This Q&A series is an effort to answer some of the most common questions I receive. Here’s the latest . . .
This one comes from Mike Roberts, in North Carolina
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.
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?
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.
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.
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