it had probably eaten the Ilander a few weeks earlier. Once we discovered the lure, we were impressed that it was still feeding.

I have caught bluefin tuna and grouper with circle hooks still in their jaws. In one of the grouper, the hook was beaten up and looked old, so we thought it might have been there for a while. All of these encounters have been with fish that appeared healthy and were definitely still feeding.

Another time, I caught an upper-slot red drum that had the fluorocarbon leader from a Carolina rig protruding from its mouth, but the hook was nowhere in sight. I decided to keep and eat this fish, so I looked for the hook when I cleaned it. It was in the fish’s stomach, and it appeared to have been there for a while. It was badly tarnished and discolored from the fish’s stomach acid but hadn’t yet broken down to the point it could be passed. This hook was stainless steel, which I absolutely believe is a no-no. Bronze or tinned hooks will corrode and fall apart much faster.  

Another time, I caught a grouper that had several inches of  heavy monofilament protruding from its rectum. Upon cleaning it, I found the hook from an old grouper rig in the stomach. I can’t say for sure the fish would have passed it, but this hook was deteriorated to the point it broke as I was pulling it free. This appeared to be a tinned hook. 

Despite seeing so many fish thriving with hooks still in their system, I believe hooks should be removed whenever it is possible to do so without injuring the fish worse than it would be leaving the hook imbedded. Removing hooks is usually easier with larger fish.

My biggest dislike of circle hooks is with smaller fish and those fish with softer flesh, such as speckled and gray trout. Circle hooks must be rolled out, and even when fished barbless, they can be tough to remove from the heavy cartilage in the corner of the mouth. Most fishermen don’t bend their barbs down or fish barbless hooks, so it takes extra effort to remove circle hooks that have worked properly. Sometimes, this cartilage is torn or the mouth is otherwise damaged, and that has to make it at least difficult for the fish to feed. As I noted earlier, there are also instances of squirming fish being dropped and bruised, having their protective slime removed by a rag or gripped so tightly their internal organs could have sustained damage.

Does removing heavily imbedded hooks do more damage than clipping the line and leaving them in? I haven’t seen any studies, but I have always been told that bronze hooks are easier on the fish because they will corrode quickly and break or fall out. One thing for sure is that a fish that is clipped free in the net or beside the boat won’t be dropped or held too tightly and have bruised or damaged internals that may not heal. 

In the early 1990s, when the catch-and-release bluefin tuna fishing began off Cape Hatteras, Bob Eakes of Red Drum Tackle in Buxton introduced a simple device and method to remove the large circle hooks from bluefin tuna. His tool was a stiff wire loop on the end of a broom or mop handle. Once the fish was tired and led to boatside, the loop was slipped over the protruding point of the circle hook and the handle given a quick jerk. This would pull the eye of the hook all the way through the fish’s jaw, and the leader could be clipped right next to the eye and pulled back through. The fish would swim off without ever being handled, and the fisherman either re-tied the hook or replaced the leader.

This works well for large red drum, black drum, amberjack, grouper, sailfish and more. The key is the fish must have enough weight to hold it in the water while the eye of the hook pulls through. Once they have done it a few times, most fishermen agree the eye slides through the hole made by the hook much easier than the barb goes through it backwards.  

This can also be done for smaller fish and fish that must be brought on board to be measured. It is easy to make a smaller version of Eakes’ tool or you can simply use pliers to pull the circle hook’s eye through the hole and snip the leader.  

Yes, releasing fish this way requires re-tying the leader to the hook, but isn’t it worth it to ensure the survival of fish that will be released? My issues with circle hooks aren’t with the hooks themselves, except for being sure to use metals that break down quickly. If the hook doesn’t rust easily, it will take longer to break down and fall out of a fish. My biggest concern is with the way some fishermen use circle hooks and how they handle fish while removing them.  

These are a couple of things to consider when using circle hooks and I hope you will. I promise they’ll help released fish survive.