goliath grouper

Photo provided

This goliath grouper was caught with a circle hook, which — as designed — ended up right in the lip.

There are a lot of misconceptions and bad information out there about circle hooks. Lately, I’ve found myself answering lots of questions about them, so I thought it might be a good idea to put together a little FAQ to help you understand them better and catch more fish with them.

What is a circle hook?

The point of a circle hook is bent back toward the shank of the hook, creating a general circular or oval shape. To be a true circle hook, the point must bend back at least 90 degrees. Circle hooks have a long history dating back to the Stone Age. In modern times, they were traditionally used by commercial fishermen (especially longliners).

How do they work?

Circle hooks were originally developed as a way to catch fish with no fisherman present. The key is their shape, which allows the hook to be swallowed without snagging anything. When the fish turns to swim away after eating, the attached line (which must be anchored to something) pulls the hook out of the fish’s gullet and into the mouth.

The fish is swimming away, so to go from inside the fish’s mouth to outside, the hook has to change direction 180 degrees. As it does, the gap between the hook’s shank and point brushes against the thin tissue of the lip or corner of the mouth. The gap slips over that thin tissue — and just like that, the fish is hooked. It’s set by the action of the fish. That’s why they became popular for commercial fishing operations.

As a bonus, circle hooks are much harder to shake loose or spit out, so a fish caught on a circle hook is more likely to be landed. However, this can also be a liability, as we’ll see later.

Then why do recreational anglers need them?

Because they most often hook fish in the mouth, they’re less likely than standard hooks (also called J-hooks) to cause severe or fatal injuries to the fish. The less injured a released fish is, the more likely it will survive. Although developed for catch-and-kill fisheries, they are now increasingly required to facilitate catch and release success. For fish that take baits deeply, such as schoolie trout or rat redfish, circle hooks can be the difference between releasing a bunch of healthy fish and killing a quarter of them by gut-hooking.

When do I need them?

By law, you have to use non-offset circle hooks when fishing for some species (the law also specifies that the hooks not be stainless steel, but good luck finding stainless circle hooks). Non-offset circle hooks are required when fishing for any reef species in state waters or sharks in federal waters. For reef species in federal waters, offset circle hooks are allowed. Later this month, the FWC will meet to decide if circle hooks will be required for sharks in state waters.

I hate to add more to an already confusing topic, but … “reef fish” doesn’t mean every fish that lives on a reef. It’s a specific term that includes all species of snapper, grouper, amberjack and tilefish, plus gray triggerfish, red porgies, black sea bass and hogfish. If you’re catching grunts and sheepshead on the reef, J-hooks are OK. But, legally, if you caught a snapper on that J-hook, you’d have to release it.

Many people are misled by the wording of the reef fish rule, which states the law applies “in waters of the Gulf of Mexico.” In this case, they’re talking about the Gulf as opposed to the Atlantic. That means that all waters attached to the Gulf are included, all the way up the Harbor and into the rivers and canals. To be clear: If you catch a mangrove snapper from the El Jobean pier, it has to be on a non-offset circle hook if you’re keeping the fish.

What is an offset circle hook?

Offset refers to the hook’s point being set at an angle away from the shank. When you’re choosing circle hooks, look for these key words on the package: Inline, non-offset, or tournament. They all mean the same thing: The hook is not offset.

Why are offset hooks a problem?

When the point is in line with the shank, the hook can only catch something narrow enough to fit into the gap between the shank and the point — for example, the corner of a fish’s mouth. If the point is offset, it might snag anywhere. If the fish has swallowed the bait, it’s likely to be hooked in the stomach or elsewhere deep in the gut.

Then why are offset hooks sold?

One simple reason: Most fishermen are trained to set hooks. If you try to set an inline circle hook, it usually just pops out of the fish’s mouth. When you set an offset hook, chances are good it will dig in someplace. I strongly recommend against the use of offset circle hooks, except in one special case mentioned below.

What are the problems with circle hooks?

Nothing is perfect. Due to their shape, circle hooks rotate in. That makes them very secure, but it can also make releasing fish harder because the hook has to rotate back out. A traditional hook-out device will mangle the fish.

Now, you can solve this easily by flattening the barb. Just leave a bump — enough to hold the bait, but not enough to stay stuck in flesh. Don’t worry about losing fish. The shape of the hook will keep it in place as long as you keep the pressure on.

De-barbing is especially important when shark fishing. A barbed circle hook can get hopelessly stuck in the cartilage of the jaw or in the tough leathery skin. With no barb, you can remove most hooks. If you have to leave one in place, the fish will be able to shake it much more quickly than if it has to rust away.

How do I catch fish on a circle hook?

It’s actually pretty simple, as long as you can fight your instincts. When a fish takes the bait, the first thing you’ll want to do is hook that fish. With a circle hook, it pays to be more nonchalant. Don’t overreact. Take your time. You want the fish to swallow the bait, or at least be pretty close to doing so.

ON THE FLATS: Once the fish has your bait, let it eat. Wait for the line to come tight. When it does, point the rod toward the fish and reel — not too fast, not too slow. Once you feel the pressure of the fish, lift the rodtip and start fighting it. Fish on!

ON THE REEF: It’s a little different when the fish is below you. Keep the rodtip low, pointed toward the water, and keep your line taut if possible. When you feel a bite, lift the rodtip just a bit. If it feels like there’s more weight than your sinker, reel (quickly, but not like you’ve just had three Red Bulls and a bump of cocaine). If the fish is there, lift the rodtip and start fighting. If not, drop the bait back to the bottom. Always give it a minute before assuming the bait is gone.

TARPON: OK, special case here, since tarpon feed a bit differently. If you’re using fish or shrimp as bait, you probably won’t have to do anything. Tarpon inhale them on the move, so there’s generally no question of whether the fish is there — the screaming drag will tell you. But if you’re using crabs, reel like a madman when you feel the slightest tap. Tarpon crush crabs and spit out the hard bits, so you often have just a second or two to react. Tarpon fishing with crabs is the one circumstance that I prefer an offset hook for.

Now that you know a bit more about circle hooks and how to use them, hopefully you’ll have better success with them. If you have any questions not answered here, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to help if I can.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

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