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 Circle Hooks - The Perfect Hook

by Capt. Mike Holmes

Summer 1998


lunar phases

In the spring of 1965, I made my first offshore fishing trip. This blessed event took place on Tee Boy McCall's old Sunrise II headboat out of Cameron, Louisiana, and remains prominent in my memories for several reasons. For one, it seems hardly possible today that I was even born that long ago, considering my present state of continuing fisherman's youth. For another, on that trip I was first introduced to circle hooks. We didn't use circles on our snapper rods that day, but the deckhands gave a short course in their use on heavy handlines for grouper. I didn't really get around to using circle, or "Japanese tuna" hooks until the early 80's, and by that time they were in wide use for snapper off the Gulf Coast. Since then I have used them on many species with success, and find it hard to believe that such a large number of anglers still don't take advantage of the superior qualities of this hook design.

Of course, a lot of prominent fishermen have recently "discovered" circle hooks for the winter catch and release bluefin tuna fishery off North Carolina. Now that the hook style has proven itself in chunking for tuna, I have heard calls for it to be used in trolling for billfish as well. In fact, trolling is the only thing I haven't yet used circles for in offshore fishing.

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Originally conceived for use on unattended lines, such as handlines or longlines, the circle hook was known for its natural hooking ability. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when a fish is allowed to move away with the bait unbothered by a fisherman's strike, the hook will pull to the corner of its mouth and wrap securely around the jaw. Once in place, there is almost no chance of the hook pulling loose. Because there are no gut hooked fish and the hook is located in a position where the hook is relatively easy to reach, circle hooks probably are the best choice for those adhering to a strict conservation ethic.

Even those of us who intend to keep much of our catch can put these hooks to good advantage. Over the years I have caught gafftop, redfish, shark, snapper, grouper, spadefish, triggerfish, bonito, kings, ling, amberjack, and dolphin on circle hooks. I have also hooked a marlin, released due to short leader and 20 lb. line. These hooks are also an excellent choice for black drum, bull reds in the surf, or even trotlines.

My experience has shown circle hooks to be superior in many ways besides just the self-hooking and fish-friendly placement features. One quality I never see mentioned is the safety factor. Because the hook points back towards the shank, it is very difficult to hook oneself or one's boatmates. In fact, it takes a bit of practice to get a bait impaled properly. As one charterboat captain who no longer allows treble hooks on board after incidents in which both myself and a passenger were injured, I thoroughly appreciate this feature.

The large diameter wire used for circles also helps keep them from pulling free. Since this hook style holds by the physics of encirclement rather than simply from an embedded barb, expensive hook sharpeners or tedious hours with a file or hone are also not necessary. In fact, the barb on a circle hook is almost superfluous, it would hold very nearly as well without a barb.

Several years ago my customers were having trouble hooking big king mackerel in a chumline. The fish would hit so hard and fast that they either didn't get the steel completely in their mouth, or the hooks would pull from getting a poor bite. A switch to circles on our driftlines put a virtual halt to this problem. A speeding king angling away with the bait will find the hook pulled to the corner of his mouth, and cannot escape after that unless the line breaks. On hard to hook fish such as tarpon, the circle is perfect - no penetration needed into a boney mouth. On the other hand, fish with a "soft" mouth like broadbill swordfish are also better served a bait on circles - longliners have had success with them for decades.

Years ago I wrote to John Rybovich, of Rybovich Boatworks fame, while he was fishing editor of Boating magazine. Mr. Rybovich had been worrying in his column about the high mortality rate among sailfish caught on both live and dead bait in Florida tournaments that were supposed to be catch and release only. Because some of these contests were limited to 12 lb. line, the surest way to get a solid hookup was to let the fish swallow the bait, leaving them gut or stomach hooked. The pressure of a rod and reel pulling against these delicate organs normally results in a dead fish. In my youthful certainty of expertise, I suggested using circle hooks. I still have the handwritten reply - one of my most cherished pieces of correspondence - in which Mr. Rybovich told me of using circle hooks on tilefish in water over 100 fathoms deep in the Gulf Stream. He said that before using circle hooks they would loose about half the fish on the way up. After switching to circles, "if we lost a fish, it would be on the surface." He said he had checked with friends who had served as observers on Japanese longliners before they were banned from the Gulf. One of his friends recalled that almost all of the swordfish hooked on circles were hooked in the mouth, the other put it at somewhere over 50%.

Mr. Rybovich allowed that Murray's in Florida stocked a complete line of Mustad circle hooks, so that he could try them on sailfish in the next season. I don't know if he ever did, but such angling greats as Peter Wright, Australia's famous marlin skipper, are now studying the effectiveness of circle hooks in trolling for billfish. Thomas Gibson III of Clear Lake, one the most dedicated and successful tarpon fishermen in the world, has used circles for years and probably pioneered rigging them in front of a lure for trolling - much like a bridled live bait. Now the popular "Coon-Pops" and imitators so effective on tarpon in Texas and Louisiana are rigged the same way.

Just for grins, I intend to rig trolling jigs with circles this summer. We do a lot of high speed trolling with Tuna Clones without a bait trailer that should work well with these hooks, and a jig and icefish or mullet would probably pull 'OK' if the hook was run through the eyes. Rigging a long ribbonfish with several circles probably wouldn't work too well, but who knows.

If you haven't tried circle hooks, please do so. They are safer for both fish and fisherman.

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