Hooking Fish on Circles

Fishermen around the globe are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting hooks. Whether they’re game fisherman, sport fisherman or fresh water fisherman, discussing their favourite hook for the intended job is never too far from the main topic of conversation.

Arenui MarlinFrom a game fishing stand point circle hooks are without doubt my hook of choice whenever bait (live or dead) is used. The unique shape is certainly nothing new, we only need to look back at some of the earliest Polynesian archaeological finds carved from wood, bone or stone to realise the innovation of circle hooks doesn’t lie with us, but more accurately with some of our fore-fathers.

Commercially, circle hooks have been widely used for about a century now. Initially the circle design was used on set lines around reef and coral structure as they rarely snagged compared to the conventional ‘J’ design and the hook up rates were more than acceptable. The design gradually caught on throughout the long-lining and drop lining fleets simply because, once hooked fish can’t easily throw the hook, even if given the long periods of slack always inherent in long-lining and deep water-bottom fishing.

It wasn’t until the 80’s that circle hooks started to grace the game fishing scene. For my money it was the South American sailfish fisheries that were the first. Catching and releasing double-digit numbers of billfish each day is the norm in these fisheries so circles certainly found their niche amongst the South American ports. I stand to be corrected on that one, but whatever the case circle hook popularity soon increased due to their excellent hook up rates and the chance of releasing game fish in good health to fight another day.

The mortality rates of released fish caught on circles is seen to be substantially less due to circles “almost” always hook fish in a corner of the mouth. ‘J’ hooks have no such discrimination and can be more likely to cause mortal injuries to fish if not used with care. In saying this, it has to be recognised that no matter what you do, or what hook you use, sometimes fish do get injured during the fight; it’s just that circles certainly give you a substantially better chance at releasing fish in good health.

I personally started using circles about 10 years ago on the Great Barrier Reef for big Black Marlin. Initially I wasn’t sold on the idea, generally because looking back we were over thinking the whole hook up process and as a result our hook up rate sucked for want of a better word. With a bit of experience and fine tuning our hook up rates increased to a point now where it would need to take some strong persuasion to make me want to use anything else.

Striped MarlinI recall when first starting with circles, in my opinion we simply gave the fish too long to eat the bait. We’d read and heard that the only way to use these hooks was to wait until you were absolutely sure the fish was swimming away from the boat, ease the drag up slowly, let the belly of the line do the work, let the hook roll into the corner of the jaw… sometimes this process took well over 25 seconds and you really had no idea what the fish was doing during the critical free spool stage. Basically this process tries replicate what happens with set lines and I guess the theory behind it has its values, but in a game fishing scenario it certainly didn’t work for us.

What I found is when the bait was swallowed to the stomach region it actually had adverse effects on the hook up rates rather than good as expected. Getting that bait and hook back out of the stomach region to find its mark in the corner of the jaw was incredibly difficult regardless of fish, bait or tackle size. Remembering we’re using 130lb tackle in Oz, it gives you some indication of the drag pressure required to displace the bait and hook from a fish’s stomach. A dead set give away for a fish just holding a bait in its stomach is that the fish simply won’t react and will sulk a few meters under the surface (sometimes for several minutes) before simply shaking its head and coughing the bait (and hook) clean out.

I find that a lot of fishermen confuse this ‘sulking’ and with a solid hook up. I get it regularly with guests on board ‘Arenui’, quite often with a sulking fish I’ll say “she’s not hooked yet mate” only to receive some rather odd looks from all in the cockpit, while they share their puzzled glances between me and the solid bend in the 50lb stand- up rod. Rarely the hook will find its way to the corner of the jaw but more regularly (as mentioned) the fish will get sick of its stomach cramp and simply cough it all out as the fish was never ever hooked.

A cleanly hooked fish will always almost instantaneously jump, surge off or give you some sort of positive reaction and it is these tell-tale signs that we’ve grown accustomed to for well hooked fish.

