Why Barbless Is Best
Posted by Capt. Tom Migdalski on 24th Mar 2023
Care for Your Fish and Yourself with Barbless Hooks
Several years ago, I was diamond jigging a reef off Branford, Connecticut during a late-October slammer bluefish run. The action was white hot, and on each drift over the structure my guest and I each hooked up on a blue in the 10- to 14-pound range. The trip was the highlight of his fishing career; unfortunately, he was primarily a freshwater angler and wasn’t accustomed to battling ornery, toothy blues, so he frequently needed help.
On one drift, I reeled in a 12-pounder and grabbed it behind the head like a snake. Lifting it from the water, I held it firmly over the side to unhook and release the silvery beast. At the same time, however, my friend had horsed a very green fish to the surface, which was flailing next to the boat, his diamond jig pummeling the hull.
During the distraction of coaching him through the wild situation, my fish flopped from my cold grasp and landed on the leader, driving the circle hook (which I was experimenting with on the jig) into my hand. Fortunately, the fish was lip hooked, had fallen off, and escaped, but my middle finger was impaled through and through.
After cutting the leader and quickly photographing the injury, we rummaged around in my toolbox. My wire cutters failed to even dent the hook shank. But I happened to have Vice Grips with a cutting jaw onboard. While bobbing around four miles offshore, we were able to cut through the steel, and I backed out the 8/0 hook. I could have avoided that agony by using barbless hooks, and my guest would have had a much easier trip, too. But there are pros and cons to barbless hooks.
“Anglers who are novices at playing fish,” says lifelong saltwater expert Vince Battista, “might lose a striper here or there if they opt for barbless, but that's often because of their poor hooksets and rod use. The problem is essentially eliminated when you maintain a rod bend—tension on the hook without slack means you'll land the fish—and also avoid ‘high sticking’ your rod, which can break your tip or yank out a hook.
“Manufactured barbless hooks are often more expensive than their barbed counterparts. That said, replacing a low-quality factory hook with any new, heavy-duty hardware—for those lures that aren’t outfitted with high-end hooks like those on Game On! lures—comes at a cost. So a barbless hook changeover isn’t much more, comparatively speaking.”
For the newcomer, going barbless doesn’t seem to make sense. After all, why reduce your chance of landing a fish? But unfortunately, many beginner anglers have experienced a flopping fish hanging from one treble hook while sticking themself with the lure’s other hook. In such a scenario, both the fish and the angler could be easily unhooked if the barbs had been crushed down. And if a free-swinging lure hooks your clothing or landing net, it’s quickly and simply backed out, which saves time, frustration, and damage.
“Experienced anglers who have made the switch to barbless,” says Battista, “have found that they have a higher hook-up rate because barbless hooks have a smaller cross-section and are thus easier to set on a striking fish, especially one with a tough jaw structure like a bluefish.
“Barbless hooks are much safer for fish—barbless are easier to remove, which means reduced injury and therefore lower release mortality. Barbless also means you spend less time fumbling with a fish and more time with your lure in the water. Barbless are unquestionably safer for humans—safer if you get hook stuck, and much less likely for you to get chewed by a bluefish that you foul-hooked on its face.”
If you’re casting a lure to a rocky New England shoreline or against a brushy background like Florida mangroves, a snagged barbless hook is easier to wiggle free, which saves you fishing time and lost lures.
“And once you get the knack of intentionally shaking a fish free,” says Battista, “you’ll be able to slack your line at boatside and allow most fish to slip or flip from a barbless hook. This saves getting your hands wet and slimy, but more importantly, it also protects the fish’s slime coat, which improves the health of the fish.
“I also support the use of single hooks, like the one found on the Game On! X-Walk Topwater. Tandem trebles lead to significantly increased injury and mortality to stripers because you often get four points into a striper when fishing surface plugs. And a big bass or bluefish then becomes very difficult to unhook.”
Options for barbless hooks include buying those already barbless and swapping them out, like the 6/0 Owner 4306 Barbless No Escape Super Sharp. Or you can crush down or file off a barb on a standard hook.
“Single tail hooks,” says expert striper angler Tim Lasusa, who specializes in fishing topwaters on the lower Connecticut River, “are much easier and safer to deal with for toothy bluefish. They’re better for the fish, better for the angler, and they keep the bigger fish on. You may get fewer initial hookups, but you’ll lose fewer bluefish and have an easier time releasing them.
“Part of the reason is the gap of a single is significantly bigger than the gap of a treble, and it fits better around the tough jaws of bluefish. Single hooks are easier to remove and less likely to foul-hook stripers, which are good reasons to replace a rear treble with a single on any lure. I’ll also change out the front treble hook on a topwater with a VMC inline single hook, and I always fish them with the barb flattened.”
But if you do get stuck, with or without a barbed hook, take care to prevent further injury and infection. If the barb is imbedded and not through and through, tape or bandage it in place and go to the emergency room. If you’re able to remove the hook yourself, thoroughly flush the wound with sterile water, apply antibacterial ointment, and cover it with a bandage. Once back home, check on your tetanus shot status, and if the area exhibits redness, unusual pain, or swelling, seek medical attention right away. Don’t wait a day to “see if it gets better.” It usually won’t.