Hooking fish on circles

Gamefishing Technique

Last updated 14:41 24/11/2011
Hooking circles1
One of the advantages of circle hooks is that they generally catch in the corner of the marlin's mouth, allowing them to be released in good shape afterwards.
hooking circles2
It is much harder for fish to 'throw' circle hooks, even when they take to the air.
hooking circles3
The writer says since learning to use circle hooks well, his hook-up rate has increased to the point it would be hard to convince him to try anything else.

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Fishermen around the globe are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting hooks.

Whether they’re game fishers, sport fishers or freshwater fishers, discussing a favourite hook for the intended job is never too far from the main topic of conversation.

From a game-fishing standpoint, circle hooks are always my hook of choice whenever bait (live or dead) is used. Their peculiar shape is certainly nothing new; we need only look back at some of the earliest Polynesian archaeological finds carved from wood, bone or stone to realise the innovation of circle hooks lies with our forefathers.

Commercially, circle hooks have been widely used for about a century. Initially the circle design was used on set-lines around reef and coral structure, as they rarely snagged compared to the conventional ‘J’ design, and the hook-up rates were more than acceptable. Also as fish can’t easily throw the hook afterwards – an important advantage, given the long periods the line can be slack when long-lining and deep water bottom-fishing – the design gradually spread throughout the long-lining and drop-lining fleets.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that circle hooks started to grace the game-fishing scene., with Bay of Islands skipper Bruce Martin one of the first to use them on marlin in 1995. A year later circles kicked off in the South American sailfish fisheries. Catching and releasing double-digit numbers of billfish each day is the norm here, and circle hook popularity soon increased due to their excellent hook-up rates and the ability they provide for game fish to be released in good health to fight another day. The latter is due to circles ‘almost always’ hooking fish in a corner of the mouth, and, as a result, the mortality rates of released fish are substantially less. ‘J’ hooks, on the other hand, have no such discrimination, and are more likely to cause mortal injuries to fish if not used with care. In saying this though, it has to be recognised that no matter what you do or what hook you use, sometimes fish will get injured at some stage.

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I personally started using circles about 10 years ago when fishing for big black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef. Initially I wasn’t sold on the idea, generally because, looking back, we were overthinking the whole hook-up process and, as a result, our hook-up rate sucked. With a bit of experience and fine-tuning though, our hook-up rate improved to a point where some strong persuasion would be required to make me use anything else.

When we first started with circles, we gave the fish too long to eat the bait. We’d read and heard that the only way to use these hooks was to wait until you were absolutely sure the fish was swimming away from the boat before easing the drag up slowly, letting the belly of the line do the work and rolling the hook into the corner of the jaw. Sometimes this process took well over 25 seconds, and you really had no idea what the fish was doing during the critical free-spool stage. Basically, this process tries to replicate what happens with set-lines, and I guess the theory behind it is valid, but in a game fishing scenario it certainly didn’t work for us.

What I found is when the bait was swallowed into the stomach region, it actually decreased the hook-up rate rather than improved it, as we’d hoped. Getting that bait and hook back out of the stomach region to find its mark in the corner of the jaw was incredibly difficult, regardless of fish, bait or tackle size. Remembering we’re using 60kg tackle in Oz, it gives you some indication of the drag pressure required to pull the bait and hook from a fish’s stomach.

A dead-set giveaway for a marlin with a bait stored in its stomach is that it simply won’t react, instead sulking a few metres under the surface (sometimes for several minutes), before simply shaking its head and coughing the bait (and hook) clean out.

I find that a lot of fishermen confuse this ‘sulking’ with a solid hook-up. I get it regularly with guests on board Arenui. I’ll recognise a sulking fish and say, “She’s not hooked yet, mate,” and receive some rather puzzled looks from the cockpit in return as they share glances between me and the solid bend in the 24kg stand-up rod. Rarely does the hook find its way to the corner of the jaw in such instances; instead (as mentioned) the fish often gets sick of its stomach cramp and simply coughs it all out.

A cleanly hooked fish, on the other hand, will almost always instantaneously jump, surge off, or give you some sort of positive reaction.

A technique we started in Australia – and one I still regularly use on Arenui – is to push the drag lever right through to full strike upon encountering a ‘sulking’ situation to try and work that hook into the corner of the jaw. It works well, but you have to be ready to back the drag off once the fish starts jumping or surging off in response. Again, remembering full strike on 60kg (130lb) tackle is somewhere around the 30-33kg mark, this gives an idea how hard it can be to get the hook out of a fish’s stomach on occasions.

That’s why circles don’t seem to be overly successful on lighter line classes; 10kg is probably the smallest line class I would use with circles – and even that would be pretty risky. Getting the bait and hook out of the fish’s stomach is nigh on impossible with lighter lines classes.

