Debunking the myth of barbless hooks

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All right. I confess. Once I was the closest thing to a trout hog. In the old days, you measured your success – your fishing prowess – by the day’s catch. “I got my five, how about you?” was the fisherman’s refrain.

Today, there will be an occasional brookie taken home for my frying pan, but catch-and-release is the general rule. Certainly, the catch-and-release ethic of the times has influenced my behavior, but I think that passing time has simply honed my appreciation and fondness for these marvelous wild fish that have brought so much joy to my life.

One trendy trouter’s totem that I have not embraced, though, is the venerated barbless hook advisory. Yep, I know that among the fly-fishing community, barbless hooks are the rage. A few years ago, while fishing with former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Bucky Owen, father of the Quality Fishing Initiative, I was gently admonished by him for not pinching off the barbs on my dry flies.

Wherever fly-fishermen go, they are bombarded with pleading reminders to go barbless. Madison outfitter Bob Mallard is a barbless hook adherent, and requires that all of his customers fish barbless on catch-and-release waters. Here is a sampling taken off the Internet:

• Fishing barbless has become essential to the health of fishing stock.

• Pressure on fish stocks is growing intense as the popularity of fishing increases.

• It’s imperative that you use barbless hooks when practicing catch-and-release.

• As you can imagine, barbless fishing is less likely to injure fish and will improve their survival rate.

• Barbless fishing has its advantages: It enables you to release fish quicker, with less injury.

But is it so? Will barbless fishing reduce fish injury and improve their survival rate? This refrain has been so oft-repeated in the fly-fishing community that it has become accepted as part of the Angler’s Gospel. It’s been my belief that fish-release techniques are far more critical to fish survival than a barbed or unbarbed hook. From what I’ve seen, too many anglers have yet to learn how to release a fish without touching it, or engaging in excessive handling.

This article from Trout Magazine, by Robert J. Behnke, claims that barbless fishing can actually be more damaging to released fish than fishing with the conventional barbed hooks.

“The fisheries research studies in Yellowstone Park have also helped to dispel some long-established beliefs.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary to restrict catch-and-release fisheries to barbless flies only. A large proportion of Yellowstone anglers have only casual interest in fishing and are not highly skilled or experienced. Many use large treble hook lures. The trout they catch are frequently left flopping on the bank while a camera is dug out and photos taken. Yet survival of the released trout is exceedingly high (99.7 percent) based on the 1981 study. Most all detailed comparative studies on hooking mortality have demonstrated no significant differences in mortality between trout caught on single, treble, barbed, or barbless hooks.

There is, however, a slight but consistent increase in mortality due to barbless hooks.

John Deinstadi a California Fish and Game Department biologist with long experience with catch-and-release fisheries, believes this is due to what he calls the stiletto effect.’ Barbless hook have the tendency to penetrate more deeply. Although mortality of released trout rapidly increases with warmer water temperatures (especially as temperatures approach 70 degrees), under normal conditions, almost all mortality of trout caught on flies or artificial lures is due to rupture of the respiratory filaments of the gills or puncture of the carotid artery in the roof of the mouth. Because of their greater penetration power, barbless hooks are more prone to puncture the carotid artery. Large treble hooks often cause the least mortality because, unless the trout is quite large, the hooks cannot be engulfed into the mouth.”

Perhaps angling associations need to focus more of their educational efforts on proper fish-release techniques as a way to reduce incidental fish mortality caused by anglers.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal.He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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