Circle Hooks Come Full Circle In Saltwater Fishing

First used back when the pyramids were being built, the ancient circle hook has come on strong as a top saltwater fish catcher in modern times. Here's how to use 'em properly! (April 2007)

Photo by Pete Barrett

Egyptians and Polynesians used an ancient version of the circle hook centuries ago, fashioned from bronze and animal bone, but for East Coast sportfishermen, circle hooks jumped into the spotlight just several years ago when the big, bad Hatteras bluefin tuna fishery burst wide open. The huge amount of publicity generated by this fishery helped focus attention on the phenomenal hooking power of these unique but odd-shaped hooks.

Today, circle hooks are becoming the hook of choice for many fishermen all along the coast, especially when fishing with live or fresh dead bait; but circle hooks are also used with some types of lures. Circle hooks are now used to more effectively fish live eels and bunker chunks to fool wary striped bass, and they are proven hooks for doormat summer flounder. Canyon runners use circle hooks to catch yellowfin tuna while chunking with butterfish baits, and a circle hook added to a diamond jig is a sure bet to catch fall stripers and blues when deep jigging.

"Will they work for me?" is a popular question heard around the counters at tackle shops, on the docks and at fishing seminars. The reputation of the circle hook is either enhanced or discredited, depending upon who is doing the talking; but for most anglers who fish with bait, the answer is a resounding "yes!"

WHAT ARE THEY?

Norwegian and Japanese commercial fishermen originally used modern circle hooks, and their use has expanded throughout the world's oceans, eventually gaining some popularity with recreational big-game fishermen in recent years. Now their popularity is expanding rapidly among the inshore clan.

They get their name because the hook point is angled toward the shank so that the hook forms a circular shape. This unusual shape is what makes the hooks such incredible "hookers," and when properly employed, it is a rare event to miss a fish once it takes the bait.

Hook sizes (1/0, 2/0, etc.) are based on a numbering relationship between the hook's shank, bend and gap devised long ago by hook manufacturers; and for traditional hooks (also called J-hooks), the numbering sizes are somewhat similar from one straight-shank design to another -- a 2/0 beak hook is not dramatically different from a 2/0 octopus hook.

However, with circle hooks the sizes are downright weird. A 5/0 to 7/0 circle hook is a good size for summer flounder fishing, where a traditional J-hook would be size 1/0. Because the hook size numbers may seem odd, it is best to rely on your own eyes to select which size hook seems to be the best choice for live-lining an eel, chunking a bunker head, drifting a killie and squid combo, or drifting a juicy sandworm.

HOW DO THEY DO THAT?

At first glance, a circle hook point appears to be at such a strange angle that fishermen say, "There's no way that's ever going to work." In actual use, however, just the opposite is true -- circle hooks grab fish with amazing results.

Circle hooks perform so well because a fish strikes bait from below, behind or from the side. At the instant it closes its mouth on the bait, it also turns away, either to the side or downward, and the fishing line pulls the circle hook near to the corner of the fish's mouth. That strange angle of the hook point is now at a perfect angle to penetrate at the jaw hinge of the fish. The hookup is instantaneous, and once hooked, a fish is rarely lost because of hook failure.

Anyone who has fished for tuna will tell you how the fish swirl at the bait, then turn as they dash away with it. At the instant of the turn away, the hookup is accomplished automatically as the line comes tight. All the angler has to do is slide the drag lever forward to engage the reel and yell, "Fish on!"

Virtually every other game fish acts the same as a tuna, at least when it strikes the bait. Whether the bait is a live eel or bunker chunk meant for a striper, a whole butterfish drifted for a yellowfin, a spearing drifted for a summer flounder (fluke) or a squid strip for a weakfish, the result is the same -- the fish strikes the bait, turns away and is hooked solidly nearly 100 percent of the time!

DON'T SET THE HOOK!

Anglers who have had trouble using circle hooks are probably guilty of one major mistake -- they are trying to set the hook. With circle hooks, you don't strike the fish in the traditional manner as you would when using a standard straight-shank J-hook. With circle hooks, the fish sets the hook, not the angler.

Yep, it's rather strange, but circle hooks work best if you let the fish set the hook itself. Using flounder fishing as an example, when you feel the hit, the usual technique is to allow a momentary drop-back, then set the hook with a short rod lift when the line comes tight. With a circle hook, just let the line come tight, don't lift the rod tip with a sharp jab. As the fish turns away, the hook slides to the corner of the mouth and imbeds itself. All the angler has to do is maintain a bend in the rod and start to reel.

This same basic technique works just as well when chumming for bluefish, worming for weakfish or clamming for striped bass. As the fish runs with the bait, engage the reel into gear and when the line tightens, lift the rod to maintain a tight line.

When used for bluefish in a chum slick, circle hooks do away with the need for a wire leader. I proved this to myself on a night chumming trip when I used a 10/0 circle hook tied to 40-pound mono to drift my baits into the slick. I like to tag and release, so I didn't care about the possibility of losing a few fish to cut-offs, and I hoped the ability of the circle hook to catch the corner of the mouth would avoid the bluefish's toothy dentures. I did lose a few hooks to cut-offs, but my mono leaders were less visible than traditional wire and helped me get more strikes.

MORE SIZES,NEW HOOK VARIATIONS

The earliest commercial circle hooks were usually made with 2X or 3X extra-strong, large-diameter shanks in sizes that were not usually suited for sportfishing unless giant bluefin tuna or canyon yellowfin were the targets.

As the incredible hooking power of circle hooks became more popularly known by a wider range of inshore coastal fishermen, hook manufacturers quickly realized they needed to offer more circle hook styles, sizes and wire sizes. This was further fueled by an expanding conservation ethic among recreational anglers. Now, manufacturers are offering new circle hook designs that work superbly for inshore fishermen.

The most significant breakthrough has been the introduction of light-wire hooks in small sizes that are much more suitable for inshore fishing than the original heavy-duty circle hooks. Success with the heavy-wire hooks when they were employed to catch flounder, chum bonito or drift sandworms for striped bass was hampered because the 3X shanks were so heavy the baits would not drift correctly and just didn't look "right" to game fish.

With their pea-sized brains, fish aren't smart, but they aren't stupid either; and when a hooked bait looks unnatural, a fish won't bite. Light-wire hooks quickly solved that problem and many of the latest hooks are so light they can be used to fish with live shrimp, killies, and with small, baits like anchovies and spearing.

Every hook manufacturer is now offering a variety of circle hooks, and surprisingly, variations of circle hook shapes are also appearing for light-tackle saltwater fishing. Some circle hooks look very much like modified English-style, or Kahle, wide-gap hooks that have been so popular with summer flounder fishermen for decades. Others offer a modified shank bend and an exaggerated hook-point bend, and while all of these are not true circle hooks, the principle is similar and the expanded hook selection provides fishermen with a wide variety of excellent hook choices.

Traditional hook colors are now being joined by flashy chartreuse, red, blue and gold colors to add extra fish-catching attraction. Some hooks are also available with fluorescent colors that further enhance the hook's fish-catching ability. Are these colors necessary? Experiments have shown that red often triggers an attack response from game fish, while other very bright colors may simply provide some extra dazzle that also grabs the attention of a game fish on the prowl for its next meal.

GIVE CIRCLES A TRY

After hearing all the benefits of circle hooks, if you are still reluctant, buy a small pack of circle hooks and try them, especially for any fishing where you can dead-stick a rod while drifting. After you catch a few fish while dead sticking, you'll be willing to try them with the rod held in your hands.

Circle hooks are just one more innovative way to fish and to help you have fun while putting dinner on the table.

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