Q&A: Barbless Hooks or Barbed? Does It Matter?

by | Jan 31, 2024 | 24 comments

This Q&A series is an effort to answer some of the most common questions I receive. Here’s the latest . . .

Question

This one comes from Mike Roberts, in North Carolina

Hello Domenick,

Thanks for all that you guys do with Troutbitten. We follow your stuff religiously down here.

Hey, I never hear you talk much about hook choice for your patterns. Do you go with barbed or barbless hooks? Do you think it matters for keeping trout from coming off during the fight? And do you believe in the studies that show a higher mortality rate with barbed hooks?

I was just curious to hear your thoughts.

Keep doing what you’re doing with the channels.

Tight lines,
Mike

Answer

Hey thanks, Mike.

I do use barbless hooks, almost always.

I also think it’s not our choice to believe or disbelieve the data of a scientific study. How can we put our own musings or opinions ahead of multiple studies that show a higher mortality rate from barbed hooks? That side of the question has been proven as fact, as I understand it. So yes, barbless hooks damage or kill fewer trout.

That seems like a pretty good thing to me.

But can I tell you the main reason I use barbless hooks?

Anyone who spends much time on the water has stories about hooks buried deep into the flesh of their finger. Maybe the hook was caught in your palm, wrist or ear instead. Barbs also grab your glove, your jacket, the anchor rope, and they won’t let go. Wherever a hook is stuck, a barbless hook makes for easier extraction.

I see barbed hooks as a holdover from bait angling or a catch-and-keep mentality. When I fish for panfish with worms and bobbers, when I intend to keep Crappie, to bread them and fry them, I like the barb on a hook.

But fish eat bait, right? And we’re taught to let the fish take and even swallow bait, then set the hook. Fly fishing requires the opposite. Because as soon as a trout feels the artificial fly, it’s trying to eject it. So we set quickly — almost as fast as possible, because trout rarely swallow our flies.

Set quick. Fight quick. Release quick.

So the only time a barb makes much sense to me is when you’re planning to keep the fish. We choose catch and release, because we enjoy the sport — the activity of fooling a fish. So the occasional loss of our quarry because it slips the hook doesn’t take food off the table and away from our family. It’s just a fish that didn’t make it to the net.

That’s an acceptable consequence, isn’t it?

Photo by Bill Dell

What percentage of fish are we surrendering when we go barbless? If we’re good at fighting fish, almost none. A barbed hook is built to keep the fish buttoned up, even when slack is introduced. That’s when a barbless hook may slip. But if we’re good at keeping tension, the barbless hook never has a chance to back out, and there’s no difference in landing rate — absolutely none. It’s only when slack is accidentally introduced that the hook has a chance to slip. Again, we do this for sport, right? So let’s welcome the extra challenge of fighting a fish with enough skill that we never give it slack.

I choose barbless. And to me, that means either manufactured barbless hooks or barbed hooks that are pinched down. Either is fine. If we pinch barbs down with sturdy pliers or with the jaws of a vise, it’s the same effect as manufactured barbless.

But what about the rest of the hook? What really damages trout? Some studies aren’t specific enough about what they test. And there’s a big difference between standard barbs and micro barbs. I have #12 dry fly hooks with bigger barbs than #6 streamer hooks with micro barbs. And what about a #20 Griffith’s Gnat with a micro barb? Does that really do any damage to a trout? I’d say no. That said, I still pinch them down.

READ: Troutbitten | Are We Taking the Safety of Trout Too Far?

Before anyone gets self-righteous about going barbless, maybe we should consider hook gap and hook size. I have a friend who has seen mid-sized trout get brained (killed) by a wide—gap streamer hook that pierced the roof of the trout’s mouth and passed through its pea-sized brain, killing the trout instantly.

Many articulated streamers feature double-wide-gap hooks, and if that gap isn’t filled with some material, like chenille, fur or feathers, there’s an awful lot of hook in the mix to cause damage to a trout while hooking and fighting.

I’m not suggesting that articulated streamers are bad. I love them. And most of mine have two hooks. But I try to keep the hook gaps reasonable, knowing that more damage is done by barbless streamers than barbed dry flies any day.

Last point here . . .

What matters most is proper fish handling. Education about safely hooking, fighting and releasing is far more important than the debate on barbless vs barbed flies.

So fight trout fast, and unhook them carefully. There is not a single way. A one-handed release that keeps the trout in the water may not be the best thing for it, if the hook is lodged at a tough angle. Two hands on the trout with the use of forceps might just be the best way. The goal is to cause no damage, right? So do whatever it takes.

A tool like a Ketchum release or similar is another way to release a trout unharmed. The point is, a box full of barbless hooks is only the beginning of the equation. And the rest takes more effort to get it right.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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24 Comments

  1. I’m convinced there are benefits to the angler as well (aside from it being easier to pull hooks out of oneself and clothing/gear). Barbless hooks penetrate more easily for the same gauge wire, so for sinking flies at least, this enables a stronger hook relative to hook size. Barbless hooks also regularly come out of the fish in the net, so you don’t have to touch the fish at all unless you want to, and you can resume working the run more quickly.

    Re pinching barbs, there are drawbacks to this – starting with a barbless hook is better. Hooks designed and manufactured to be barbless hold fish better (usually the point is extended further relative to the shank) and are stronger.

