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June 04, 2013

Tie Flies with Circle Hooks

Fly-friendly designs bring circle hooks to a vice near you.

It was more than 20 years ago that I first saw a picture of a circle hook. They weren't new then either, but perhaps no one on the East Coast had previously bothered to put them in a catalog or on a store shelf for fear the hooks would meet with the same reaction I had to them. What a curious-looking contraption! Here was a hook, I thought, that couldn't possibly catch anything. The shank started its bend shortly after it left the eye, and it continued in a sweeping arc until it formed a complete circle. The point of the hook actually headed somewhat backward, so it appeared that a pull on the line would be more likely to extract it then set it. And besides, the gap between the point and the shank was so tight that I couldn't see any way to bait the thing. Instead of giving them a try, I wrote them off as gimmicks and ordered another year's supply of the ultra-wide-bend siwash hooks that were my favorites for live-lining herring and menhaden for stripers. Little did I realize that the circular design of these hooks would have important conservation ramifications for fly-fishers.

Had I then given circle hooks a try I might have saved the lives of more than a few jumbo bass. Many of those 35- to 60-pound stripers that I caught while baitfishing simply inhaled foot-long bunker, and on more than one occasion I stuck my hand far down into the fish's gullet to pluck out a hook. I don't remember any stripers that didn't swim away, but at best it was a rough experience for them. And studies have now proven that conventional J-hook baitfishing is one cause of elevated mortality in hook-and-release fisheries.

Many fly-fishermen maintain that simply fishing with flies eliminates hooking mortality. They are wrong. Although artificials certainly do less damage to fish than a deeply injested live bait, there are still things we can and should do to improve the chances of a successful recovery for the fish we release. Using cirlce hooks for species that swallow their prey whole provides a great opportunity to improve this recovery rate. A striped bass is a perfect example. Stripers inhale smaller baitfish such as sand eels and spearing, and conventional J-hooks frequently catch bass in the gullet or gills. These deep, internal injuries are sometimes fatal whether or not the hook is left in the fish.

A few years back one of the knowledgeable striper guides on Maine's Kennebec River started live-baiting with circle hooks, and his positive experiences motivated me to try tying flies on circle hooks. At that time, though, almost all circle hooks were constructed with very heavy wire and a short shank that made them hard to work with. I started bending the venerable 7766 Mustad into what I termed "circle-bent" hooks. They worked well, but it is difficult to keep the bends consistent, and the process no doubt weakens the hook. Many that I attempted started to bend open after only a few moderate fish, and a fair percentage of the stainless hooks I experimented with simply broke when I tried to modify them.

During the past few years, up and down the coast other fly-fishermen were also experimenting with circle hooks. And some of them such as Mustad's Jeff Pierce were in a position to influence the development of new, factory-made designs. Thus, even though I believe we are still in the early stages of development, some models are available that either lend themselves better to fly-tying or are completely designed with that purpose in mind. I contacted most of the major manufacturers, and here's what I found.

The more or less conventional circle hooks now come with a much wider gap than found on earlier commercial bait hook designs. Most anglers welcome this change because they believe the gap in the original circle hook designs was too small to consistently hook fish on artificial lures or flies that fish likely won't take as deeply into their mouths as stationary bait. An angler's strike, they feel, can pull the hook out before it can set properly in the corner of the fish's mouth. It's hard to say just how accurate this opinion is, but a little more gap can't hurt, especially since you're going to fill some of it with fly-tying materials.

The new wide-gap circle hooks are also manufactured with a much lighter wire than that used in initial circle hook designs. Circle hooks were originally made for longline fishing for halibut. With the unyielding gear of a longline, the heavy wire is necessary to prevent these huge fish from simply bending the hook straight out. The lighter wire used in the new circle hooks is similar in size to that used in manufacturing most J-hooks that we commonly tie flies on.

During recent seasons I caught a fair number of species, including stripers, blues, bonito, albies, Atlantic mackerel, black sea bass and a number of freshwater species, on wide-gap circle hooks. The major drawback is that the short shanks give you limited space on which to attach fly-tying material. Still, they work well on many types of short and moderate-length fly designs.

One remaining problem is that many of these new light-wire, wide-gap hooks are designed with an offset, i.e., the point of the hook is not parallel with the shank. To a great degree the offset point destroys the conservation benefits of the hook since that exposed point will more frequently catch inside the fish than will a standard circle design. For this reason the West Coast U.S. salmon fishery now requires nonoffset circle hooks to be used exclusively - a rule we should adopt in the East Coast striped bass fishery. A spokesman for Daiichi reports that the company has reduced the offset on its hooks to 2 degrees, and, in fact, is phasing it out completely because of the conservation issues at hand. Most of the other Japanese hook makers do not offer nonoffset circle hooks.