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Circle Hooks: Quit Yer Complaining!

Circle Hooks: Quit Yer Complaining!

Ever since the Circle Hook mandate was floated out by fisheries managers, all I’ve heard is people complaining about it. I find it, more than a little odd, that a large percentage of these people are the same ones who complain that not enough is being done to protect the fishery. I guess they only want to protect the stock in ways that don’t force them to change anything about how they fish? Being forced to change something never feels great, but sometimes you have to do it for the bigger picture. The bottom line is, reform for the greater good of the fishery is supposed to hurt a little. A huge percentage of the people who fish for striped bass are either catch and release only or the type that keep one or two per year—lowering the bag limit changes nothing about how they fish or the pressure they put on the fishery. So that means that all of the mortality these two, very large, user groups contribute to the fishery goes unchecked and unchanged. Not only is that not good, but it’s also not fair.


J-Hooks Effective and Deadly

Fishing live or dead bait is a very popular way to catch fish and its also a very effective way to catch big ones. The downside to its undeniable effectiveness is the disproportionately high mortality rate when compared with other methods. Striped bass, especially big ones, can swallow an eel faster than you can read all the words in this sentence. Burying the hook into throat or gills of any fish dramatically lowers their chance of survival and those chances dip even lower after a long fight and plummet further if no time is taken to revive the fish—add in a photoshoot and the fish is as good as done.


Don’t believe me? Listen to this little gem. Back in the late summer of 2007 I was enjoyed the best fishing for big striped bass that I am likely to ever see in my life and this is coming from a guy that fished a huge percentage of the biggest blitzes the Canal has ever seen, this was better. We were catching dozens of 30- to 38-pound fish with multiple 40-pounders landed every night and this went on for weeks. We had it all to ourselves too, social media hadn’t yet tainted fishing at that time. One night it was myself and one other buddy, we were both fishing eels, I was using circle hooks and he was using traditional J-hooks. We smashed fish that night, at least four over 40, and when the tide was done, we headed for the road. We usually walked out along the base of breakwall, but for some reason, I walked the low tide line that night and I found three dead giants on my way out. What a tragedy. I didn’t feel right about leaving them there disrespected, so we brought them home for the table. Every fish we caught that night was released and appeared to swim away strong, but the fish I found weighed 37, 41 and 45 pounds and all of them had a clipped J-hook in their throat. I think that story speaks volumes about the effectiveness of circle hooks and the damage inflicted by a deep hook, to me these things are undeniable.


A Bit of Deprogramming Required

I don’t understand the problem. You can still fish eels, bunker or any other live or dead bait that you choose, you’re still able to fish all of the locations you could fish before, the only change is that you have to change your method, just a little bit, by using a different hook and perfecting a different hookset. I started using circle hooks back in 2005 and, after a short stretch of deprogramming, not only did I master the circle hook hookset, but I also learned that once a fish is hooked on a circle, it almost never comes off. Think about it, that hook would have to back out more than 180 degrees to come unbuttoned, I mean, the hook is almost a literal circle! Something else I learned is that you very rarely get a bad hookset with a circle, the hook anchors in the jaw and almost never finds purchase in the soft tissues of the throat where it is far more likely to tear free and because of the inward-facing point you will also never get those half-stuck hookups in the roof of the mouth, the point is designed to bypass all that and find solid purchase when it’s pulled between the fish’s closed lips. It actually a genius invention.


Making the Transition

I mentioned above that I had to endure a stretch of deprogramming, where I had to resist the urge to reel down and strike back violently like we do with a J-hook. And yes, during that stretch, I missed a few fish. My advice is to start using eels or whatever bait you like earlier than usual this year, maybe early May and flatten the learning curve on large schoolies and small slot fish so that you have your method down long before the big girls come to town.


Here’s what has worked for me. First of all, I like to use a bigger hook because I feel that a wider gap always translates to a more reliable hookup. So I’m usually using 8/0 circle hooks for eeling and I might go up even higher for live or chunked bunker. I like to use a larger hook for the simple reason that I feel a bigger gap translates to a better hookup overall. If the size of the hook makes you think the fish are going to ignore your bait, consider the fact that they eat plugs with treble hooks hanging off of them and they’ll also happily swallow a bunker with a 7/0 snag hook pinned to it’s flank—what I’m trying to say is, the hook isn’t going to wave off any hungry striped bass. Remember, the law dictates that you must use an INLINE circle hook, that means the point is lined up with the shank of the hook, offset circles are now illegal.


