Hooked For Life

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it should come as no surprise that state and federal regulations in the Gulf of Mexico require all recreational anglers targeting reef fish with the use of live or natural bait to fish with circle hooks. This rule went into effect on June 1, 2008, and affects all species of grouper, snapper, amberjack, triggerfish, porgy, seabass, hogfish and tilefish. What may be news to you is that as of March 3, 2011, the use of circle-hooks for reef fishing also became law along the Eastern Seaboard in South Atlantic federal waters north of 28° latitude (near Melbourne).


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The Atlantic circle-hook requirement was implemented through the final rule for Amendment 17A to the Fishery Management Plan for the South Atlantic Snapper/Grouper Fishery, which was published by NOAA Fisheries Service on December 9, 2010. The effective date of the circle-hook requirement was delayed for 90 days after publication of the final rule to allow adequate time for participants to obtain the required gear. It’s now in full effect.

Along with reef-related species, circle-hooks work equally well on snook, redfish, trout, bonefish, permit...

Law or not, the proper use of circle-hooks comes with many benefits, including reduced bycatch mortality of incidentally caught red snapper, short red grouper and other non-targeted reef fish species. And while recreational anglers have been reaping the benefits of these simple innovations for a few years, commercial fishing fleets have been using circle-hooks for tuna and swordfish since the 1960s for their shear fish-catching abilities.

Contrary to what you may think, if you are not already a firm believer, circle-hooks provide an exceptional hook up ratio—often over 95%. Women, kids and novice anglers enjoy circle-hooks because they do not require much effort to achieve a solid connection, and a baited rod left unattended in a rod holder can still achieve a respectable level of success. Experienced bottom fishermen, too, rave over circle-hooks claiming they get snagged in reef or rubble far less than with traditional J hooks.

Along with reef-related species, circle-hooks work equally well on snook, redfish, trout, bonefish, permit…really any inshore and near-coastal species. Circle-hooks are also extremely effective on dolphin, tuna and sailfish. Pelagic predators are notorious for grabbing baits on the run…a perfect scenario for solid hooksets right in the corner of the mouth.

One benefit that is often overlooked that I firmly believe stands out with circle-hooks is the ability to downsize your terminal tackle. With the hook lodged in the corner of the fish’s mouth, your leader is generally clear of the fish’s teeth. In my book, lighter leaders translate into stealthier presentations and often result in an increased number of strikes.

As far as rigging options, everything from live shrimp to fresh chunk bait to swimming ballyhoo can effectively be presented on a circle-hook. Rather than hiding the majority of the hook like you would with traditional J hooks, the more of the circle-hook that is exposed the better. And whatever you do, avoid impaling a circle-hook in any hard bony material that may prevent the hook from turning in a fish’s mouth and finding a solid home.

When it comes to setting the hook, there is only one thing you need to remember. Do not set the hook! Instead, when a solid strike is detected, point the rod tip at the fish and slowly reel in any remaining slack line until the hook sets itself. At the point you come tight and drag starts peeling off the reel, slowly lift your rod tip and start fighting the fish. This requires anglers to fish with patience and restraint—patience to make sure the fish has had time to inhale the entire bait, dead or alive, and restraint in the initial urge to heave back and set the hook.

So there you have it. Circle-hooks work for fish and fishermen. The results are stronger fish that are not gut hooked for sportier fights and healthier releases, with the added bonus of hooking and landing more fish than ever before. If you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to replace every J hook in your tackle bag with an equivalent sized circle-hook. The benefits are clear and easy to see.

Conservation Corner

An offset circle-hook means the point of the hook has been angled sideways, away from the shank. Studies prove the greater the degree of offset, the greater the chance of fatally injuring a hooked fish. In Florida state waters, the use of offset circle-hooks is not allowed in the Gulf of Mexico, nor are they permitted when fishing sailfish tournaments. Offset circle-hooks are permitted when fishing for reef fish in federal waters beyond the state line, but their use is highly discouraged.