Second Thoughts on Barbless Hooks for Fly Fishing

Fly fishers often frown on barbed hooks. One guide and blogger wrote: “Barbs are barbaric.” The rationale is that a sharp barb on a hook damages a fish’s mouth when removed. Barbless hooks for fly fishing, however, slide out like a greased pig through the hands of its pursuer.

I was on board with moving to barbless hooks until a friend made an observation that caused me to question the whole idea.

Post-Release Survival

My friend observed that a landed trout’s survival depends more on how quickly it is released — and kept wet during the release – than on whether the hook is barbless. In fact, he argued, it’s easier to land a trout more quickly on a barbed hook than a barbless one. That is, the time that it takes to reel in a trout on a barbed hook is less and thus enables the fly fisher to release the fish more quickly.

The quicker the time from the hookset to the release, the better.

What Studies Suggest

Of course, advocates of barbless hooks cite studies that suggest such hooks lead to a lower post-release mortality rate for trout. Simply “Google” the topic, and you’ll find plenty of articles discussing these studies.

You might be surprised, though, when you discover a few biologists and fly fishers who question the results of these studies.

Two decades ago, Doug Schill, an Idaho Fish and Game research biologist, looked at several studies done over the years and found that barbed hooks led to a negligibly higher mortality rate — 0.3 percent. He noted that a particular creek in Idaho had an average annual mortality rate of 30% to 65%.

“It is normal for fish to die at that rate,” he said. “So that 0.3 percent makes no difference.”

If he is right, that is well within the margin of error. Some studies simply show little correlation between barbed hooks and higher mortality rates.

The Larger Problem

I think there is an even larger problem related to fish mortality research.

Many studies simply do not and cannot account for enough variables to determine their accuracy. A family friend is a leading medical genomic researcher — probably one of the top five in his field in the world. He conducts prospective and retrospective studies and analyzes large data sets as his day job.

Yet he frequently scoffs at the confidence people have in the data. For example, the accuracy of any large pharmacogenomic study of cancer patients is determined by the gritty details, such as “Did the patient take the pill every day for three years,” and “How can we verify that she did?”

The problem almost always lies in the data, how it is collected, and whether it can be fully trusted. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” problem.

So many scientific studies are simply not conclusive. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in good science. I’m not a Luddite. It’s often non-scientific people, however, who talk the loudest and express the most emotion about the conclusiveness of scientific research. My podcast partner Dave has a saying, “Always confident, sometimes right,” to describe such people.

Personal Experience

Some anglers base their conclusions (understandably) on personal experience. But this does not come any closer to solving the problem.

I have read and listened to passionate accounts of how barbless hooks are the only way to go. Isn’t the issue common sense?

Yet others insist, from their experience, that barbless hooks for fly fishing create more problems than they solve. One angler claims that barbless hooks actually penetrate further than barbed hooks, creating more damage on their entrance than barbed hooks do on their exit.

This is why I have not jumped on the barbless hooks bandwagon.

I respect those who use barbless hooks for fly fishing, of course. And I always use barbless hooks when the law requires them. When in Yellowstone National Park, for example, I definitely use barbless hooks. I respect the laws of the land. I pinch down the barbs.

Fish-friendly and Conservation-Minded

But as conservation-minded as I am, I currently do not use barbless hooks when I have a choice. I’ve notice that other conservation-minded friends and fly fishing guides don’t either. I’m certainly open to changing my mind on this, though it will take more than the latest study to convince me.

In the meantime, I will land fish as quickly as possible, use forceps to remove the hook, and release a trout as quickly as possible. And always with wet hands.

17 Replies to “Second Thoughts on Barbless Hooks for Fly Fishing”

  1. Interesting, I’m hearing this theory from other anglers as well, but here’s my question for what it’s worth – would you rather be hooked with a barbed hook or a barbless hook? I’m available to administer a clinical trial, clearly this would settle the argument once and for all?

    1. Haha! I think I’ll pass on the clinical trial. Seriously, you raise a great point (ah, no pun intended!!). One advantage of a barbless hook is that it’s less harmful for fly fishers themselves. But Dave has a great technique for removing barbed hooks, and I’ve seen it work when a friend of ours (a much better fly fisher) accidentally embedded his barbed hook in his finger while releasing a trout. Maybe he can explain it on a future podcast or article.

  2. In my opinion for what’s it’s worth I feel barbless is much better for the trout even better for the fly fisherman. Ive hooked myself clothing , gear and my net more then I care to admit . It’s a whole lot easier to remove from all of the above. Sense i strictly fish catch and release i feel it’s the only way to go .

  3. “My friend observed that a landed trout’s survival depends more on how quickly it is released — and kept wet during the release – than on whether the hook is barbless. In fact, he argued, it’s easier to land a trout more quickly on a barbed hook than a barbless one. That is, the time that it takes to reel in a trout on a barbed hook is less and thus enables the fly fisher to release the fish more quickly.”
    This paragraph alone makes this whole article senseless.What possible rational can you find to claim that you land a fish faster on a barbed hook?(Because I say so) is not a particularly sound argument.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Eric. In a way, it supports the larger point I want to make, and that is, the whole argument is somewhat subjective. I’ve heard more than one angler make this claim. Yet others argue that you can land a fish faster on a barbless hook. I suppose it depends on your particular style, approach, skill set, etc. I couldn’t agree more that “because I say so” is not a particulary sound argument.

