Tie Flies with Circle Hooks

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

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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.

Some light-wire circle hooks that I have bent to remove the offset have fished well for me. You can forget it on the larger sizes, though. Even the relatively thin wire of a circle hook such as the Gamakatsu 2/0 Octopus is difficult and a bit unnerving to bend. These are very high-quality hooks, and bending the wire requires a lot of pressure. You constantly feel the thing will let go with a snap, sending a piece of metal hurtling toward your face. Besides, you'd need an industrial vise and 4 feet of pipe to bend a 5/0 circle hook.

Another issue with most of these hooks is the black nickel or black pearl finish. Durability has improved somewhat, but these hooks don't compare with stainless or even a protective layer like Eagle Claw's Sea Guard finish with Teflon. Eagle Claw says that its Teflon-coated finish will last four times as long in the salt as its black pearl finish.

So why doesn't everyone just make these hooks in stainless? According to the manufacturers, price is the issue. But I predict that the upcoming success of the few stainless circle hooks available will motivate others to add stainless to their lines. Almost all of the major fly hook manufacturers offer conventional J-hook styles in stainless, and circle hooks will follow once the demand is there.

Fortunately, Mustad and Eagle Claw both offer wide-bend, nonoffset circle hooks that lend themselves quite nicely to fly tying. Mustad's 39951BLN Ultra Point Demon has a straight eye that is generally favored by saltwater tiers over the upturned eyes found on many bait hooks. When a fly is stripped in, an up- or down-turned eye causes the fly to jerk or tilt opposite the direction in which the eye is bent. This may or may not add to the fly's appeal, but most fly tiers prefer a straight eye - parallel to the hook shank - because it gives the fly a more natural action when stripped.

Also available are Eagle Claw NT2052FS and NT2050FS Lazer Sharp Circle Sea models with nickel Teflon finishes. The company refers to the hooks as "circle fly." The 2052 ranges in size from 1/0 to 5/0 and the 2050 from #18 to #1. Catalog illustrations of the two hooks indicate a slightly different design - the 2052 has a wider gap, perhaps to accommodate the smaller sizes. Samples from packages Eagle Claw sent me, though, appeared to have the same design. In any case, either model should do the trick, and #18 through 5/0 is an impressive range of sizes.

Another option is Mustad's C71S SS, which it calls a circle streamer. Developed by Mustad's Pierce, an avid saltwater fly-fisherman, it has similar proportions to the company's popular 34007 stainless J-hook - 2X heavy wire and 1X long wire. But unlike the 34007, the circle streamer has a true circle hook bend that directs the point at a right angle to the hook shank. The circle streamer is available from #10 up to a 1/0 with a 3/0 promised later this summer and a 5/0 slated for 2002. Because of its moderately long shank, this one probably fits the widest variety of saltwater fly patterns. For the 2001 season I'm tying some of my smaller patterns on the shorter shanked, wide-gap circle hooks, but I'm going to use the C71S SS for Deceivers and fur-strips where I want a longer length of straight shank to tie on.

To achieve conservation benefits a hook must be designed so that its point is inside of a line drawn from the eye to the outside of the bend. Such a hook usually will slide harmlessly out of a fish's gullet and mouth until it turns the corner and embeds in the lip. Although the popular Varivas 994S doesn't meet that criteria - it lacks a bend that is extreme enough to be called a circle hook - it nevertheless is a design worth considering. This stainless-steel hook has a deep, round pocket for holding power and a wickedly sharp conical point, which slopes in toward the shank. I point out this hook because it is representative of a class of hooks that is better than a standard J-hook for fisheries that might not call for a circle hook. Toothy fish such as bluefish, bonito or barracuda that don't tend to swallow a whole baitfish the way a striper or redfish does can be approached with these middle-of-the-road hook designs. These hooks also present the additional benefit of having a moderately long shank for the fish to chew on instead of your tippet.

Even though some circle or "circlesque" fly hooks are being made, they're not necessarily readily available. I checked a number of catalog companies and found no one promoting or, for that matter, even carrying these products. I know that many of the better fly shops near salt water already have some of these hooks in stock, and I'm sure that the catalogs will jump on the bandwagon soon. Maybe we'll even start to see more commercially tied flies with circle hooks. Anyway, every one of the major hook manufacturers has a Web site that should be able to identify a retail source near you.

So if I've succeeded in motivating you to try circle hooks, is there anything special to be aware of regarding the fishing techniques that work best with them? Perhaps you've heard live-bait fishermen discuss the need to let the fish swim off and hook itself. This might be true with extremely small-gap hooks, but my experience with both circle hooks and my old circle-bent hooks has been that you don't need to do anything unusual to achieve a high hookup ratio. I just strip along and set the hook in the standard manner. And I routinely use these hooks on toothy species like bonito and bluefish.

If you use circle hooks you will find that you land a much higher percentage of the fish you hook and that nearly all of them will be hooked safely and securely in the lip. You get the pleasure of landing more fish, and knowing that you're doing the right thing for the resource. And that's a combination that adds to the already substantial pleasures of saltwater fly-fishing.