Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

I started fly fishing when nets were made out of thick cotton strands. If you got a barbed hook stuck in a strand it was an ordeal to get it out without ruining your net. On more than one occasion, I cut the fly off and got it out after I quit fishing. If you got the hook into one of the knots, that would at least double the amount of time to get the hook out. This convinced me it was worth trying barbless hooks.

Initially, I bent down the barbs when I was ready to use the fly on the river. I discovered that the groves in my hemostat, which doubled as a bard smasher, could mash the barb down. But, you had to really pay attention to how you lined the hook up with the grooves. Eventually I found a small pliers with flat jaws – that really sped up bending the barb down and did a much better job.

Even the smallest gap between the bent barb and the hook shaft made it more difficult to extricate the hook. I became very particular about leaving no gap whatsoever. Once I mastered that, it became clear there are a lot of advantages to going barbless. Today, I don’t have a single barbed hook in my fly boxes.

Here’s some of the reasons I made the switch.

  • Hooksets go deeper faster: See the picture with the three hooks
  • Top – mostly bent barb
  • Middle – Full barb
  • Bottom – Barb fully bent down

As the hook penetrates the fish all three hooks offer approximately the same resistance until you reach the beginning of the barb. From that point on, the barbed hook offers increasing resistance until the barb is cleared. The partially bent down barb offers less resistance in the same region and the barbless hook offers the least.

While I don’t have scientific resistance measurements, I think you can see the barbless hook offers the least resistance as it penetrates the fish. This translates to faster and deeper hooksets. As long as you keep pressure on the fish, it is unlikely the hook will come out. Last week the line wrapped around my rod during the hookset. I couldn’t bring the line in and had to release the line pressure to unwrap the fly line from my rod. To my amazement, the fish (a 14” brown) was still on. The hook went completely through the main lobe at the end of the fish’s mouth. The hook came out quickly once I got past the bend and the fish swam away unharmed.

  • Unhooking the fish is much easier: I find that 30-40% of the time, the hook falls out of the fish’s mouth as it thrashes in the net. There’s no easier hook removal. The remainder of the time it takes 2-3 seconds to grasp the hook and gently back out the hook. Sometimes it is necessary to use a hemostat to remove smaller hooks as the hook is in so deep it is hard to grasp the fly. Once you get the hemostat on the hook, it rarely takes more than a single gentle tug to remove the hook.
  • Barbless hooks come out of everything more easily: nets, shirts, jackets, hats, trees, hands, necks, arms, etc. It is pretty rare that you can’t just back out the hook when the barb is completely bent down flush to the hook shaft. This works even in fingers and arms with nearly no pain. I have personally tested the finger and arm hook removals more often than I care to admit. This is one of the strongest reasons to go barbless.
  • It’s easier on the fish: Years ago I hooked a gorgeous 22” rainbow in a gill raker. Everything was fine until I slipped the hook out. The fish immediately began bleeding profusely. My friend quipped, “Well, there’s dinner tonight.” Undaunted I simply applied pressure to the spot that was bleeding while holding the fish in the water. After a minute or so, I released my hold on the gill. No blood and the fish swam off swiftly. In addition, over the course of each year a few fish get hooked on fins or on the side. With a barbless hook, it is easy to remove the hook safely.

Many people claim they lose more fish without barbless hooks. It is probably true you lose some fish while using a barbless hook. But, I think there’s a good chance there are other fish you land with a barbless hook that you would not have landed with a barbed hook as the hook penetrates faster and deeper. Neither side can prove the point as it is impossible to repeat the exact same hook set. However, many of my friends used to fish with barbed hooks until we fished together. After they saw how many fish I landed, they tried barbless hooks. Most have converted as they discovered the pros outweigh the cons.

These are four good reasons to at least try barbless hooks. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

9 Comments

  1. My son and I went barbless many years ago. Our tying instructor stated that barbs were to hold bait, not fish. We tried it and liked it. Yes, there are some “long line releases”, but not many. I still have some barbed hooks. Those are the ones I use to give away or sell. Many people have a fear of barbless, so I give them what they want. We, however, fish barbless.

    1. Hi Vicky, Thanks! I have a selection of hemostats from the hospital I co-opped at in high school. They all have grooves (admittedly, that was some time ago). I will give that a try.
      Joe

      1. Teeth, Joe! Just bite ’em down. Just bite off the whole hook point and bend, for that matter. Tough guys like you don’t need no stinkin’ hemostats….

        Seriously though, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment here, to elicit your reactions:

        I go barbless when a stream’s rules tell me to, and later I put the fly with the bent-down barb back in the box with the others and don’t keep track of it. So very slowly over many years I’m probably going barbless.

        But I normally tie on hooks that already have tiny barbs. Those flies come out of fish mouths so easily I’ve always suspected the mini-barbs do almost nothing. And it can be difficult to see whether I’ve bent one down or not–they’re that small.

        And I get a high percentage of rainbows I hook that leap and throw the fly–even if I didn’t bend down any barbs. This has lead me to believe that (1) tying on fully barbless hooks would cause me to lose even more of the leapers, and (2) the hooks I use already give the fish a huge chance at escape.

