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.
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.
"top fly done by Dave Lindsay a top man on circle hooks!"