It’s spring in the Chesapeake Bay and time for big migratory stripers. Some of the biggest striped bass in the world are caught in Maryland in the early spring. A few fishermen are already using circle hooks to catch & release big fish in the rivers using bait such as frozen herring, bloodworms, and cut menhaden. Circle hooks aren’t just a good idea for bait fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, they’re required by law during the early spring. Maryland fishermen have been slow to see the advantages of circle hooks. I think that’s because most of us haven’t used them enough, but there’s also confusion about what circle hooks are and how they work. I had an opportunity to travel to Providence, Rhode Island a few days ago to attend a FishSmart conference sponsored by NOAA about catch & release techniques. I came away with some interesting information.

According to extension agents working with Florida Sea Grant, circle hooks have been used by commercial fishermen for decades due to their ability to efficiently catch fish. The principle behind the hook is simple. After the hook has been swallowed the fisherman applies pressure to the line, pulling the hook out of the stomach. The unique hook shape causes the hook to slide towards the point of resistance and embed itself in the jaw or in the corner of the fish’s mouth. The actual curved shape of the hook is intended to keep the hook from catching in the gut cavity or throat.

The advantage to the fisherman is that hooking is automatic. No hook set required. All we have to do is let the fish swim off with the bait then pick up the rod and start reeling. Circle hooks are a fool-proof way to catch stripers when fishing with bait, but do they work to protect the fish?

Most of the time they do, but most fishermen will tell you that they still see gut-hooked fish occasionally. Here’s the problem – there is no industry standard as to what makes a circle hook. In fact, some of the hooks you buy off the baitshop shelf may not be circle hooks at all. Just because it says circle hook on the package doesn’t mean it is. There are imposters. On a true circle hook, the tip of the hook points back toward the shank of the hook. If it points toward the eye, it’s not a circle hook no matter what it says on the package. Confused?  Then try this: Curve your index finger around the contour of the hook shank and press down a little. If you feel the tip of the hook pricking your finger, it’s not a true circle and won’t work right. The tip of the hook should curve away from your finger.

Circle hooks can be roughly divided into two types, offset and non-offset. Most of the hooks you see on the store shelves are offset. That means when you lay them down on a table, they won’t lay completely flat. The offset refers to the amount of deviation in the plane of the hook point relative to that of the shank. Offset circle hooks are more likely to gut hook your fish.

Since there is so much confusion about what constitutes a true circle hook, some tournaments are specifying certain brands and types as tournament legal. Unless the industry responds by standardizing descriptions, state resource departments and lawmakers may also have to be more specific. Maryland defines a circle hook as:  A non-offset hook with the point turned perpendicularly back to the shank. Circle hooks used in bait fisheries should be “non offset”. That is, if the hook is laid on a flat surface, all parts of the hook lie flat on the surface.


Here are some tips for using circle hooks to catch striped bass: 

Keep it limber – Use a slow, limber fishing rod with a lot of bend in the tip. A stiff, fast-tipped rod is more likely to pull the hook out of the striper’s mouth when you pick it up.

Don’t bury the hook in the bait – If you hide the hook, it is less likely to catch the corner of the fish’s mouth when you start reeling. If you use live bait, hook the bait through the nose or lips so the hook is completely exposed and the gap isn’t blocked. Stripers won’t see the hook in muddy river water and your bait will look more natural.

Crank, don’t yank – Just set your reel to free spool, wait for the fish to take off and start reeling. (Some fishermen count to ten.) Don’t set the hook.

No need to sharpen – Sharpening a circle hook will damage the tip and make less likely to hook the mouth but more likely to hook the fish’s stomach.

Avoid stainless circle hooks – If a fish breaks off, the stainless hooks don’t rust. That means it will stay in the fish’s mouth longer. If the fish is gut hooked, it will probably die.

Size your hooks appropriately – Usually a 7/0 or 8/0 will work for stripers. For really big fish in the early spring, you may want to increase to 10/0 or even bigger. Also, pay attention to the weight of the hook because you don’t want a hook that will bend or straighten.

Have pliers or a dehooker ready – One of the trade-offs with circle hooks is that it can take longer to remove the hook. Be prepared with some pliers right beside you on the bank or in the boat so you can get a picture and release the fish quickly.

