Subtle Barbs

Subtle Barbs

Better barbless hooks

  • By: Chico Fernandez

For many years, I played with different ways of making saltwater hooks barbless. I went back and forth between plastering down the barb completely, leaving the barb semi-plastered, filing down the barb partially and then completely, to going back to using the full barb. I could never quite make up my mind whether I gained more with the better penetration and presumably less hold of the lower-profile barb; or the harder-to-penetrate-but-better-hold of a fuller barb. I just couldn’t decide which was best.

Then, sometime around the mid-1980s, I hosted a fly-fishing trip for Pacific sailfish, sharing a boat with two different anglers every day. This trip brought some of the most colorful anglers I can remember, two of whom demonstrated a good lesson. And I’m always ready to learn.

Among the group was a gentleman with a monocle who couldn’t see the sailfish behind the teaser baits because the monocle was not polarized. He refused to use a pair of my polarized sunglasses on top of the monocle, claiming it would look silly. Not wanting him to look silly, I helped him spot the sailfish when they came to the teaser.

Also present was an older gentleman who every day dressed all in white with a pith helmet, claiming he was going to stay cooler than anyone in the party and I’m sure he was probably right; he took several sailfish that week and looked impeccable. There was a trout angler who rigged his two 12-weight fly lines by tying a nail knot from the backing to the fly line. When I told him that he would lose his fly lines with that connection, he told me that he had “subdued” many salmon that way. After losing his two fly lines to 100-pound sailfish without a chance to “subdue” them, I convinced him to take one of my fly lines—if he let me rig it loop-to-loop. He eventually landed a sailfish toward the end of the week.

Next was the husband-and-wife “team” who saw nothing wrong with trolling for sailfish. “We would still be fighting them with a fly rod and this way the flies will cover more water,” the husband told me. My explanation that this was not fly-fishing was lost on them. They trolled all week, caught a few sails and photographed every one. They seemed happy.

Finally, there were a couple of guys who had experience taking sails on flies and who only wanted to fish for them with barbless hooks, which they made that way by pinching or plastering down the barb. I told them the sails would jump a lot and maybe they would lose quite a few fish. They did not care; they just wanted to see what happened. That’s cool, I said.

What happed was that at the end of the week they had landed more sails (about a dozen, if I recall correctly) than anyone else, including me. And their percentage of hookups to landed fish was by far the highest. So it seemed that the de-barbed size 5/0 billfish flies had held the sails, even through many acrobatic jumps.

To me, this was the turning point in my quandary about barbless hooks. I now felt that the ease of penetration during hookups gained by a lower barb more than compensated for any percentage of fish lost due to the lower barb. Of course, there is more than one way to reduce a barb, and degrees of reducing it.

Barb Theory
The purpose of a barb on a hook is to make sure the hook, once it’s anchored in a fish’s mouth, doesn’t slide out. To work, the hook has to penetrate past the flare of the barb when the hook is set; but the higher the barb is, the harder it is to bury the hook past the barb, especially on fish with a tough or bony mouth. On the other hand, if the hook has no barb at all, it penetrates easily (in theory) but it might not stay stuck in the fish. So, we reach a compromise.

I’ve found that a true barbless hook, one on which the barb has been completely filed off, does a terrible job of holding a fish during a fight. I’ve lost enough fish this way to put an end to that experiment. Instead, I find that having a very low barb, or leaving a little “hump” by pinching down or plastering the barb, works great.
So to crimp or to file?

If you’re using a saltwater hook that has a large barb, such as the great Mustad 34007, that barb must be reduced, if you want maximum effectiveness. I simply take the hook and, using a strong pair of pliers, crimp down the barb, slowly. Do it too fast and you may break the barb on some hooks. (Breaking the barb, by the way, doesn’t necessarily weaken the hook, as it might sound; it just eliminates the nice little bump we’re looking for.) If the barb is very big and you plaster it right down to the hook, it’ll leave a small hump—small and insignificant as it may look, this hump will improve your odds of landing fish.

The lower profile makes it much easier to penetrate a fish’s mouth than a hook with a full, large barb. And still, I have found that this hump holds fish very well, even those that are frequent jumpers. As a matter of fact, more often than not I have to resort to my large forceps to pry a hook out of a fish landed with a barbless, humped hook. It really holds.

Dealing with a hook with a medium-size barb, I may only partially crimp the barb, so that the point of the barb does not touch the hook; this also holds fish. Still another method that works very well, but will take more time, is simply to reduce a large barb with a file while you’re sharpening the hook. You can take down 75 percent of the barb, let’s say, leaving a very small “barbette.” (I know this last style cannot be called barbless by any means, but I just want you to know that I also use this method and it works for me.)

You’ll find that reducing the size of a large barb will help you land more big tarpon and other fish with tough mouths. Even baby tarpon, which are notorious for throwing a hook, will have a tougher time twisting free on a jump. And if you fish them with light 5- and 6-weight rods, as I often do, the combo of a small hook size (say size 4) and a low-profile or no barb is ideal.

Keep in mind that when you’re trying to hook fish over a long distance, such as fishing the beaches for striped bass where you’re casting as far as you can and then coming tight with a lot of line, a sharp hook with a low barb will more likely stay pinned in the fish’s mouth—even with double-handed rods, with which I cast well over 100 feet out into the surf.

While fishing deep over a reef with a shooting head or full-sinking weight-forward fly line, our casts are often very long and the fly is allowed to sink for a while. It’s not unusual to get strikes 100 feet out. Yet I have no problems hooking and landing fish (bonitos, tuna, jacks, mackerel, dolphinfish) at that distance, not only because I keep a straight line from the fly rod to the fly to reduce slack; but because I always use a sharp hook that’s barbless or has a low hump.

Landing Patterns

Once you land a fish, a reduced barb has its advantages. You’ll find that it’s pretty easy to remove a hook with a low barb, using a good pair of pliers or forceps—easier for you and for the fish.

Actually, releasing a big bonefish on a hot summer day, or a big fish taken on very light tippet when he is exhausted, you’ll be increasing the fish’s survival rate by a great margin with a quick release. No doubt about it.
And if the fish has taken the fly deep, a low-barb hook and a pair of long forceps can make the release operation much simpler and less likely to tear flesh from the fish’s mouth, which can cause excessive bleeding.

Eventually, you’ll break off a fish; it happens a lot in the salt thanks to the pulling power of the fish. Well, a low-barb or barbless hook is much easier for the fish to work free so it can go back to normal feeding. And what about “operator error?” If you do hook yourself (or much worse, your guide!) while casting, you may be very thankful the hook has a low barb. You’ll find it much easier to remove the hook and release yourself. You’ll be so happy.

Some new hooks, like the laser-sharpened models, already have very low barbs. So low in fact, that I find them just fine as they are, and removal of a hook is not too hard on most fish. If you insist on crimping these small barbs, you’ll get a hump that is so small as to be too barbless for my comfort. I fish these hooks as they are.

And this begs the question: Why not use only low-barb hooks? Well, different fly patterns in the salt require different types of hooks: long shanks for a Glass Minnow pattern, short shanks for big-tarpon flies, light wire hooks to cast with lighter lines, heavy-wire hooks to hold tuna and sharks and the like. So often we choose the hook design we need, and then work on the barb if we have to.

So remember, a sharp hook and low barb are the combination for better hook penetration and quicker releases. Stick to it and you’ll take more fish.

Chico Fernandez is one of fly-fishing’s leading teachers. He is the author of Fly-Fishing for Bonefish.