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Catch More and Injure Fewer with Circle Hooks

Research shows that circle hooks are more effective and safer on nearly every fish species.

Catch More and Injure Fewer with Circle Hooks
Circle hooks aren't new to anglers; but they're relatively new to fly fishers. Between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago, they were made from bone, stone, and other things. (Lefty Kreh photo)

This article was originally titled "Circle Hooks" in the March 2002 issue of Fly Fisherman. 


Captain Dan Marini motored slowly out of Chatham, Massachusetts, toward some of his favorite striped bass waters. In the boat with me was Ed Jaworowski. Dan saw me rigging a circle-hook fly to the leader tippet. Very respectfully, Dan wondered if I should be using it, since he had hoped we would really do well with the bass. I quietly asked him if he would object if I used it and he politely agreed, but you could see the doubt he harbored. Thirty-two stripers later, he was convinced. Every one of the fish had been hooked in the outside edge of the mouth.

Circle hooks are certainly not new. Between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago, they were made from stone, whale teeth, bone, and shells. Long-line commercial fishermen were the first modern fishermen to use them. They increased the hook-up rate, and the fish, once hooked, simply didn't get off. Commercial fishermen also found that circle hooks reduced gill- or gut-hook mortality, so most of the fish were alive after spending a night or longer hooked. Sport fishermen first used circle hooks for halibut; then tarpon bait fishermen found that they drastically increased hook-ups and landing.

Circle hooks are not J-hooks, which have a reduced curve. Fish are sometimes gill-hooked with a J-hook, but circle hooks almost always catch the fish in the side of the mouth. Because of the circle hook's curve, a hooked fish has little chance of escaping unless the leader breaks.

To determine how well circle hooks work, I enlisted a number of fly fishers from New England, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, and several other areas to fish them over an 18-month period and report their findings. I also fished them in several foreign countries as well as across the United States. In all that fishing, I did not have a fish hooked deeply.

Circle hooks are not going to revolutionize fly fishing because J-hooks, for the most part, do a good job for a wide range of situations. Circle hooks do have a few specific benefits that more fly anglers should explore, and they may solve some problems encountered when fishing for certain species.

A selection of flies on a blue background.
Clousers, Deceivers, and Whistlers using circle hooks work for many saltwater species such as bonefish and striped bass.

How a Circle Hook Works

The best way of understanding how a circle hook works is to take a #4/0 or #2/0 circle hook and tie a piece of heavy monofilament to it. Place the hook in your lightly clenched hand and gently pull the hook straight out. It comes out easily without hooking your hand.

If, while the hook is in your hand, you turn your hand (as a fish's mouth would turn), the circle hook will catch the corner of your hand. (Debarb the hook before doing the experiment and be careful.)

A safer way of envisioning how a circle hook works is to hold a quarter upright between your thumb and first finger. Imagine that the fish has just taken the fly (represented by the coin that is standing on edge) and you yank on the coin. The coin will slide out of your fingers. But, if the thumb and first finger are forced toward each other (as would a fish's jaws as they close on your fly), the coin (or fly) will turn sideways and catch a corner of the fish's mouth as it is dragged out.

The mouth of a smallmouth bass with a circle hook in its lip.
Fish are sometimes gill-hooked with a J-hook, but circle hooks almost always catch the fish in the side of the mouth. Because of the circle hook's curve, a hooked fish has little chance of escaping. That's why all circle hooks should be barbless or debarbed before fishing. (Lefty Kreh photo)

Fishing Circle Hooks

When using circle hooks, let the fish set the hook for you and follow with a gentle strip strike to tighten your line on the fish. Some experienced fly fishers do not like circle hooks for two reasons. They were too prone to set the hook immediately, and they missed the thrill of feeling the fish take the fly and then the excitement of driving the hook home. For sight-fishing situations, anglers must teach themselves not to set the hook when they see the fish strike. Circle hooks have advantages when you blind-fish or fish for species that give you no time to respond to the take (fast­swimming false albacore or bonito, for example).

Match the size of the circle hook to the fish you seek. If the hook is too small, it will often slip out of the fish's mouth; if the hook is too large, it will sometimes gill-hook the fish.

When you hook a large fish on a circle hook, you should fight them more gently because the hook is impaled in the softer flesh of the jaw and can tear free easily.

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A Hook for All Species

I can't think of a fish species that circle hooks aren't effective on. Almost everyone who helped me test the circle hooks commented on the absence of gut hooking with all species.

I fished with Dr. Mark Lamos, a cherished fishing buddy, at Andros Island last year for bonefish. I asked Mark if he would use circle hooks and he agreed. We had 18 bonefish positively take the fly. We missed only two fish, and when I checked I found the points had dulled on the freshwater hooks we were using. I am sure that had we used hooks with sharp points, we would have landed all 18 bonefish. That exceeds the average bonefish caught per take.

Circle hooks will drastically increase hook-ups with many bottom-feeding species such as bonefish, redfish, permit, and flounder. I have seen permit suck in a crab and almost instantaneously crush it and expel the shell. And I have seen permit pick up a crab fly and eject it before the fisherman was aware of the take, missing the strike. I have only caught one permit with a circle-hook fly, but that fish was hooked solidly in the side of its mouth.