Offset vs. Inline

Fishing Live Eels

Just like with your beloved J-hooks, a successful hookup relies on you to wait long enough to get the bait into its mouth. I mostly fish eels, so I’m going to detail my eel routine here, but the process with other baits should be largely the same. I keep my rod tip high when I’m eeling, like almost straight up. Everything else about fishing live eels is the same, you still hook them the same, you still cast them out and reel slowly. One thing you should not do is the old, ‘open the bail and let them run for a 10 count’ routine. This is why I keep my tip straight up in the air, when a fish grabs the eel, I wait for the fish to pull my tip down until it’s parallel with the water—which takes about three seconds—and this is where we make a change. If it were a standard J-hook this is when you’d reel up to get tight to the fish and haul back, hard. But instead, once that rod is pointing at the fish, you’re going to crank steadily until you feel the fish tugging against your tight line—this means that the hook has moved into position. Then it’s a slow lift of the rod tip with steady cranking until you feel a pop, when you feel that give it a few moderate sets to send it home and its game on.


Capt. Jack Sprengel Photo @eastcoastcharters

Fishing Other Baits

For those fishing with chunks or live finfish like bunker or scup, you can hook them though the nostrils, but the consensus among anglers that fish more live baitfish and chunks than I do, is that rigging these baits ‘off the hook’ so that the gap is totally clear with greatly increase your chances of hooking up. There are many versions of these rigs with many utilizing elastic bands sewn through the eye socket and then wound tightly around the hook, some use braided Dacron line in a similar fashion, sewn though the eyes and then tied tightly to the bend of the hook. The goal of these rigs is that, as mentioned before, the gap is kept clear, but also that the bait will tear off the rig making for a better hookset and removing the weight of the bait which can work the hook free during the battle.


Change for the Greater Good

It should be pretty obvious at this point that the advantages provided by circles hooks—better hookups, fewer lost fish, a drastic reduction in gut hooked fish, less time spent unhooking fish—far outweigh your reluctance to give up setting the hook. Don’t be selfish, this should be viewed as a voluntary change, you’re doing it for the greater good of the fishery—more fish swimming in the ocean means more fish to catch next time and more babies to populate the future. It’s an easy adjustment and you’ll have it mastered in no time. We need there to be as many stripers in the ocean as possible if the stock is going to recover again, making the switch to circle hooks is doing your part. No more complaining!

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Kevin Howley - February 4, 2021

Thank you. It’s fishers like you who make the sport and our oceans better for everyone. Also, thanks for the good tips on using circles for eels.

RICHARD REICH - February 4, 2021

What make and size hooks are you using for eels?



mike downham - February 4, 2021

Perfect explanation, thanks for your insight. This is just another condition that we need to learn to adapt our methods. Like a headwind or strong sweep. I think some of the pushback is because the sporting angler feels like they’re being targeted and commercial fisheries which handle far more fish, are always provided a loop hole. Time to quit pointing fingers, do our part and trust enforcement

George - February 4, 2021

Hi Dave,
I’ve been using circle hooks for over 2 years now. Not only for Salt water, but also for fresh water. Since I’ve been using these hooks while live shiner fishing for Bass, I have yet had to bring one home instead of releasing it back unharmed. They do work, but like you said you’ve got to learn how to use them…..

Lawrence Audino - February 4, 2021

I have no problem with the use of circle hooks for most bait situations. However, trolling tubing worm should be an exception. In 30 years fishing the tube and worm I have never gut hooked a striped bass with a J hook. I don’t think circle hooks will work while throwing the tube and warm and as far as I know nobody makes tubes with circle hooks. Hopefully the regulators make this exception.

