Barbless benefits

by Tim Allard | June 8, 2023

Four years ago, it finally happened. It was a typical, warm summer day and the smallmouth were chewing on the St. Lawrence River. Smiles all around.

Standing on the bow and chatting with a good friend (who’ll remain nameless), the following unfolds. My friend rapidly retrieves a jerkbait, then sets the hook like an Olympian. A hefty smallmouth goes airborne and shakes free. My boat partner’s rod unloads. Thwack! I feel the smack below my right knee. I glance down and can’t believe my eyes. The jerkbait is hanging from my leg by two treble hook points buried deeply past the barbs. No more smiles. 

Fast forward a couple hours, and I’m leaving the Kemptville Hospital after a successful hook removal. While the staff and care were exceptional, the episode is one I’d prefer not repeating. 

Pinch it off for beginners and kids

Since this mishap, I’ve been using barbless hooks more often. From a safety perspective, it’s not a hard stretch given our family outings have been predominantly barbless from the get-go.

When you give a four-year-old a 5′, 6″ spinning rod, coach them how to cast, and encourage them to fish independently, there is going to be the occasional projectile whizzing closely past bodies (impact-protective sunglasses highly recommended!). Barbless is the way to go for beginners practising casting and learning proper fish handling and hook removal techniques.

Carleton University fish ecology professor Steven Cooke also uses barbless hooks when fishing with his young family. He also encourages students involved in fisheries research to use barbless hooks whenever possible.

“We’re a workplace and we’ve had incidents with hooks in hands,” Cooke said. “Having to go to the hospital is not fun.”

Science on fish stress

There’s been a lot of research on the impacts of hook barbs on fish stress, injury, and mortality in a catch-and-release context. Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters (OFAH) Fisheries Biologist Adam Weir says “there is considerable evidence that caught-and-released fish, when handled appropriately, survive with minimal sub-lethal effects.”

As a scientist and angler, Cooke said he’s increasingly leaning towards the use of barbless hooks as being important to proper fishing handling, especially when fish are stressed. He provided an example of fishing for cold-water species, such as steelhead or Atlantic salmon, from warm water on hot days. Here, using a barbless hook could potentially shave off seconds of air exposure during hook removal. This, in turn, would expedite the fish’s release and potentially have an impact on the post-release survival of a fish pushed to its limits in warm conditions.

Cooke acknowledged there are exceptions and instances where the benefits of barbless hooks are negligible. Assuming an angler is skilled at hook removal, the reduction in fish air exposure achieved with a barbless hook is less significant during cool water temperatures when fish are less stressed. Likewise for the benefits of hook removal with a single-hook, fast-moving lure, like a spinnerbait, as fish are unlikely to swallow the hook as deep compared to the potential to do so with certain finesse presentations.

Cooke also shared the following caveat: using barbless hooks doesn’t give an angler a free pass, so to speak. Proper fish handling and hook removal techniques, along with minimizing air exposure remain critical for reducing injury, stress, and giving fish the best chance of survival. These are critical factors influencing fish mortality, according to fisheries research, and, thus, where OFAH focuses its effort, Weir said.

“The OFAH supports education and outreach efforts that aim to inform anglers on how to minimize the handling time of fish that will be released in order to maximize post-release condition and survival,” Weir wrote. “Changing angler behaviour through education on best handling practices and techniques will do more for conservation than additional barbless hook rules and regulations.”

Landing percentage

Generally, I have great landing ratios with barbless hooks, including my two biggest pike over 40 inches. Unfortunately, (Murphy’s Law) I don’t have a pristine track record when on assignment for a magazine. In these scenarios, using and being around barbed hooks is often a risk I accept to better the chances of catching a photo-worthy fish. And, given this is my job, it means I still use barbed hooks.

Cooke noted he’s likely to opt for a barbed hook when planning to harvest walleye from an area where by-catch is low. I do the same.

When to go barbless

I appreciate the easy-removal benefits of barbless hooks in the close-quarter confines of kayak fishing. Rapid release times are also convenient on lakes filled with cookie-cutter slot walleye. I’ll also probably use barbless hooks on upcoming fly-in and remote camping trips given medical aid will be far away.

A long time, dyed-in-wool barbed hook angler, I’ve recently appreciated the benefits of going barbless for certain scenarios. Experimenting with these two hook options has provided new knowledge and fresh experiences, which are always bonuses on one’s lifelong journey as an angler.

Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS

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