        I agree that keeping tension on a swimming fish stands a good chance of the hook staying in, but once they leap and flail in all directions, the line does tend to whip around in who-knows-what direction, and hooks seem to pop out pretty easily.

        Your thoughts? I’m probably touching on some of the reasons why people often resist the transition to barbless, so it’s worth bringing these questions up.

        – Mike

        1. Hi Mike,
          Good points. There are lots of variables when you start talking about jumping fish that make it difficult to say what’s going on. My short-short answer would be that if the fish jumps immediately after the hook set – I have the same experience – a measurable portion of fish get off. However, if the fish starts leaping after a good hook set and a short period of fighting against the full tension of the rod, I think I land most of those fish.
          In the end, my main point is, I don’t think the difference in the number of fish landed between barbed and barbless hooks is significant. However, the benefit of easily getting the hook out of the fish, people, clothing, etc. outweighs the possibility that you may lose a fish here and there (if that is true at all – as I pointed out – it’t tough to think of a valid scientific method to compare the results). In my mind, being able to pull a fully sunk barbless streamer hook out of my hand with nearly no resistance, instead of going to the emergency room, is the biggest advantage. It is cheaper and you can still continue fishing!
          Thanks for taking time to respond. Lots of things to think and talk about.
          Joe

  2. Joe,
    Although I use a lot of barbless hooks (primarily because Yellowstone requires them) I have never been convinced that there are any significant differences between using barbed or barbless hooks with one exception—angler safety. A barbless hook is definitely easier to remove once embedded in your body. The arguments related to fish mortality are far more moralistic rather than based on scientific evidence. This is a quote from one fish mortality study:

    “The authors determined that barbed hooks
    caused less hooking mortality in 2 of 4 comparisons with flies and in 3 of 5
    comparisons with lures, however, only 1 of 11 comparisons resulted in
    statistically significant differences in hooking mortality. The authors concluded
    that the use of barbed or barbless flies or lures played no role in the
    mortality of trout caught and released by anglers. In fact, the authors concluded
    that, because natural mortality rates for wild trout in streams commonly
    range from 30 to 65% annually, a 0.3% mean difference in hooking
    mortality for the two hook types was irrelevant at the population level,
    even when fish were subjected to repeated capture. Others have also suggested
    that barbless hooks provide little benefit and are really just a ‘social
    issue’, generating substantial controversy.” https://catch-n-release.org/uploads/fateoffishchapter.pdf

    Talk to any well-healed fisheries biologist and they will tell you that at a minimum 20-30% of the wild trout in rivers and lakes perish annually through normal population attrition. For the catch and release angler, even if they handle trout perfectly, statistically one in five trout they release are going to die that year.

    There is one other thing associated with barbless that bears some attention. When you flatten a barb with pliers you are likely disturbing the hook’s coating and exposing raw steel making the hook more rust prone at that point. Something to consider if you don’t dry your flies properly after each use.

    Barbed versus barbless – always a great topic.

    1. Without having done any studies beyond just the ongoing survey known as fishing, my instinct tells me the hooking mortality study you refer to rings very true for fly fishing, Mike, although it may be less applicable to (or less rosy for) “hardware” lures. I suspect the push for barbless hooks came out of the impressions that treble hooks made on rule-makers. It can be a gruesome exercise in tearing force and blood to get heavily barbed treble hooks out of soft-tissue mouths, and we’ve all witnessed fishermen who are unnecessarily callous in their hook removal efforts, sometimes even standing on a fish and pulling because it’s too frustrating to extract multiple barbs that just keep re-embedding while they work on the next one.

      Barbs or not, treble hooks bring another detriment to anglers: How hard can a fish fight, after all, with a mouthful of razor-sharp points to deal with? Every turn the critter makes brings new hot pain. I’ve often felt glad for the fact that one small fly on the edge of a lip is all my adversary has to deal with, so that it can spin and leap relatively freely. Much more sporting, much more thrilling.

      When I was a kid I burned for a way to make my own treble hooks to mount on my hand-made plugs, thinking them “official gear” and not having a source of them, but now I despise them.

      Again, thanks for the informative addition to Joe’s excellent article.

      – Mike

    2. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the sharing the study. I will have to give it a look. It sounds like we basically agree. The best reason for going barbless is for the safe release of hooked people (disregarding the number of saved shirts and jackets)!
      From my vantage point, I have a responsibility to safely release a fish I will not keep to eat. I can’t tell whether the fish in hand is part of the 20% that will die that year. I am giving each fish I release safely an opportunity to be part of the 80% that lives. Last year I posted a picture in one of my blogs of a 14″ brown with a talon mark gouge in its back. It was nice to know within days it dodged death twice and lived to tell both times!
      Excellent point on properly drying flies to avoid rust. I always take out all my fly boxes and let them dry overnight if I have fished in the rain or if I get deep enough where my fly vest is submerged in the water.
      This is a timeless issue, as you point out, there’s always time for another point to consider. Thanks for participating in the discussion.
      All the best, Joe

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