  4. I think this article is going to do some harm to both fish and people who happen to get hooked with barbed flies. First, I want to address the scientific study analogy.

    There is a HUGE difference between any sort of medical study and the studies that have been conducted on barbless hook mortality. I would be curious to hear your doctor friend’s exact words about the studies you referenced in the article, but that doesn’t even matter. With barbless hook mortality studies, we are not guessing at all whether or not a fish was actually hooked (unlike whether or not a patient may have taken their study medication as prescribed). We know that the fish was hooked, what type of hook was used, where it was hooked (corner of mouth, tongue, etc), water temp at time of hooking, stream/river location, time of day, and the list goes on. These are not variables, and they give a much higher confidence than patient surveys in the medical field.

    Having guided for 20+ years now, I can tell you that barbed hooks absolutely do more damage than barbless – no matter how good you are at removing them. Barbless hooks can still do significant harm, especially if you aren’t keeping enough tension on the line, but they don’t tear holes in the fish’s face. Many times a barbless hook simply falls out of the fish’s mouth when you net it, allowing for a release with no hands touching the fish. I would recommend re-thinking your stance on barbed hooks, particularly in any waters with protected fish – even if you’re not targeting those protected species.

    1. I appreciate your concern, Matt, and I will continue to think about this issue. There is a still a human factor in studies on fly fishing–especially if we’re relying on reports from a large group of fly fishers. How can the accuracy or honesty of the data they submit be verified? Hook size is another issue. The barb in a size #18 nymph will likely do less damage than the barb in a size #6 streamer.

      Admittedly, I’m biased by my own experience. Unlike you, I rarely get a first-hand look at how others removed a hook from a fish’s mouth–barbed or barbless. I know the care that I take, but I can’t assume everyone else takes the same level of care. I assume that’s a huge factor in the level of damage done. Perhaps the larger issue is that both kinds of hooks can do significant harm (as you observed). If we’re simply planning to release the fish we catch, should we even fly fish?

      I guess I’m waiting for more consensus by conservation-minded fly fishing guides (like you) as well as conservation organization (like TU) about the need to go barbless.

      1. Hook mortality studies do not rely on angler surveys, that would be impossible since the angler would only know if the fish died immediately. Hook mortality surveys rely on a team where anglers catch a fish and then release it into an enclosure in the river or lake it was caught in. The fish are marked so that the biologist in charge knows how the fish was caught and then the fish are monitored for a period of time (I think I remember 5 days being the normal time period). The biologist counts how many fish die during the time after they were caught, and that provides the data used in the study. Variations in stream conditions, temperature, and various other circumstances can have an effect on fish survival, so generally it is best to go by the cumulative data from multiple studies rather than believing just one study. Nearly all of the studies that I have seen regarding hook mortality of barbless vs. barbed show that barbless hooks result in less mortality.

        I didn’t take a lot of time searching TU, but the organization definitely believes in using barbless hooks. Here’s a link to a petition they were asking members to sign that would make barbless hooks mandatory on some waters in Montana.

  5. I would argue that it depends of the size of the hook you are using. If you are using a size 16 or smaller dry fly or even nymph hook, the barb is probably negligible; however, if you are fishing a number 4 stinger hook on a big old streamer, I don’t see how you can extract that barbed hook with causing major damage to the fish.

    1. My original comment should have read: “I don’t see how you can extract that barbed hook WITHOUT causing major damage to the fish.”

  6. Thanks Steve for having the courage to tackle this heavily debated argument. I recently got hooked with a nice sized hook (12?) (not fly fishing) and had to remove the hook. Although it sure stung to pull it out of my hand, it hardly bled and didn’t hurt terribly. I didn’t even need a band-aid. I was surprised. I totally agree that I pull on the fish harder and get them in faster with a barbed hook. I am more careful not to twist the rig if I am in a barbless-zone and it takes more time. We all have to make our own judgment call. I don’t recommend anyone replicate my mistake for fun!
    Great conversation –

  7. In favor of barb less. One if hook yourself much easier to pull out fly. Had a #18 I Imbedded and couldn’t believe the force to get that sucker out. Two. When invariably hook clothing makes removing much easier. Three. After dozens of big fish hooked on barbless,and actually trying to have them release themselves, have found holding abilities equal to a barb,but emphasize that even a small barbed fly requires more time and force then barb less. So regardless of legality, I pinch all barbs.

  8. I appreciate the article but you are really out on a limb with this one. What I take from it is this: It is interesting how folks can unconsciously justify anything when it is in their own interest.
    Barbed hooks quite obviously have greater potential to cause injury to the fish and the angler. Further, I have never felt the need to draw out the fight of a fish on a barbless fly.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Makes total sense. And you’re right about how folks can unconsciously justify anything when it is in their own interest. Excellent point.

      A simple Google search on the subject shows published scientific studies that have come back largely inconclusive. One study showed that barbless hooks may actually increase mortality because the hook digs deeper into the mouth of the trout and there is the possibility of increased blood loss. Because clotting in fish is different than in humans, there was a suspicion that barbless hooks may contribute to increased mortality.

      Now, we are not talking about those horrible treble hooks but about the modern single hooks used for tying small flies.

      And just because the science is somewhat inconclusive on barbed hooks doesn’t mean that anglers should not use barbless hooks for the health of the fishery and conservation in general. Agree with you on that point.

      Good comment, thank you again for taking the time to post your thoughts.

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