September 18, 2016

Full circle

The use of circle hooks in protecting the ecology of fish species was examined. Circle hooks, as traditional tools used in fishing, pose the possibility that the mortality of tagged and released fishes can be reduced. Furthermore, it is speculated that the process can increase catch rates.
Based on an ancient design, circle hooks may help reduce mortality rates on tagged and released fish – and increase catch rates at the same time.

Pez vela!” came the cry from the cockpit of Pelagian as a sailfish, neon-hued from the excitement of the chase, came up behind the boat. The mate scrambled to clear the teaser, and anglers Skip Walton and Ron Hamlin jumped into action.

Hamlin, one of the big game fishing world’s best known captains, and author of the novel Tournament, was first to get a ballyhoo back to the fish as it repeatedly attacked the Soft Head teaser lure. As soon as the mate got the teaser in, the sail turned its attention to the natural bait and crashed it.


After a few seconds of “dropback,” during which Hamlin let the spool spin freely to enable the sail to take the bait completely inside its bony mouth (and maybe even swallow it completely), he engaged the drag. He did not, however, make any attempt to set the hook by pulling on the rod or in any way “striking” the fish. He merely wound the reel slowly until the line came tight and a wildly leaping Pacific sailfish split the surface.

A jumping sail fish behind a sportfishing boat is a scene which is repeated thousands of times every year on the Pacific coast from Panama to Mexico, but this time there was a difference. Hamlin’s busman’s holiday to accompany Walton and myself on board Capt. Bud Gramer’s lovely 37-foot Rybovich had a mission. We were experimenting with a strange style of fish hook which makes it almost impossible to hook a fish in the stomach or deep in the throat or gills.

The circle hook has in recent months become the hottest topic of conversation in sportfishing magazines and on the docks and in the bars along the waterfront. The largest impetus to using the ancient hook pattern came from the discovery of huge numbers of bluefin tuna off the coast of North Carolina.

Except for a very limited quota of large, medium – and a few “trophy” – giant tuna this has strictly been a tag and release fishery. Large bluefin tuna are the most valuable fish in the world, with single fish selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Consequently, there was an enormous hue and cry over the possible mortality of fish being tagged and released during a season of total closure to commercial landings.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent doing research and stock assessment on bluefins and one result has been information that, while not yet conclusive, suggests an infinitesimal death rate for tagged and released fish when caught on circle hooks-even with a fishing style that allows the tuna to completely swallow the bait.

Tarpon, red drum, snapper, grouper, striped bass and snook are additional species that have been successfully caught on circle hooks. For several years, the hottest “secret weapon” of tarpon tournaments around the Gulf of Mexico has been the circle hook with either natural bait or lead-headed, soft plastic, wiggle-tail jigs.

During discussions with Stanford University scientists Dr. Barbara Block and Dr. Heidi Dewar during last winter’s tuna research, we all expressed concern over the higher mortality rates we felt occured with billfish when they were gut-hooked with natural baits, expecially with live bait. Their experiments with sonically tagged and monitored marlin in Hawaiian waters had led them to reject fish caught on live baits as suitable subjects for implanting high-tech archival and satellite pop-up tags, like the ones we had been using in Cape Hatteras. Only fish hooked in the mouth with artificial trolling lures would be used to carry the expensive and hard-to-obtain tags.

Research benefits

We agreed that none of us was aware of any use of the fish-kindly circle hooks for tag and release sportfishing for billfish. But, if they worked, it would be of enormous benefit to both their research and conservation in general. “What do you think it would cost to put together a project to see if circle hooks would work on billfish?” Dr. Dewar asked.

I replied that with marlin it would be prohibitively expensive for scientists to charter boats for enough time to get statistically significant results. But, with sailfish in a hotspot like Mexico, Guatemala, or Costa Rica, we could get some idea of the prospects pretty quickly. “‘Let me make a couple of phone calls. I might be able to organize something,” I said.

