How to use circle hooks

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Circle hooks have revolutionised catch & release bill fishing.
Circle hooks have revolutionised catch & release bill fishing.

CIRCLE hooks are an established and effective bait fishing method for targeting a range of species, from freshwater to large saltwater gamefish. Mark Williams reports.

LOOKING back over a lifetime spent fishing allows you to reflect on the tremendous changes that have occurred to our fisheries and the way recreational anglers fish. I find it hard to believe but it’s almost 50 years since my late father and grandfather first started taking me fishing on the rivers and lakes of the NSW Central Coast so I’ve witnessed plenty. Sure there’s been some bad stuff in terms of declining fish stocks due to commercial overfishing, pollution and habitat loss; but there have also been positives with regard to improved fisheries management in recent years and changes in the attitudes of recreational anglers.

To my way of thinking the wheel has turned full circle for recreational anglers during the course of my fishing life. I can recall prior to the introduction of bag limits that the leading AAA competition anglers in my local area were extracting incredible amounts of fish such as tailor and bonito in the pursuit of trophies and there was a lot of ill feeling in the local community over masses of fish being dumped after competition weigh-ins. Moving forward a couple of decades and now recreational anglers have embraced bag & size limits and are actively involved in the fisheries management process all in the hope of ensuring our fisheries are sustainable for future generations.

In recent times, rec anglers using circle hooks has been another massive step in the right direction for the long term sustainability of our fisheries. Fisheries research scientist Dr Paul Butcher recently said in Fisho that “minimum legal sizes, bag limits and simple sport angling mean that at least half of catches are released and, in terms of conserving stocks, most released fish need to survive”.

Dr Butcher also said that studies have shown that mouth hooked fish when handled correctly have a survival rate approaching 100 per cent when released, but that number was dramatically less for fish that swallowed hooks. Circle hooks are specifically designed to locate in the jaw hinge ensuring a very high percentage of mouth hook ups. It really makes a lot of sense that if you’re going to be bait fishing and releasing fish then you should wherever possible try and use circle hooks.

Circle hooks are highly effective for use when fishing live or dead baits for a wide range of the most popular recreational species. In game fishing the use of circle hooks has lead to improved hook up rates over the traditional “J” hook pattern resulting in leading charter operators world-wide adopting them when fishing baits for many gamefish species. In this article we’ll look at which species can be successfully targeted using circle hooks and how to get started using them.

Circle hooks come in a wide range of sizes to suit most recreational species.

Getting started

The key difference between using traditional “J” hook patterns and circle hook patterns is that you don’t strike to set the hook when using a circle hook rig. Basically, in the majority of situations you just let the fish hook itself. Initially, it can be hard to resist that natural instinct to set the hook, but once you’ve caught a few fish on circle hooks not striking becomes second nature. By not striking what you are doing is allowing the circle hook to position in the jaw hinge as the fish swims away with the bait.

When game fishing with lever drag overhead outfits it’s a relatively simple process to slowly ease the drag lever up as the fish runs away with the bait until the rod is fully loaded up. For freshwater, estuarine or inshore bait fishing the best option is often to simply let the rod load up in the rod holder as the fish takes the bait then pick up the outfit and slowly wind into the fish. Just don’t fall for the macho trap of striking wildly at the fish as all this will achieve is ripping the circle hook out of the fish’s mouth before it has had a chance to locate in the jaw hinge.

Once you get into the routine of easing the pressure on slowly, you will find that hook up rates with circle hooks are bloody good. Many experienced anglers claim improved catch rates on jumping fish such as billfish, barramundi and tarpon using circle hooks over traditional “J” hook patterns. Results indicate that once a circle hook is located in the fish’s mouth it’s actually more difficult for them to throw the hook while jumping than when using traditional “J” hook patterns.

Species and hook patterns

Scott Thorrington's circle hook live bait rig is deadly on yellowtail kingfish offshore.
Scott Thorrington's circle hook live bait rig is deadly on yellowtail kingfish offshore.

Just about any of the popular recreational species that will swallow a live or dead bait can be successfully targeted using circle hook patterns. The only scenario where I wouldn’t recommend using circle hooks is when chasing members of the razor gang such as Spanish mackerel, wahoo or spotted mackerel as these hit and run merchants tend to slash at baits to disable them rather than swallow them whole. Stick to super sharp “J” hook patterns if you want the best results chasing these slashing speedsters.

There are two basic types of circle hook patterns available – offset and non-offset or inline hooks. Research has shown that non-offset or inline circle hooks provide the highest percentage of mouth hooked fish and consequently all the billfish tournaments that I know of these days require the use of inline circle hooks when fishing baits to maximise the survival rates of released billfish.

For game fishing applications it’s very hard to go past the Eagle Claw Laser Sharp L2004 inline circle hook. Experienced game fishing mates of mine such as Scotty Thorrington from Haven Charters and Luke Bell of Asalt Weapon both swear by this pattern for medium tackle billfish and tuna rigs. For heavy tackle marlin fishing and deep water drop lining for bottom ooglies such as hapuka, blue eye trevalla and bar cod the time proven Mustad 39960D is a superb circle hook pattern.

The Gamakatsu Octopus Circle pattern comes in a wide range of sizes and is ideally suited to estuarine and inshore bait fishing applications. Scott Thorrington from Haven Charters uses this pattern for all his inshore snapper fishing work with consistently great results.

Circle hooks are also ideally suited to freshwater bait fishing scenarios. Freshwater fishing expert Neil Schulz wrote an in-depth article on the use of circle hooks for native sportfish in Fishing World quite a few years back and recommended the Owner 5114 Mutu Light Circle pattern for light to medium tackle work.

Circle hook rigs

The main consideration to take into account when rigging circle hooks is that you want that freedom of movement that allows the hook to roll into the corner of the fish’s mouth after it has taken the bait. For this reason game anglers trolling live or dead baits using circle hooks will use relatively long bridle rigs. This rig ensures the hook has maximum freedom of movement and the hook gape is totally unencumbered ensuring the best possible chance of a solid jaw hinge hook-up.

Scotty Thorrington dispenses with the bridle rig when live baiting for kingfish offshore. He simply puts the circle hook through the lips of the live yakka or slimey mackerel. I asked him why he baits up in this manner and his reply was that it’s all about speed of presentation. He can get a bait rigged up quickly that will plummet head first down to the kingfish school he’s marked on his fish finder. The baits don’t really have to last long as they’re normally clobbered the second they reach the waiting school of hungry hoodlums.

All manner of dead baits work really well on circle hooks too. Keep in mind that circle hooks work best when the hook gape is kept clear. Strip baits of fish flesh or squid will leave the hook gape unencumbered and allow the circle hook to roll in the fishes mouth and locate in the jaw hinge.

To my way of thinking there are no negatives for recreational fishers using circle hooks. Once their use is mastered anglers will enjoy excellent hook-up rates with the bonus that any fish released will have a very good chance of survival. It’s amazing to think that a hook pattern that was specifically designed to maximise fish extraction in the commercial long line industry is now such an effective tool for recreational anglers to use in the preservation of fish stocks.

Check out two of Scott Thorrington's favourite circle hook rigs below.

Illustration: Chris Palatsides
Illustration: Chris Palatsides
Illustration: Chris Palatsides
Illustration: Chris Palatsides
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