Jim King - February 4, 2021

Dave: No issue with circle hooks used as you describe. However, for 30 years I have been a dedicated tube and wormer, finding I can catch Bass in the daytime on a tube and worm, and don’t have to fish at night. I have probably caught thousands of Bass and/or Blues on a tube and worm, and I have never had one engulf the hook. That’s just not the way they hit them. Other than Blue Fish teeth, I have never had a problem release. I do not believe tubes are made with circle hooks!?? Need I throw out all my tubes and then be unable to get replacements?
It seems “uninformed” to ban a type of fishing without adequate knowledge about how it is done. I suspect “no exemptions” was done to keep every Tom, Dick, and Harry from complaining. But banning that type of fishing when it doesn’t harm the resource seems counterproductive, and sheds suspicion on the experience of the Council that made the decision. Have any of them ever caught a bass on a tube and worm? I suspect I may be able to replace the worm with a fake one, but I am not sure that will be legal either.
Just my two cents.

M. Risser - February 4, 2021

Great article! This is the kind of detailed information needed to help make the transition to circles happen. I have to admit, I tried them with eels two seasons ago and struggled, so I switched back to J’s (I rarely deep hook with them either), but after reading this I see some critical mistakes I was making on the hook set. Thanks Dave!

Shannon Drawe - February 4, 2021

I tie many, many Clouser flies on circle hooks, and they are extremely beneficial for – lip hooking, AND HOLDING extreme fish, like stripers. They also do a great job with our Texas Gulf Coast speckled trout.

Celeste - February 4, 2021

Thank you for that much needed message. I for one am grateful that this change is taking place. For years I’ve watched anglers reel in beautiful healthy bass, often involving a battle, only to release a damaged fish. Most of them will die not because of the lodged hook left in them but because of the damage caused by the yanking during the struggle. I don’t fish for sport, only for food. I try to respect the animal. If it’s not a keeper it should be allowed to go on living. Circle hooks are a necessary change. And while we’re at it why not change treble hooks to a double hook on lures. I’ve sawed off one of the hooks many times and I find that the double is effective and far less damaging to the fish. Now I use a single. Too often the treble hooks into both top and bottom jaws. And let’s talk about how to remove these hooks without disabling the fishes jaw hinge for good. If you love to fish then LOVE THE FISH. Stop griping and buy the circle hooks. And dispose of those old J Hooks responsibly. Here’s a suggestion. How about Saltwater Edge giving points when someone turns in J hooks and buys circle hooks? Let’s ALL be part of the solution. See you at the Canal in the spring!

Christian Martin - February 4, 2021

Hi Dave,
I accept having to use circles with live eels and have done so. I will point out that if you do gut hook a fish with a circle then it is screwed. You can’t back that sucker out in a reasonable amount of time and if you do there is carnage. I would normally clip the leader as close as possible but this article leads me to believe that doesn’t have a good prognosis either. Caveats aside, I think the reluctance within my clubs with circles is in the case of the “fringe” stuff. Sure, a lot of people fish with eels but not compared to the baitsoakers who are completely hands off in a chair. I’m admittedly a newcomer relatively speaking (and very open to your opinion) but I feel like it’s obvious that the meat of the mortality due to J hooks would be among the hands-off fisherman. I think this is especially the case for rigged eels and eelskin plugs. This seems unnecessarily complicated and frustrating considering the impact on the method and the seemingly small upside to the change on the whole population. I don’t want to sound like a finger pointer who doesn’t want to do his part but I’m guessing the meat of the impact on the population is 1) people kicking fish and lobbing them into the water 2) a less highlighted issue with the environmental quality of the spawning grounds 3) people filling hidden trash bags with poached fish and 4) people distractedly baitsoaking and letting the fish swallow. I do, in fact, follow the rules because I think if people start picking and choosing law compliance then there’s no point to laws. That doesn’t mean I agree with progressively increased focus on low-yield (with regard to mortality reduction) sectors of the fishing population. I could walk my town and the surrounding three during the summer and probably not find a single person fishing an eel skin plug. Day or night. What I will find is poachers.
That’s actually the rulemakers not owning up. Mandating that people change the way they fish is a lot easier than combatting poachers or spawning ground bacterial issues. Like I said I’m compliant but I’m also frustrated and I hope we don’t get lost in the weeds trying to make meaningful changes.

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