How to improve your catch and survivability rates with circle hooks
What if there was a device that could help you land 70 percent of the fish you hook using bait and that every one of those fish would be healthy when you released them? The only thing is that you have to change your instincts. No more setting the hook; rather, let the fish hook itself.
It’s nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for more than 4,000 years. The device is a circle hook. Few big game anglers have ever tried circle hooks before, but circle hooks have been producing good catches for decades for the most successful fishermen in the world: commercial fishermen. That’s why companies such as Mustad and Eagle Claw have been making them for more than 50 years.
They are used by commercial fishermen because the fish stay on the hook better and just plain catch more fish. By using hooks that lodge in the corner of the jaw, they solved the chafing and break-off problem.
To look at them, you wouldn’t think circle hooks capable of hooking anything, much less a large blue marlin, but they work. Unlike “J” hooks, where baits are taken down more deeply, circle hooks lodge in the corner of the mouth. This means the leader is not exposed to teeth or rough parts of the jaw, diminishing the chance of a cutoff. You can get away with using lighter leaders than normal and sometimes mono instead of wire, all of which translates to more bites. Best of all, if you follow the rule about not setting the hook, your hookup ratio goes way up.
How does it work? At the strike, leave the rod in the holder with the clicker on. As the fish takes the bait into its mouth and starts to swim off, the line comes tight, pulling the eye of the circle hook clear of the fish’s delicate gills. As the fish continues to swim away, increased tension on the line causes the hook to turn and rotate, driving the point into the corner or bony part of the jaw. Only when the drag starts screaming do you pick up the rod and start cranking.
Hookup rates between circle and J hooks were comparable, but more fish suffered damage from being hooked in the gills with J hooks. None of the fish caught on circle hooks were hooked anywhere but in the corner of the mouth. For fish that were to be released, high survival rates applied, even to fish that completely swallowed the bait.
Dr. John Graves of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science applied 20 pop-up satellite tags to marlin caught on J-hooks and 20 tags on those caught on circle hooks. The research found that the marlin caught on a J-hook are far less likely to survive after release. Each marlin caught on a circle hook survived, while about one-third of the fish caught on J-hooks died. Additionally, J-hooks are 41 times more likely to deep-hook a fish, and deep-hooked fish are 15 times more likely to sustain tissue damage and bleeding than those caught on circle hooks.
Circle hook sizes and styles do not all correspond to one another, nor to traditional J hook sizes. For instance, a standard 5/0 Mustad J hook is nearly equivalent to a 10/0 Mustad circle hook. Eagle Claw says a good rule of thumb with their hooks is to go with circle hooks that are two sizes bigger than the J hooks you are accustomed to using.
Another important point to consider is the hook’s offset (whether or not the hook point is bent so that it is not parallel with the plane of the shank). The consensus among some of the top bait fishermen is that the hook should have no offset for blue-water fishing. If the hook has any offset, you’ll definitely gut-hook more fish.
Differing opinions also exist as to whether knots or sleeves are best for securing the hook to the leader and whether these connections should be pinched tight to the hook or left loose to allow freedom of play.
Most bait fishermen favor fluorocarbon or mono leaders when rigging circle hooks, but wire is thinner and slicker than mono, so it slips through the mouth and grabs hold much easier.
When specifically going after marlin, using a bait-and-switch method works best with circle hooks. With rigged baits, the most effective method is the most streamlined version, with the hook bridled through the eye socket of the bait and secured to the top of the head. Bridling does not impede the bait’s movement and also exposes more of the surface of the hook. With lures, there’s too much mass around the hook with skirts, because maximum hook exposure is a key to circle-hook success.
Divergence is the beauty of fishing with circle hooks. No one knows it all yet, which leaves room for everyone to take part in the process of perfecting the technique. It takes courage to try something new.