As for that old chestnut of ‘gunning the boat’ to set the hook, in my humble opinion this does little to help.

After all, you can do 20 knots if you wish, but the pressure applied is still only as much as the reel’s drag allows. (When testing your drag with hand-scales, try pulling line out slowly and then at speed – you’ll soon get the picture!)

Consequently, we’ve reduced our free-spool time quite substantially over the years as we try to eliminate fish getting the bait down too deep. Whether black, blue or striped marlin, three or four seconds is plenty – actually quite a long time when you think of the line stretch involved with monofilament.

With three or four seconds of free-spool, basically you’re giving the fish the opportunity to kill the bait, turn it and start the process of swallowing. While the bait’s still in the mouth or throat region, the drag is increased through to strike. The angler then quickly winds the entire belly up and allows the stretch of the monofilament to set the hook in the corner of the jaw.

Sometimes we end up going a little too early and pull the bait out of the fish’s mouth. This is generally not as bad as it sounds, because we regularly get a second or third bite, as long as we can get the bait skipping or swimming again. In all honesty, I’d rather go too early, pull the bait out, and get a second bite, than free-spool for too long and get into that ‘sulking’ scenario.

It’s all about getting a clean hook-up and watching these great fish perform – that’s what game fishing is to me. (A ‘sulking’ or gut-hooked fish does relatively little – a real shame if there’s a first-time marlin fisher pulling on the rod at the time.)

We try to teach anglers to feel for when the fish stalls or stops during the critical free-spool stage. This ‘stall’ is basically when the fish has killed the bait and has stopped to turn and eat it (usually after three or four seconds). The bait is now in the throat area rather than the stomach, so it’s time to increase the drag, wind in the line belly and attempt to hook the fish in the corner of the jaw.

Probably the most common hook I’ve used in New Zealand is the standard 14/0 Mustad 39960D, as I’ve found it best matches the bait available to us. More recently I was introduced to Mustad’s 39950NP 12/0 circle hooks, ironically by well-known New Zealand lure maker ‘Bonze’ Fleet. I used them sparingly last season, as I only had a few and they weren’t readily available here, but they will be this summer.

These small, chemically sharpened models (endorsed by The Billfish Foundation) are certainly ‘the goods’, as we had absolutely no issues hooking a wide variety of pelagics, from mahimahi and striped marlin through to blue marlin up to 250kg in our waters last season. Because they’re chemically sharpened, they will lose their point over time, but as long as you have a crew paying attention and ensuring sharp hooks are always being used, it’s not an issue.

On board Arenui, switch-baiting striped and blue marlin is our ‘bread and butter’ technique. With the addition of live-baiting around baitfish concentrations, circles are certainly our hooks of choice. Circles have served us well in a charter situation for a number of seasons, due to: a more than acceptable hook-up rate; allowing fish to fight hard and spectacularly; and enabling us to release them in good health afterwards, day in, day out.

As far as I’m concerned, circles offer a win-win scenario for fishermen and fish. I guess those early Polynesian fisherman knew they were onto a good thing, too.

One of the advantages of circle hooks is that they generally catch in the corner of the marlin’s mouth, allowing them to be released in good shape afterwards.
It is much harder for fish to ‘throw’ circle hooks, even when they take to the air.

How would you like to give the techniques described in the above feature a ‘hands on‘ go this summer.

Geoff will be hosting, in conjunction with NZ Fishing News, a series of ‘marlin university’ trips to the Three Kings next year. It includes five days fishing with Geoff Lamond about the 47ft O’Brien Arenui, accompanied by senior magazine writers.

Geoff is a world renowned skipper, and this is an opportunity to learn first hand from the best, rigging and pitching both dead and live baits, wiring marlin and fishing for them on light tackle, including spin rods/reels.

The trip game plan is something like this – the first two-and-a-half days’ will be dedicated to gamefishing (leaving from Houhora), followed by time targeting Three Kings kingfish (poppers and surface baits, as well as jigs) and ‘puka, with a final day’s gamefishing as you head back down the coast. This may vary according to weather and where the fish are.

The all-inclusive cost is $3200 per angler (four fishing) for the five days, and this covers great food, bedding (four single bunks) and all the tackle required. Arenui boasts a huge range of quality tackle for everything from heavy-tackle marlin fishing down to soft-bait sets and saltwater fly outfits.

The first trip has several places left and is set down for March 26-30. It will be accompanied by NZ Fishing News editor Grant Dixon. To book your space contact Grant on (09) 634 9851 or email grant.dixon@fishnz.co.nz

Other trip dates will be announced early in the new year.

- Fishing News

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