Barbed or Barbless, That is the Question
By Bob Randall on Sunday, June 26th, 2022 in Fishing Wisdom, No Comments
Fishing Barbless or Barbed:
You may not hear much discussion of this idea unless you’re a fly fisher. Some of us are pretty snooty when it comes to our sport, equipment, techniques, and most of all, favorite fishing spots. If you are a spin cast fisher who has an opinion, I have to warn you that I am one of the snooty kind who looks down on you because of your fishing choices. Not long ago a fly-fishing friend of mine made a post on his Facebook page about barbless or smashed barb hooks (many of us will use pliers to smash the barb of a barbed hook flat so that it doesn’t protrude). He received many comments back from anglers who advocate for barbed hooks. Some of them were more than a little rude. It seems I am not the only snooty one.
There have been several scientific studies concerning fish mortality after catching. It showed that hooks generally will fall out after a few hours or days without serious damage so long as there is no deep embedding of the hook into the back of the mouth, gills, tongue, etc. I had heard of some of that research prior to my friend’s FB posting. So, hooks that are set in the lips aren’t likely to cause serious damage to the fish. In reality, it is often the way you handle the fish when caught that makes more difference in the mortality rate. I once observed an angler catch a trout. He held it out of the water while he searched his bag for a camera, fumbled around and finally got the photo, only to put the camera away before releasing the trout. I’m sure the trout died. I can’t hold my breath that long after running around the house three times. I have yelled at other anglers to keep the gills wet. I should have said something to that guy.
There is no reason to discuss pain as I know of no way to measure that sensation and the conventional wisdom is that fish don’t have any sensitivity in the lip section of the mouth. I have no way to know. If you are thinking that the fish’s reaction during the thrill of the fight is all you need to know about pain, you should consider the natural escape reaction when the fish realizes that its food is fighting back. I have had fish take the bait/lure and seemingly not react with any fight until I begin to tug on my end and the fish feels the resistance. My hypothesis of pain is that the sensitivity is deeper inside the mouth. I have had my lure/fly spat out many times after the fish experimentally tests it to see what might be food. I could be wrong if taste is the only criteria that fish react to, however, I think texture, hardness, and other features play into this. Again, that is only a hypothesis, not a theory. I suspect the tongue, gills, esophagus, etc. may have more sensitivity than the hard “lippy parts”.
I can speak to pain in my own fingers and once in the side of my hand. One was a rather large, barbed hook that was a revenge impalement inflicted by a fish my grandson had just caught. I was trying to free the hook so that we could release the fish. The fish flipped just as the hook was freed and hit the fishing line. That pulled the hook deeply into my thumb. Fortunately, there is a hook removal technique I knew of and had been eager to try. I had only hoped to try it out on someone else’s finger. It worked but was moderately painful. Even so, it was a better technique than using pliers. Another personal incident took place at Bennett Spring State Park. I noticed a nearby angler who was having success and as is common with fly fishers, I asked him what kind of fly he was using. He told me and actually gave me a spare. That is also common. I have given many flies away and have received many, as well. It was a size 28 dry fly (for those of you on whom I look down because you don’t know what I mean by a size 28 hook, the vernacular for you is teeny-tiny). It became impaled into the side of my hand. I knew that it was a barbed hook, but I couldn’t imagine that such a small barb could do much damage. I yanked it out with pain, blood, and a few bad words. Nevertheless, I went on to fish with that fly, thinking that a little blood might attract the predators I was preying on. More on hook removal is here: Debarb Your Hook – Missouri Trout Fisherman’s Association – Springfield Chapter (mtfa-springfield.org) Let me warn you it is graphic and will make you cringe.
Although, I have read many posts and watched many videos of experts who claim that a barbless hook loses no more fish than a barbed hook, I have not experienced that phenomenon. I was fishing with a friend who was hooking as many fish as I was, but he landed his and mind got off. I knew he never fished barbless, so I switched to a barbed hook and began netting my catches. Just last week, I fished with the same fellow and he gave me a fly he had recently tied. I caught and landed several fish and found the hook removal to be more difficult than my normal effort. I switched to one of my own flies for reasons not connected to the barb. Using my barbless hook, I caught a nicer fish, the best of the day. I saw him once near the surface of the water, he lept into the air and spat out my barbless hook. I was going to release him anyway, so I declared that it was a mid-stream release and rejoiced at having had the experience at all.
Tomorrow, I am taking my grandson fishing. Although, he has had a fly rod in his hand a few times, we will be using a spinning rod because of the circumstance of the fishing location. If you ever tell anyone that I fish with a spinning rod, I will deny it and our friendship will suffer grievous harm.
Hook Retention in Northern Pike Study – Missouri Trout Fisherman’s Association – Springfield Chapter (mtfa-springfield.org)
Catch, Release, Dead – Missouri Trout Fisherman’s Association – Springfield Chapter (mtfa-springfield.org)