A technique we started doing in Australia and one I still regularly use on ‘Arenui’ is when you find yourself in a ‘sulking’ situation, we’ll push the drag lever right through to full strike in an attempt to get that hook to the corner of the jaw. It works well but you have to be well and truly ready to back the drag off once the fish starts jumping or surging off. Remembering full strike on 130lb tackle is somewhere around the 65-70lb mark it gives you an idea how hard is to get the hook out of a fish’s stomach on occasions.

It’s generally for this reason that I don’t believe circles are overly successful on lighter line classes; 20lb is probably the smallest line class I would use with circles and that would be a stretch. Getting the bait and hook out of the fish stomach is nigh on impossible with the lighter lines classes.

“Gunning the boat” to set the hook… that old chestnut. In my humble opinion this does little to help as you can do 20 knots if you wish but the pressure applied is still only as much as the reel drag allows. When testing your drag with hand-scales, try pulling it slowly and then at speed… you get the picture!

As a result, we’ve reduced our free-spool time quite substantially over the years as we try to eliminate fish getting the bait too deep. Whether it’s Black, Blue or Striped Marlin, 3-4 seconds is plenty and is actually quite a long time when you think of the line stretch involved with mono-filament. What we’ve found over time and after recording numerous hours of underwater footage, the theory of waiting for the fish to swim away from the boat is completely redundant. 3-4 seconds is plenty and it gives you the best shot at a clean hook up in the corner of the jaw.

With 3-4 seconds of free spool, basically you’re giving the fish the opportunity to kill the bait, turn it and start to swallow it. While the bait’s still in the mouth or throat region the drag is increased (through to strike), quickly wind the entire belly up and allow the stretch of the mono-filament to set the hook in the corner of the jaw. Sometimes we do end up going a little too early and pull the bait out of the fish’s mouth, but this is generally not as bad as it appears as we regularly get a second or third bite as long as you can get the bait skipping or swimming again. In all honesty, I’d rather go too early and pull the bait out and get a second bite than free-spool too long and get into that ‘sulking’ scenario previously discussed.

It’s all about getting that clean hook up and watching these great fish perform… that’s what game fishing is to me. A ‘sulking’ or gut hooked fish does little for me and I can only imagine what a first time angler must think of a much anticipated billfish that does little on the end of the line.

We try to teach anglers to feel for when the fish stalls or stops during the critical free spool stage. This ‘stall’ is basically when the fish has killed the bait and has stopped to turn and try to eat it (usually after approx 3-4 seconds). This is the exact time we increase the drag, wind up the belly and attempt to hook the fish in the corner of the jaw. The bait is still in the throat area rather than the stomach and your giving that hook a much better (and uninhibited) chance of finding its mark.

Circle HooksProbably the most common hook I’ve used in New Zealand is the standard 14/0 Mustad 39960D as I’ve found it best matches the bait available to us. More recently I’ve been introduced to Mustads 39950NP 12/0 circles, ironically by well known New Zealand lure maker ‘Bonze’ Fleet. I used these sparingly last season as I only had few and they weren’t readily available in New Zealand up until now… yes they will be available in NZ this summer.

These small chemically sharpened models (endorsed by The Billfish Foundation) are certainly ‘the goods’ as we had absolutely no issues hooking a wide variety of pelagics from Dolphin Fish, Striped Marlin through to Blue Marlin up to 500lb in our waters last season. Because they’re chemically sharpened they will lose their point over time, but as long as you have a crew paying attention and insuring sharp hooks are always being used, it’s not an issue.

On board ‘Arenui’ switch-baiting Striped and Blue Marlin is our ‘bread and butter’ technique, plus with the added mix of live-baiting around bait concentrations, circles are certainly our main hook of choice. Circles certainly serve us well in a charter situation and have done for a number of seasons now due to more than acceptable hook up rates, the great fighting characteristics of fish and the ability to release fish in good health day in – day out.

As far as I’m concerned circles are a win/win for both fisherman and the fish and it would need to take some strong opinions to make me want to change. I guess those early Polynesian fisherman knew they were onto a good thing to.

*Also see link (here).