I hadn’t experienced barbless hooks until I fished Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time.
For the delicate, mountain-dwelling cutthroats that live at high altitude there, barbless hooks are required by law. Nearby brooks, browns, and rainbows can be fished with standard hooks. Luckily for anglers, the species rarely overlap, so the risk of accidentally hooking a cutthroat on a barbed hook is low.
But do barbless hooks make a difference? Opinions differ, and some people fish barbless exclusively while others don’t touch them unless required by law.
What are barbed and barbless hooks?
For experienced anglers, this may be an obvious topic. However, plenty of people have never come across a barbless hook before.
Barbed hooks are essentially “normal” fishing hooks. They have a small, backward-facing point near the tip of the hook. The barb is meant to provide resistance when the hook is pulled out of whatever material it’s in.
The purpose of a barb is simple: to keep the fish hooked more securely. But, is this extra grip detrimental to the fish?
In response to the worry that barbed hooks are harmful, hook manufacturers began offering barbless hook options. Barbless hooks are exactly like regular hooks, but without the barb. Pretty simple. Barbless hooks can also be created by using a pair of pliers or hemostats to pinch the barb down on a regular hook.
While barbed hooks do offer a huge advantage in many anglers’ minds due to their ability to keep fish hooked more securely, more and more people are switching over to barbless hooks.
This is for a variety of reasons, and some of the upsides of barbless hooks may even be an afterthought, or a pleasant side effect.
For example, barbless hooks are much nicer to fishermen’s skin. There aren’t many anglers out there who haven’t gotten a bad hook in the hand at some point, and most of those hooks are barbed. When using a barbless hook, though, an angler can easily slide the hook out with barely a mark.
But, the real reason most people switch to barbless is to be a little nicer to the fish. It’s an easy assumption to make. The less jagged the metal you’re embedding in a fish’s face, the better.
And this is true, to an extent.
Is barbless the way to go?
In short, yes. But not necessarily for the most obvious reason.
Yes, it’s most likely slightly less physically traumatic to a fish to have a barbless fly stuck in its lip. The hook makes a smaller opening as it enters the skin, and won’t rip skin as it’s pulled back out. This alone is a good enough reason for many to switch to barbless, and that’s still a good thing. The less damage done, the better.
The biggest reason to switch to barbless hooks, though, is probably the speed with which they can be removed.
It’s well-documented that when fish are handled excessively or kept out of water too long, their survival rate plummets, even when released “unharmed.” While most anglers do their best to get fish back in the water as soon as possible, a stubborn hook can derail good intentions. Sometimes a hook is deep in the mouth, but even well-placed hooks can be a pain when they’re lodged just right.
A difficult hook can turn a 10-second release into a five-minute release. This could be the difference between a healthy fish and a dead fish. Barbless hooks make their biggest difference at this stage, since they’re extremely easy to remove. You can remove a barbless fly with little effort, and often without even having to take the fish out of the water. A quick pop and the hook is released.
This single trait makes barbless absolutely worth it.
A misplaced argument for barbed hooks
In order to cover all sides, it’s important to acknowledge the argument against barbless hooks. The biggest one that comes up is that anglers, when fishing barbless hooks, tend to baby the fish too much during the fight.
Because they know the hook could dislodge more easily than usual, they overplay the fish, fighting it to exhaustion which is just as bad as fondling it in front of a camera for five minutes.
Unfortunately, the one thing that could fix this problem is what causes it in the first place: the angler. When people take a fight lightly, they’re most likely introducing slack into the line. And slack is the worst thing you can have when trying to keep a fish on. If they simply fought the fish normally (or even more aggressively than normal), they’d probably have way fewer problems.
So to the argument that these hooks cause anglers to exhaust fish, and therefore should not be used, I say that it sounds like an angler problem, not a hook problem. Don’t blame a useful and responsible tool for user error.
Barbed hooks are not the devil, and I still use them at times. But, whenever I think to pinch a barb while fishing, I stop and do it. My skin, and the fish, are all the better for it.