    Going broader than just fly fishing, I’d love to see barbless hooks become more mainstream in gear fishing. Many anglers are replacing treble hooks with singles for reasons that include fish welfare and better hookups. Barbless is the next step. The only time you need a barb for gear fishing is to keep a live bait on the hook.

    Reply
    • I don’t quite agree with your distinction between pinched barbs vs manufactured barbless. But hook type and size matters there of course, too. I use the Umpque U series, for example the U103. When I pinch that micro barb down on anything smaller than a #8, there’s no difference in penetration, in my opinion.

      I’ve largely seen the hook penetration issue as a talking point that never showed in real experience for my time on the water. A part of the industry became so wrapped up in this, that the wire diameter kept getting thinner, just for better penetration. Again, I see this as a myth. Certainly, thinner wire penetrates easier. I don’t deny that. But I don’t believe the difference is significant enough to warrant thinner wire that bends out easier. Thankfully, I see the industry turning the other way again and going back to prioritizing hook strength over penetration.

      Interesting stuff.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  2. Good stuff, Dom!

    Reply
  3. I agree entirely with fishing barbless hooks. When eventually you do get a hook in you (or in your wife ) they come out easily. But also you can release fish faster with less stress, and get back to fishing. We use a Ketchum to release 100’s of fish a year, and you don’t even have to take them out of the water.
    Better for fish and the fisherman.

    Reply
  4. I tie on hooks from a #24 to a 5/0. From stripers to trout to everything between. I de barb them all. For all the reasons listed above. Even ol Eagle Claw baitholder hooks (except for the shank) for catfish so I dont have to fight to unbutton them.

    I release most of the fish I catch, but if I do get a wild hair to clean fish I just take the barbless hook out and dont release them..

    De barb your hooks and love your life. You’ll catch fish faster..

    Reply
  5. I’ve been fishing flies in the salt quite a bit lately and barbless in ocean-world is a rarity. I’m not sure why. In my experience even boney-mouthed toothy creatures can be traumitized by hook removal.

    Reply
  6. Regardless of scientific studies, I think it is common sense that the sooner you can get a fish unhooked and released, the more likely it is to survive. And any angler who has tried it knows it is faster and easier to unhook a fish from a barbless hook.

    Thanks for this thoughtful article!

    Reply
  7. I found that barless hook make you keep your rod tip up which in turn keeps your line tight and fence you don’t lose fish which is almost a sure thing with barless hooks . I mostly catch and release everything and bar less causes far less trauma to the fish increasing the survival chances .

    Reply
  8. If it pleases the Court:
    I have taken de-barbing my hooks to a new, if not perhaps, an over-the-top method. I grind down the tips of my stream-side needle-nose pliers to be surgically smooth in the event I use a fly that missed ‘de-barbing’ class at my bench. I found that when using 16’s or smaller, the knurling on the tip of my pliers never seems to fully compress the barb. A ground down, polished surface on my pliers (or forceps) helps a lot. And, when I tie my own with a barbed hook, or purchase fishing ‘ordinance’ from my go-to fly suppliers, I use my Dremel with a precision sanding, or grinding wheel to carefully take of f the barb. It takes a bit of time, but heck, I’m retired. And, by the way, a barbless hook keeps you focused on fighting that monster you believe you have finally coaxed from his/her lair.
    So, when I lose a fish on a barbless hook, I take stock in what I did incorrectly that led to losing my quarry. I guess there is always tomorrow.
    Fish Hard!

    Reply
    • I like it. I never cared much for the hex pattern or other grip on hemostats. Debarbing is one reason, and the is it tears up flies when removing them, sometimes.

      I love the Dr Slick Spring Creek forceps.

      Reply
  9. I too go barbless. True or not, I judge the quality (carbon) of a hook by whether or not the barb snaps off or just bends

    Reply
  10. Sorry to be that guy, but I think you have one typo in the article. “If we’re good at fighting fish, almost none. A barbed hook is built to keep the fish buttoned up, even when tension is introduced.” I think that should be “when slack is introduced” correct?

    Reply
  11. I do this when I bass fish too. Less blood easy removal. I’ll take flies out of tree branches and guess what. Barb still on. Some people never learn. I guess this will always be a thing. Hey Dom, you still play I. A band?

    Reply
  12. Barbless for me. Sure I have managed to lose a few fish but it’s mostly by not keeping enough tension during the fight but I think it’s a win for both fish and angler to not have to wrestle a buried hook. Unless I want a photo the fish never leave the net so no hands on. As for those buried in me I could include photos but……..

    Reply
  13. There is no definitive answer to the barbed vs barbless debate. Studies have shown that the “stiletto effect” (multiple, deep penetrations from one entry point, that occur during the fight) makes large barbless hooks more damaging than barbed counterparts, which holds the hook better in one position. Using this tidbit, we can choose to avoid large barbless or barbed hooks, perhaps limiting our flies to a #6 or #8 max gap for trout (Smaller if the fish are small. Bigger if you’re after striped bass etc.). Fish handling and experience makes more difference than hook choice. If you choose to go barbless, then get a hook designed for it, with a wider gape and a curled in point. Simply crushing a barb makes a hook that will lose fish easily and may even weaken/fracture the hook wire at the barb. When I de-barb, I also curl the hook point inward some for better holding dynamics. PS: avoid long-shank hooks when possible as the lever arm increases fish loss potential.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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