March 23rd, 2009

By Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

Recently I read a question on the FAOL bulletin board about the need for barbless hooks. This question arose because of another study about the use of barbless hooks and trout mortality. Like many previous studies the conclusions were that the use of barbless hooks had no truly measurable effect on trout survival. The article suggested that based on the data the elimination of the 'barbless hooks only' regulation would simplify trout fishing regulations and eliminate law enforcement issues. Both of those reasons seem to be rather shallow and hardly significant enough to justify the suggested change in the regulations.

It needs to be understood at the outset that attempting to correlate mortality rates in fish that have been caught and released is at best subjective, and any data obtained must be viewed with caution. Obviously fish die from a variety of causes, and fish that are handled, whether caught with barbed or barbless hooks, have an added factor that may or may not increase those odds. There are several variables that will affect the survival rate of fish that are caught and released; water temperature, degree of exhaustion, method of handling are all very significant factors in determining the survivability of fish that are released. Without knowing how long each fish was played, the temperature of the water, and how the fish was handled after it was landed would render any correlation between fish caught and released and survivability meaningless.

My personal attachment to barbless hooks goes back to the mid-60s when JC and I were spending our days chasing bugs and browns on Michigan's Au Sable River. I think JC was the first to suggest that we begin to use barbless hooks on our flies, and I believe that I was the skeptical one. It seemed 'logical' to me that a barb was necessary to secure the hook otherwise it would simply fall out. To find out if this was true I devised a series of tests to see if I could prove or disprove my theory.

I started out by reading everything I could find on hooks, hook design, and hook theory. Much of what was available had little or no relevance to my question, but I did find a few important conclusions about which all the experts seemed to agree.

First, I discovered that barbs are made by nicking the metal just above the hook point. A special machine raises a small piece of metal from the wire of the hook making a barb. This means that the hook wire is slightly weakened at the point where the barb is cut. This information provided me with the answer why hooks that broke were often just missing the point and the barb.

Secondly, in order for a standard hook to perform correctly the point of the hook must achieve sufficient penetration to allow the fish to be secured by the bend of the hook and not merely the point. In fact if the hook penetrated sufficiently to allow only the point to pierce the tissue the hook would either fail to hold or fracture due to the stress that was being exerted on this small sliver of metal. For any hook to hold properly it must be sharp. Dull hooks, whether barbed or barbless, will require more pressure to insure proper penetration.

From this limited information it became obvious that for any hook to be efficient in hooking and holding a fish it had to penetrate to a point where the pressure exerted by the angler was on the bend of the hook and not the point.

There was one more bit of information I gleaned from my hook research that seemed to be critical. In order for any hook to remain secure the angler needs to keep constant pressure between the hook and the line. Slack in the connection between the line and the hook could allow the hook to become dislodged. This was true for both barbed and barbless hooks.

With this information I concluded that the issue had little to do with the barb and everything to do with hook penetration. It seemed logical that the barb would increase the amount of pressure necessary to fully engage the hook so the elimination of the barb should increase the hooking ratio.

That series of experiments was conducted over 40 years ago, and I have been using barbless hooks since that time. During those years I believe that I can honestly state that I have never felt that I lost a fish simply because I was using a barbless hook.

It should be noted that the removal of barbed hooks is decidedly more difficult than removal of a hook that does not have a barb. On streams where fish are caught and released several times during the season fish with severe hook scarring or with entire parts of their lips missing are all too common. Barbed hooks that are securely lodged in the tough cartilage found around the mouth of many fish are nearly impossible to remove without inflicting some damage on the tissue. Repeated damage results in hook scarring, tearing of the tissue, and often loss of entire pieces of the cartilaginous structure that surrounds the mouth.

The ease of removal is the primary reason that I am an advocate of the use of barbless hooks. Since I fish for sport and not for food the object of my pursuit is sport, and since I intend to release everything that I catch barbless hooks enable to me to do this quickly and effortlessly. Even the new 'mini-barbed' hooks still have a barb that, in my experience, is more difficult to remove than a hook without any barb.

I find the question of release mortality of only minor significance in the question of whether or not one should use barbless hooks. I know that the less time that the any fish remains out of water the greater the chance that it will survive when released. The use of barbless hooks enables me to release many of the fish that I catch without even removing them from the water. If the angler intends to release his catch, or is required to do so by law then barbless hooks make that process so much easier, and I'm all for making my recreation easier. ~ The Chronicler

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