Circle the Wagons

With new circle-hook rules, billfish anglers are racing to find a working rig. Here's one captain's promising solution.

CORNERED: Anglers are learning to use circle hooks thanks to new regulations.

Richard Gibson

Big-game anglers who deploy natural baits in billfish tournaments have been scrambling since New Year’s Day.

That’s when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began requiring the use of non-offset circle hooks with natural baits for all billfish tournaments. Purely artificial lures are exempt. But anglers who fish lure-and-bait combos have been freaking out.

Captain Greg Bogdan is taking a reasoned approach, and he thinks he has just the ticket for blue marlin under these new rules. This popular light-tackle guide works out of Palm Beach and spends his summer and fall fishing big-game tournaments from the Bahamas to New Jersey. For marlin tournaments, he will deploy this new rig when he’s towing Ilander lures in conjunction with horse ballyhoo. By putting the circle hook out in front of the lure and bait, nothing will interfere with it as it catches in the corner of the marlin’s mouth. While Bogdan hasn’t personally put his new circle-hook rig in the water in front of a marlin yet, his mate fished it in Venezuela-just to experiment. Bogdan acknowledges that only time will tell how effective this setup is in tournament conditions.


The NMFS rule is intended to reduce billfish mortality by cutting the number of deep-hooked or gut-hooked fish, a problem that seems to occur more often with J-hook-rigged natural baits like ballyhoo, mullet, squid and mackerel, and especially during long dropbacks. Anglers have been rigging naked baits with circle hooks and refined their techniques over several seasons. But adding a lure head to the bait is a new ballgame.

Rigged by the Rules
Why not just substitute a circle hook for a J-hook in the standard rig? When a marlin eats a natural bait paired with a lure and rigged with a circle hook behind the lure, the hard lure head could prevent the circle hook from catching in the corner of the fish’s mouth when the line draws tight. The marlin may feel resistance as the lure head presses against its jaw, causing the fish to open wide and spit the bait. Or, should the head of the lure force its way between the marlin’s jaws, the resulting gap may also allow the circle hook to exit. Bottom line? Missed fish!

This rig changes the order of things, giving the circle hook the first shot at the jaw of the marlin. The rig’s components include an inline Gamakatsu 11/0 Big Eye Circle Hook, several inches of 15-pound monel (or similar rigging wire), Nicopress crimp sleeves, a large-diameter 3/4-ounce sinker, 15 inches of 200-pound-test monofilament, an Ilander (or similar) lure, a horse ballyhoo and a 400-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon leader. Here’s how it’s done:


1) Crimp the 11/0 circle hook to the 400-pound leader, and set it aside. Create a monofilament “trailer” by taking the 15 inches of 200-pound mono and sliding the egg sinker and sleeve onto one end. Holding the sinker and sleeve near one end of the mono, loop the line and pass its tag end back through the sinker and sleeve. Make the loop large enough to slide over the bait’s head and crimp the sleeve.

2) Slip the trailer loop over the ballyhoo’s head and back behind its gill plates. Secure the monel wire to the trailer loop by wrapping it around the mono between the sinker and the crimp and giving it a twist. Push the opposite end of the wire up through both jaws of the bait. Pull the leader tight to snug the loop behind the gill plates and position the sinker under the chin of the bait, and then take two firm wraps with the wire around the bait’s head and the sinker.

3) Next run the monel wire through the ballyhoo’s eyes, making two complete wraps around the head and both sides of the sinker. Finish by taking firm wraps down the base of the beak and a couple tight wraps around the mono.


4) Slide the Ilander onto the lead end of the monofilament trailer, add a crimp sleeve and form a small loop at the end of the trailer by passing the mono tag end back through the sleeve. Position the loop so that it sits just in front of the Ilander. Make sure the loop opening in the mono trailer is aligned with the base of the bait’s beak. Take the loop of the mono trailer and slip it onto the circle hook. Cinch the trailer loop to the bend of the hook tightly enough to prevent the lure and bait from slipping off, but not so tightly that it binds. Crimp the connection and trim the tag end and you’re all set.

5) The completed rig. To save rigging time on the fishing grounds, fabricate several of these Ilander-and-bait combo trailers in advance and brine them in a cooler. You can crimp the lead loop on each trailer, but be sure you leave it large enough to work onto and over the point and barb of the circle hook. To replace a damaged bait but use the same hook and leader, simply remove the old trailer and slip a new lure-bait combo onto the circle hook.

This circle-hook Ilander-and-ballyhoo combo can be fished from an outrigger or on a flat line. Either way, the circle hook makes the marlin responsible for the hookset.


Expect to see a lot of new rigging techniques this season, as anglers try to get a handle on this new challenge. These setups have seen very little soak time since the ruling, and no one knows just how efficient they will be. The rig is a good starting point, but tweaks may present themselves as the tournament season progresses, and competition inspires creativity. If all goes according to plan, the rule-and the rig-will result in more healthy releases.

Come Full Circle When the moment of truth comes and a marlin is in the mix, the circle hook will serve you well. Use the circle-hook Ilander-and-ballyhoo combo to your advantage to drive the hook home. Set the drag at about ten percent of the rated breaking strength of the fishing line, and crank it up to nearly 25 percent at full strike. For example: With 50-pound line, set the trolling drag at five pounds once your lines are in position, and 12 pounds at full strike. Leave the reel clicker on. Here’s how the hit-and the hookset-break down. – G.P.
1) A marlin hits the bait, either piling on a flat-line bait or popping the fishing line from the outrigger clip. Allow the line to be pulled off the reel as necessary. Preventing a catastrophic backlash, the light drag setting lets the marlin take the bait without sensing much resistance-it feels natural. The fish should manipulate the bait in its mouth-crushing it, turning it and swallowing it headfirst-without feeling the distracting pressure of the hook point.
2) When you feel the marlin has really got a good handle on the bait-usually when the marlin turns and swims away with it, pulling line off the reel at a fast clip-advance the drag to “strike.” With the heavier drag, the rod will bend over and the line will be pulled through the corner of the marlin’s jaw as it swims, allowing the circle hook to set.
3) Now the marlin will feel the hook and know something is up. It will race off, taking line at an incredible pace. Now, with the hook set properly, you can put the heat to the marlin. Let the fight begin.