Fish facts: Is barbless best?
MOST anglers have heard about barbless hooks in various writings in the fishing press from time to time, but when you ask around its surprising how few anglers have actually had any practical experience using them.
For those who are not familiar with what I am talking about, I am referring to the process of manually removing the barb from a fishing hook for a particular purpose. This is done to smaller fine wire hooks by crushing (or crimping) the barb down with pliers, which in todays modern high tensile chemically sharpened hooks usually results in a quick “snap” as the offending appendage is removed. In the past most hook patterns had relatively large “ski jump” barbs which we know in hindsight reduced hook penetration quite a bit. Even as recently as 25 years or so ago, all top anglers knew that part of the art of serious fishing was honing ones ability to develop sufficient dexterity with a file or sharpening stone to sharpen the hook point so that it would meet the time honoured criteria of grabbing onto a fingernail, rather than sliding off (thus being more suited to holding in the hard bony mouth of a large fish). Furthermore, back in the day many insightful anglers went even further, spending extra time to reprofile the barb to reduce its size and/or add cutting edges in order to improve hook penetration.
With the hook technology available at the time, such attention to detail could make all the difference when chasing large hard mouthed jumping gamefish such as marlin. Interestingly, when the reduced barb approach was also adapted to other more mundane species, it worked a treat, and many switched on anglers found they could eliminate the barb completely and not experience a drop in catch rates. Today, familiarity with this sort of detail is no longer required due to the modern engineering applied to the almost ubiquitous fine wire chemically sharpened hooks, which also possess much reduced barbs to aid hook penetration. These advances in technology have in turn bred a whole generation of anglers who do not need to regularly sharpen their hooks and therefore who may also be less likely to think deeply about the barb vs barbless subject.
Barbless hooks provide obvious improvements for angler safety. If you are fishing in remote locations that may be many hours or even days travel from medical treatment, the decision to make all your hooks barbless should be seriously considered. This can save a lot of trouble, pain and even a lost fishing trip if someone in your group is unfortunate enough to hook themselves up with a barbed hook. Barbless hooks embedded in a finger, hand, arm or leg will come out easily the way they went in, with minimum trauma allowing the angler to continue on without major issue (keep those tetanus jabs up to date though…). However, with almost any sized barb, you are forced to either (a) push the hook through the impaled appendage (so that the barb can be accessed and crushed down or the hook cut off at the gape), or if pushing the hook through is not possible (b) seek medical attention, or (c) utilise a friend to help try to pull the hook out the way it went in (usually achieved using some fishing line tied to the gape of the hook). The latter process risks causing significant damage depending on the size of the barb involved and the skill of your friend.
Of course, there are other reasons why barbless hooks are worth consideration. They are better for fish. There are several scenarios (breakoffs and biteoffs being the main ones, deep hooking while using bait is another) which may see you leaving a hook in a fish. Recent studies of lure shedding in various fish species (including northern pike in Europe) have found that fish shed the vast majority of lures over the first 2 days, and nearly all lures within 2 weeks of a breakoff, but that lures with barbless hooks are shed much faster, maximising survival rates.
We all know that all undersized fish must be returned to the water as soon as possible, and research has consistently found that if you can’t quickly get the hook out, survival of released fish is much higher when the line is cut close to the hook rather than damaging the fish and increasing its air exposure time by conducting surgery on it. Hooks are cheap and should be considered as disposable items in such circumstances. Studies conducted in the Caribbean on bonefish, in the USA on bluegill and by NSW Fisheries on yellowfin bream have found that around 50% of ingested hooks are usually shed within 2 weeks, and over 70% by 6 weeks. In all cases, if a released fish can shed an ingested hook, their survival chances are higher, and in all of these studies, ingested barbless hooks were dislodged much more often and much faster than barbed designs, leading to improved survival rates. It seems at least some of this is due to the fact that barbless hooks corroded up to 9 times faster than unmodified hooks (due to the loss of the barb), however other factors that influence hook corrosion rates inside fish included the hook material (i.e. wire material, diameter, and coating), the position of the hook in the digestive system, and whether the fish was in freshwater or saltwater. Such information suggests that if you are leaving hooks in fish, avoid stainless hook varieties as these will not corrode, and will tend to stay in place for longer.
So for these various reasons barbless hooks are the default situation for me. Barbless is better for me, and better for the fish. I make it a general rule of removing the barbs from every hook I use, especially when fishing catch and release, and I leave the barbs on only if there is a specific need for it - which usually involves jumping pelagic fish like marlin, or specifically targeting fish which I will kill anyway for a feed. So barbless is best for me. What about you ?