Circle hooks have been around on the recreational fishing scene for quite a few
years now, but there are still anglers who don’t trust them. I’ll admit, the first time I
saw one, I was like, “there’s no way that can work.”
Fast forward some 20 years, and today, I’m more likely to tie on a circle hook than
any other type when fishing offshore. However, there are still plenty of saltwater
fishing situations where I believe traditional “J” hooks are more effective.
Circle hooks look different and work differently — which is why they’re not
necessarily great for everything. When using circle hooks, you have to break the
habit of swinging the rod to set the hook. Instead, you just put the reel in gear (or
close the bail on spinning tackle), and let the line come tight until the fish begins to
pull line off the reel. The fish pretty much hooks itself. If you swing, you will
probably miss the fish.
The key advantage of circle hooks is that, when the fish grabs the bait and swims
away, the hook usually won’t stick in the fish’s throat or even inside of its mouth.
Instead, circle hooks most often lodge in the corner of the fish’s mouth, or just on the inside of the upper lip. This is important for two reasons when it comes to landing fish. One, it’s a solid location that is less likely to tear out during the fight. Two, having the hook in this area makes it nearly impossible for a fish to bite through the line — important when doing battle with tuna, Mahi Mahi, Spanish mackerel, and other toothy species.
There are also strong conservation advantages to using circle hooks. Since fish are
far less likely to be hooked deep in the throat or mouth, it is easier to remove hooks
when catch-and-release angling. This makes circle hooks a good choice when you plan to release fish, whether by choice, or because of rules or size limits. Increasing
the survivability of released fish is very important for species that have size
restrictions — striped bass or salmon, for example — when you may have to release
many undersized fish during a day.
If you are using circle hooks for catch-and-release fishing, it’s important to make
sure you’re using non-offset hooks. Some circle hooks feature offset points (where
the point of the hook is not in line with the hook shaft) designed to make it easier to
put bait on the hooks. Although they will still lodge in the outer portion of the
mouth, they can cause internal damage to the throat and mouth. For this reason,
non-offset circle hooks are usually specified for fisheries where circle hooks are
required by law, such as while salmon fishing off of California. Non-offset circle
hooks are also often referred to as “tournament legal,” as they are required in many
catch-and-release billfish tournaments. Make sure you look at the packaging
carefully to know what you are buying.
There are plenty of saltwater fishing situations where I still prefer traditional “J”
hooks. I usually use “J” hooks when fishing for species I’m definitely going to keep
and don’t have much in the way of teeth — like California yellowtail and white
seabass. Also, let’s face it; sometimes you just want to swing away on a fish! After
much trial and error, I have given up on using circle hooks for fish that don’t swim
away rapidly with the bait, like halibut. Unlike aggressive biters that grab the bait,
turn away from you and swim away at high speed, halibut tend to chew on the bait
while swimming towards you. After noticing an increase in missed bites, I switched
back to “J” hooks for this style of fishing. I imagine it would be a similar experience
with fluke and flounder on the East Coast.