For most mid-Atlantic anglers, the sticky point of the circle-hook rule came when they had to abandon their traditional Ilander and horse ballyhoo rig in tournament fishing. Before the rule change, the typical offshore arsenal consisted of dink baits for whites, sails, spears or dolphin and Ilander-ballyhoo combos for blue marlin, wahoo and tuna.
While rigging a dink bait with a circle hook is easy, rigging an Ilander with a circle hook is not. That's because a circle hook is most effective when it is completely exposed, not buried in the belly of a bait.
Another problem is the nature of the beast. Unlike white marlin, which tend to play with their food first, blue marlin don't mess around. "They come in and eat," Neill says. That leaves an angler little time to react.
But those aiming for blues, whites, sails and spearfish, a mixed offshore bag, often need to employ a mixed spread to cover all the species.
To this end, marlin anglers have tried various techniques, from rigging an Ilander with a rubber ballyhoo and J hook to pulling artificials alongside rigged ballyhoo to relying on a pitch bait thrown at a big target that comes into the spread.
Neill has settled on a circle-hook rig with a horse ballyhoo behind a Mold Craft chugger. "We've caught blue marlin on a naked ballyhoo and a circle hook," he says, "but they usually like something with a little more splash."
Neill explains that using bigger baits also allows him to use bigger tackle: "We like to use 50s and 80s to target blue marlin, tuna and wahoo."
When mid-Atlantic anglers deploy their baits, they don't know whether they will encounter a bailer dolphin or a grander blue marlin. By using artificial lures rigged with a J hook and natural baits rigged with a circle hook, they can be ready for anything .
Setting the Hook
"Fishing with circle hooks is technique sensitive," Neill says, explaining that getting the hook into the corner of the fish's mouth is the hardest part of the process. "First, you have to beat the fish to the bait."
Neill stresses that requires paying close attention.
When a marlin arrives behind a bait, Neill grabs the rod, keeps the tip high and waits for the fish to strike. (1) At the first bump, he drops the rod tip toward the fish, dumps the reel into free-spool and lets the fish have it. "Leave the clicker off, and don't even put your thumb on the spool," he says. "The bait has to fall freely, without any tension."
While the fish is crushing the bait, turning it and swallowing it, Neill counts to five and continues to let out line. (2) When he feels like the marlin has had a chance to eat, he slowly pushes the drag lever forward and lets the line come tight. (3) Keeping the rod tip low, he cranks in line while sweeping the rod to drive the hook home.
Neill points out that the advantages of using circle hooks extend to the fish. "Research shows that circle hooks prevent deep hooking and post-release mortality," he says, "so they're good for the fish too."