Do you really need a net? – It’s a lot easier just to reach down and lip the fish with wet hands or wet rubber coated gloves. Nets cause you to lose fish and they injure fish by removing slime. In my opinion there is no place for them in a catch and release striper fishery. If you aren’t agile or coordinated enough to lip your fish, or if you are way up off the water, use a net that is rubber coated. A cradle net will let you measure your fish in the water.

Don’t drag the fish through the dirt – Or sand, or over rocks. It removes the slime and results in infections that can kill the fish. Wear water-proof boots or waders and stabilize the fish in the water at your feet. If you want a picture, pick it up quickly for the shot before you let it go. Be quick.

In a nutshell, circle hooks are good for the fish because fewer stripers are hooked in the stomach or in other vital organs, and they’re good for the fisherman because they increase hook-ups and reduce missed strikes. Good for the fish, good for the fisherman – that’s a winning combination.

Now for a fishing report. Some of the best rockfish of the year are being caught and released right now using jigs.  My hottest lure over the past couple of weeks has been a 10-inch BKD in either white, chartreuse, or avocado.  I’m still fishing the Bay Bridge area and the warm water discharges although I am just starting to get reports of fish in the rivers, in Eastern Bay, and on the Susquehanna Flats. The yellow perch run is nearly over and was pretty much a miss for Maryland this year. The white perch spawn is in stronger with good catches reported in the usual spawning areas including the Eastern Shore and Upper Bay tributaries. The herring spawn is on, but remember it’s illegal to fish with live herring now. Not much happening yet with hickory shad.

I got my biggest fish of the year and I think my biggest striped bass ever this week. I didn’t measure or weigh it and, even though I have a good idea of how big it was, I won’t speculate publicly. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time because we were on a slug of very nice fish and we had released several boat-side in the mid to high-40 inch range. I knew this one was longer and heavier so I wanted a picture. It was a real struggle to hold it up, but I didn’t really think about how big it was until I saw the pictures. It was a horse! Bay water temperatures are slightly below normal right now in the low to mid-40s with some warmer areas in the rivers. There are plenty of migratory fish moving north up the Bay. Believe it or not, some surface feeding fish have been reported in areas of warmer water. Good luck!



Posted Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 at 2:54 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “Circle Hook Confusion”

  1. DK says:

    That is what we call a BAFF. Big Ass F****** Fish.

  2. Monoman says:

    Thanks for another great article. Even though I don’t fish with bait too much I didn’t know about this. My one question is why we have to wait to hear about stuff like this from fellow fishermen and not from the DNR.

  3. TrickyRicky says:

    Any chance this fish is your biggest C&R?
    That fish is as big as Texas!

  4. Chris says:

    Whoa- great fish Shawn!

  5. Joe Fish says:

    Shawn, Thanks for the excellent info on circle hooks. I’ve had a lot of success with them for catfish on the Potomac and sharks in the Keys (not so much for stripers since using jigs). Apparently, like Monoman says, the DNR can’t be relied on to get the word out and tackle companies want to sell hooks. Not knowing any better I’ve specifically chosen the wrong kind of “circle hook” because it looked like it was more likely to hook the fish (hook point toward the eye). One idea would be for a respected conservation group (maybe FishSmart) to come out with a label, something like the age-old Good Housekeeping seal or like other products these days that are labeled as being “green”. The approved circle hooks might have an eye-catching label on the package — “Release Alive!” plus the FishSmart logo or something like that. Thanks again for the info..

  6. Joe Fish says:

    Oh yeah, and BTW, you’re gonna have to hit the weight room if you plan on catching more fish that size. Pretty nice grimmace on your face lifting that monster!

  7. Emily C. says:

    That must have been fun to catch.

  8. Richard Halley says:

    You might do well to stress that it isn’t the overall shape of the hook that matters, it is the direction of the point. A round hook may look like a circle but it isn’t unless the tip points back directly to the shank. Gamakatsu Nautilus circles are a good example of a false circle hook that will gut hook just as many fish as a J hook. They are sold at almost every bait store. I also agree that NRP officers should receive training about what makes a true circle so they can advise fishermen.

  9. Stan Neal says:

    It is hard to believe that Maryland allows bait fishing for spawning striped bass with any gear at all.

  10. Cool Papa says:

    I love to see the purple sheen of a freshly caught rockfish.

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