“Are you fishing in Mexico, Central America, or any place with a hot sailfish bite in the next few weeks?” I asked Skip Walton on the phone later that evening.

An avid angler and staunch conservationist, Walton told me that he was indeed doing a fundraising tournament in Guatemala for the National Coalition for Marine Conservation in late April. We quickly arranged for me to join them and for Walton and me to fish for a couple of days after the competition. We would then work to see if we could figure out how to rig baits and what size hooks to use. He had some qualms about our chances of success, given the odd shape and bony structure of sailfish and marlin jaws, but agreed it would be of enormous benefit if we could pull it off.

Bobby Jones, a member of the Board of Directors of The Bill fish Foundation and general manager of Offshore Angler, provided a range of sizes of Mustad 39960ST circle hooks. Most experts agree that the shorter the fight time and the less the fish is handled, the better the chance of a tagged and released fish surviving. We held each of the four sails we caught on circle hooks by the bill long enough to inspect closely the site of the hook’s attachment. In three out of four, the hook was in the corner of the jaw (as we had come to expect in the vast majority of captures of tuna and other species). The fourth had. caught around the bony lower jaw and done minimal damage to the fish’s mouth. All four were taken with dead ballyhoo bait with the hook sewn, externally, to the fish’s head. Two sails jumped off, and we missed several others with more conventional rigs where the circle hooks were sewn inside the bait fish’s belly cavity.

Highest mortality

Other than acquiring suitable subjects for high-tech tagging research, the biggest impact from our results will probably come if the circle hook finds acceptance with the live bait anglers in southeast Florida. According to NCMC president Ken Hinman, this is the only billfish fishery where the highest mortality might be attributed to sport fishing rather than commercial fishing – and it is almost entirely a release fishery.

Goggle eyes and tinker mackerel are so prized as bait that during the height of the Palm Beach sailfish season in January and February, a dozen live baits can fetch up to $100. Fished from an outrigger or a kite, the tempting little fish are quickly swallowed by a hungry sail. There are no reliable statistics on the mortality of deeply hooked billfish and the overall recapture rate of sails and marlin is so low that anyone’s guess as to survival rates is strictly an unsubstantiated guess.

Unlike conventional hooks, even if a sail or marlin does swallow the bait completely, the unusual but efficient circle hook will hook the fish in the jaw without damaging vital internal organs. Since many anglers deliberately shorten up their dropback in order to avoid hooking billfish deeply with conventional hooks, a long dropback with a circle hook might not only lessen mortality but also lead to a higher total catch rate.

Ken Hinman, also the editor of the NCMC Marine Bulletin, asked my opinion of the effect of tag and release competitions for billfish. We both agreed that if a competitor became overzealous and the release count became more important than the welfare of the fish being tagged and released, the mortality rate of released fish could skyrocket, an obviously undesirable result.

We both particularly deplored the practice of having a mate roughly jerk the leader to break off a tagged fish just to save the time, or cut the leader, if the hook was too deeply swallowed. Unfortunately, some of the clubs and resorts advertise their outstanding fishing heavily, bombarding international anglers with accounts of huge numbers of fish released and not boated (except for photo opportunities). They are the worst practioners of what is really a hypocritical and non-conservation practice.

Lots to learn

Once again, by having all the fish jaw-hooked by circle hooks, a large percentage of the mortality caused by rough handling could be eliminated.

We still have a lot to learn. With artificial lures and on fly tackle there may be no advantage to circle hooks. Rick Ogle, Ron Hamlin, and Bud Gramer, all outstanding captains, are going to continue to experiment with circle hooks in their sail fish hot spots, so we hope to have some new bait rigs and statistics on hook sizes to report in the near future.

When the results from the archival and pop-up satellite tags come in, we’ll be better equipped to manage and conserve our tuna and billfish populations. Stay tuned.

For more information, call: (417) 873-5645.


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