Second Thoughts on Barbless Hooks for Fly Fishing

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.