A bonefish with a fly with a circle hook in its jaw.
The author and a friend stuck 18 out of 20 bonefish on a fly tied on a circle hook. (Lefty Kreh photo)

In my experience and those who helped me test circle hooks, fast-swimming fish such as albacore and bonito consistently hooked themselves before the angler realized the fish had taken the fly. Circle hooks will prevent salmon, billfish, tarpon, and many other leaping species from throwing the fly when they jump. Anglers miss many strikes with northern pike, especially if the pattern rides with the hook up, such as a bendback or a Clouser-type fly because a pike's upper mouth is filled with bone and teeth, making it difficult for the hook to penetrate. But I recently fished with circle hooks at North Seal River Lodge, Manitoba, where we caught many pike up to 42 inches long.

Only two fish, both small, were not hooked in the side of the mouth, and neither fish was hooked deeply. The same experience held true for the lake trout we boated.

To aid in hooking a swinging fly in the side of a salmon or steelhead's mouth, experienced anglers learn to drop the rod toward the fish. This puts slack in the line so the fish can suck in the fly and get a better hook in the side of its mouth.

Circle hooks increase your chances of hooking these species in the side of the mouth. Great Lakes anglers have reported that when swinging a fly rapidly through a pod of steelhead or salmon, circle hooks are less likely to snag fish because of the protected hook point.

Trout or steelhead nymphs tied with circle hooks will increase hook-ups, especially when you are fishing deep or blind. Sight-fishing trout fishermen might need to learn to avoid getting edgy and setting the hook, but circle hooks will excel when you are fishing nymphs deep and you can't see the fish to set the hook.

Roger Murphy of Eagle Claw ties trout dry flies on the NT2050 down to an #18 and reports that when fishing riffles in sunny conditions, the self-setting property of the circle hook is an advantage when he can't see his fly. Circle hooks are not good for popping bugs, however, because when fish take the fly, the large foam or deer­ hair body prevents the circle hook from working.

In addition to being particularly good for several species, circle hooks have condition-specific uses that more fly fishers should explore.

The head of a mutton snapper with a fly with a circle hook in its jaw.
As soon as this flats feeding mutton snapper grabbed the fly and turned, there was no way he was getting off. The key with circle hooks, and the reason most experienced fishermen dislike them at first, is that you have to let the fish set the hook. (Lefty Kreh photo)

Circle hooks will improve your catch rate when you fish at night, when you fish in strong currents or tides, or when you fish deep where you are often unaware that the fish has taken the fly. Anyone who dead-drifts nymphs or egg patterns should benefit from circle hooks, because the fish will hook itself more often, and less experienced fly fishers will hook up more often.

Because circle hooks have a protected point, the fly catches fewer weeds than standard hooks. You are also less likely to stab yourself on the hook point while tying flies on circle hooks, and more importantly, you can't hook yourself or a friend on a bad cast. Also, surf fishermen who might make the occasional sloppy cast will be less likely to dull their hook points by bashing them into rocks. Nymph fishermen won't have to sharpen their hook points as much, because with J-hooks the fly dulls its point by repeatedly hitting bottom.

Maryland DNR Circle Hook Study

In 1999, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Rudy Lukacovic conducted a striped bass circle-hook study in which anglers caught 476 striped bass with conventional bait hooks and 640 with non-offset circle hooks. The sizes of striped bass caught with bait hooks were similar (16.7 in.; 10.5 to 36.6 in.) to those fish caught with non-offset circle hooks (16.4 in.; 11.4 to 36.3 in.).

According to the report results, the deep­ hooking rate for conventional bait hooks over the course of the entire study was 17.2 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for non-offset circle hooks. Other fishery service studies have documented this noticeable decrease in deep hooking (24 percent for conventional hooks compared with 4 percent for circle hooks in summer of 1996, and 46 percent compared with 11 percent in spring of 1997).

The deep-hooking mortality rate for striped bass caught with conventional bait hooks in this study was 53.1 percent. The deep-hooking mortality rate with non-offset circle hooks was 23.5 percent. Overall, 9.1 percent of the striped bass caught on conventional hooks died, whereas only 0.8 percent of the fish caught on circle hooks died.

Working With Circles

Most circle hooks on the market have relatively short shanks, which limits your fly-tying options. I have found, however, that I can tie a Deceiver or Clouser on at least one model from each manufacturer. To date, only Mustad has designed a long-shank hook (the Circle Streamer) with fly fishermen in mind.

While Eagle Claw has a large selection of circle hooks available (many with fly-tying potential), the Teflon finish on some of their hooks is slippery and hard to tie on. I have found that if you are tying on a Teflon-coated hook such as the NT2050 and NT2052, wrapping a thread base and then coating it with cement helps keep materials from slipping around the hook.

Two flies on a white background.
Streamers tied on circle hooks work too.

The closer the point is to the shank on a circle hook, the harder that hook is to sharpen. For narrow gaps, I use a fingernail file. However, most manufacturers are now opening the circle hooks so they can be sharpened with a standard file, such as a Nicholson Smooth Cut. Sharpen the hook from the point to the bend to eliminate any burrs, and make sure you sharpen the hook on the side opposite the barb.

Some hooks are offset enough to cause the fly to wobble erratically on the retrieve. Having fished circle hooks with and without that feature, I see no advantage to the offset. I have experienced no increase in gill hooking when using offset circle hooks, but Jeff Pierce and Larry Dahlberg have both said that the number of gill- or gut-hooked fish increases proportionately to the amount of offset in a circle hook. To play it safe, choose a hook that is only slightly offset or completely in-line with the hook shank.


Lefty Kreh was a Fly Fisherman editor-at­large and author of several fly-fishing books. He lived in Hunt Valley, Maryland.




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