How to Fish Circle Hooks For Marlin and Other Gamefish

Fishing with circle hooks in Los Cabos
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HOW TO FISH CIRCLE HOOKS WITH LIVE OR DEAD BAITS

Bring up the subject of circle hooks and the average angler will roll his eyes back and make some type of groaning noise sounding his disproval. “Can’t trust ‘em”… “I’ve tried but can’t hook the fish”… “I keep losing fish." Talk to a pro and you’ll get a completely different story. Accomplished anglers around the world – including Captain Ron Hamlin who's released more than 20,000th billfish – will tell you that hook-up ratios are higher and lost fish are very, very uncommon. In fact, pros like Ron will tell you that old-fashioned J-hooks lose more marlin and sailfish than circle hooks… unless you have no clue on how to effectively fish them. People hate change and these “new” hooks require a big change in technique before the J hook angler becomes a convert. But all it takes is an understanding on how the hooks work and a little practice to get them to do their job, and do it well. If you've never fished them, you're likely to see them in use on most charter boats in Los Cabos. Knowing what to do and when will make the transition to these fish-saving marvels as easy as pie.

Striped marlin caught with a circle hook
Corner of the mouth hook ups are what circle hooks are all about. The best part is, they'll outfish j-hooks once you learn how to use them.

CIRCLE HOOKS HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR AGES

Circle hooks are anything but new. It’s hard to know when they first came about but early versions of the concept where used by Pacific Islanders fishing snag prone reefs. Tired of constantly busting off leaders, these fishermen modified their J-hooks bending them into a rounder, wider arc and twisting the hook point inward just ahead of the barb. The result – less snags, more fish. Since then, circle hooks have evolved into the ultimate conservation tool for responsible anglers. Non-offset, thin wire carbon-steel circle hooks are good for the fisherman and good for the fish.

To prove that circle hooks dramatically reduce trauma, a recent comparison study was conducted in Iztapa, Guatemala. The study aimed to assess the impact of circle vs. J hooks with both live and dead bait on Pacific sailfish. The results were dramatic clearly illustrating the benefits of circle hook use not only in regards to billfish survival post-release, but also in hook-up percentage and efficiency.

A total of 360 Pacific sailfish were caught with 235 on circle hooks and 125 on J-hooks. Significantly more sailfish were deep hooked in the throat and stomach with "J" hooks (46%) compared with circle hooks (2%). Only one sailfish (1%) was foul hooked using circle hooks, while 11 (9%) sailfish caught on "J" hooks were foul hooked. Sailfish caught on "J" hooks are 21 times more likely to suffer hook-related bleeding than those caught on circle hooks, and that bleeding usually comes from deep within the gullet or from the gills.

Circle hooks simply don't have much of a chance of foul hooking, unless you're using offset circle hooks. Offset circle hooks are better than J-hooks, but due to the fact that the hook point is twisted off to the side of the shank of the hook, it does have the ability to snag in the gut or gills.

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Here's a short video tutorial from the IGFA School of Sportfishing that shows you how to rig a dead ballyhoo on a circle hook.

TECHNIQUE LEADS TO CIRCLE HOOK SUCCESS

DON'T SET THE HOOK, LET THE FISH DO IT
You've got to resist the primal urge to yank back on your rod to set the hook. Instead, allow the fish to take the bait and swim away. Slowly increase drag pressure until the line comes tight, then lift the rod tip slowly. You can also wind the line tight but don't crank like crazy. Slow and steady does it. You don't want to pull the bait out of the fishes mouth which is easy to do when it's coming straight at you. The optimum is to have that fish swimming AWAY from you while coming tight.

START WITH LIGHT DRAG PRESSURE
As a rule, I'll always set my initial drag at roughly 25% the strength of my main line. So, if that's 20lb test, I'll set the drag at 5lbs. If it's 30, I'll go about 7lbs of drag. As the line strength goes up, I'll limit the initial drag to no more than 10lbs. Light drag pressure doesn't let the fish 'feel' the line pull so it's less likely to turn towards that pull. Instead, they'll take the bait and turn which is what you want.

USE ROD POSITION TO ENHANCE THE HOOK UP
A critical component of getting solid hook ups when using circle hooks is rod position. Never lift that rod tip much past waist high. Better yet, keep it pointed slightly downward towards the water and find out which way the fish is going. If it goes left, point the rod low and right. If it goes right, low and left.

SNELL YOUR CIRCLE HOOKS HELPS
Sure, you can just toss a perfection loop or an clinch knot at that circle hook, but it won't be as effective as it should be. By snelling the hook and having the leader come back thru the hook's eye you create a directional force that drives the hook point into your prey once you come tight.