It’s remarkable to see, among the earliest fishing artifacts found within numerous unrelated civilizations, those illogical objects called circle hooks. For pre-Columbian natives of Latin America, ancient Polynesians, early Japanese, and indigenous people of the North Pacific, the design was apparently an obvious one among fishermen.
Still, how is it that such different cultures arrived independently at a similar hook design? Part of the answer is that these were not sport anglers but hunters and trappers of fish, who by necessity used only the tools that best captured their game—who set a trap and moved on to set the next, returning later to dispatch dinner. As subsistence fishermen, they needed a hook that worked by itself, pinning fish to a line like snare-captured game. Circle hooks did just that, becoming staple tools among early fishermen. Today, catfish setliners as well as commercial saltwater fishermen equally appreciate the hook’s functionality.
Setting the Trap
Among rod and reel cat anglers, catfish circle hooks play increasingly vital roles. Yet without proper use of complementary tools—the right baits, rods, and line—the circle hook is no more useful than a trap without a spring.
Most rod-and-reel anglers believe that modified circle designs—those with points that turn toward the shank at roughly 45 degrees—hook cats more easily than true circles, whose points turn at about 90 degrees. True circles, such as Eagle Claw’s heavy stainless-steel 190, are the preference of setline fishermen.
Modified designs typically sport wider gaps than true circles, a feature that may play a role in hooking thick, bony-lipped catfish. In truth, hook size itself remains far less important than gap and bite—the areas between point and shank, and point and bend, respectively. When attaching baits, leave most of the throat open to allow the hook to properly pivot in the fish’s jaw. Impale cutbaits as lightly as possible, perhaps through the tougher dorsal flesh. With live baitfish, plant the hook gently through the nostrils, lips, or just beneath the skin near the tail. Finally, sharpen the point and file down the barb—you’ll hook and land more cats and more easily free the hook.
To lodge a circle hook into the corner of a cat’s soft yet bony jowl, sustained pressure must be exerted opposite the direction of a striking fish. Veteran Minnesota catfish guide Dennis Steele, who regularly uses circle hooks to put his clients on big cats, describes the process: “A good circle hook ‘trap’ consists of a 7- to 10-foot rod that loads up slowly, allowing a cat to grab the bait, turn, and move away without more than gentle, constant resistance.” Steele prefers Berkley Reflex or Shakespeare Ugly Stik rods.
“Monofilament line complements the rod perfectly,” he adds, “yielding a bungey-cord effect. Lines like Berkley Trilene Big Game cushion the hookset just enough to prevent the hook from bouncing out of the fish’s jaw. Happens sometimes with no-stretch superlines.” Steele continues, “Lots of guys want to loosen their drags, but a tight drag is better—helps turn and lock the hook into the cat’s jaw.
“Keeping the rod in a rod holder seals the deal,” he says. “Only thing holding the rod in your hands does is tempt you to set the hook. I like to set the holders to position rods at about 60 degrees to the water. This helps load the rod slowly when a fish takes a bait. When the rod tip bounces, signaling an interested cat, I don’t touch it until the rod folds over, as if it’s about to break. Lift the rod straight up out of the rod holder, like you’re reaching for the sky with the rod tip.”
Heavy-duty metal holders remain a wiser choice than plastic models, which can crack under strain. Holders from Driftmaster and Down-East clutch rods securely, yet allow you to easily pull one loose when jammed tight against the rigid bulk of a hefty catfish. Set properly, the circle-hook trap is a thing of beauty.
When Circles Mean More Cats
Yet, just as a trapper worth his weight in pelts would never employ the same set in every spot, neither should you force circle hooks into every situation. As seasoned anglers drawing upon plentiful experience, we’ll outline the scenarios in which circle hooks are key.
Channels and Blues in Rivers—In-Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman has spent the past eight-plus seasons testing circle hooks in countless fishing situations, greatly refining the program. “I can now say with certainty that circle hooks shine in moderate to heavy current situations, particularly when pursuing channel cats or blues,” Hoffman says.
“We usually position above a snag or a hole, baits set to contact cats moving upstream. What often happens here,” he says, “is that cats move forward, take the bait, turn, then head back downstream. Perfect scenario for a circle, because the retreating cat loads the rod, which pivots and sinks the hook point neatly into place in the fish’s jaw. Unlike blues or channel cats, flatheads don’t always move so predictably in current, so I’ll often substitute a wide-gap hook when targeting them.”
Drifting—Another pattern Hoffman helped popularize is drifting with circle hooks in reservoirs. Although he once preferred circle hooks whenever drifting, Hoffman’s now refined his thinking. “Drifting with circle hooks works wonders on bigger blue cats, say when you’re into numbers of fish 8 pounds and up,” he says. “Smaller blues or channels, though, often don’t get enough of the bait into their mouth fast enough to fully take the hook. As the boat continues moving, the bait slips out before the hook can pivot and set. Only way to combat this is to slow your drift, but at this point you’re normally better off switching to J-hooks.”
River Flatheads—When Steele was asked about his favorite situations for using circle hooks, he echoed Hoffman’s descriptions of current applications for channel cats. “I probably use circle hooks 80 percent of the time when fishing channels,” Steele says.
“But I also like them when targeting flatheads. In rivers, choosing a rig or a hook often depends on the direction catfish move within different currents, or near cover, relative to your position. When setting baits for active flatheads near snags,” he says, “circle hooks work because fish frequently move back toward cover after eating a bait. Lock down the drag and be ready to grab the rod quickly; an aggressive flathead can overload a blank in a hurry.
“Circle hooks aren’t always the answer for flatheads, though,” he says. “I prefer other styles of hooks when it’s necessary to let flatheads run, or when you’re not concerned with the fish getting tangled in wood. I also like standard hook styles when fishing the tail of a hole, as flatheads here move upstream toward your position after taking a bait. Tough to get a circle hook to set on slack line,” he says.
Freelining Stillwater—Frequently, anglers find themselves amidst various suburban fisheries—artificial golf course lakes, park ponds, small residential reservoirs. Many of these waters, which pepper urban regions in surprising density, contain impressive catfish populations—lots of channel cats from 2 to 10 pounds, fair numbers of blues with a few mammoths, and the odd bull flathead. Cats of all species roam shallow water near inlets, at corners, or beneath stands of shoreline trees where drifting pollen or falling bird droppings accelerate the food chain. Best spots, then, often lie within a short cast of shore.
As an annual visitor to a chain of residential ponds in a southern climate, I’m routinely standing on the bank alongside a 12-foot match rod cradled in a sandspike. The rig remains a perpetually freelined cutbait or goldfish on a 3/0 to 5/0 circle hook. Lots of times, kids on bikes shoot by, screeching to a halt to watch me wrestle another shiny blue cat.
Experienced catmen might at this point make a case for slipsinker or float rigging, saying that traditional hooks and hooksets are best in stillwater situations. But if you’re working additional rods with different baits or for different species, while your cat rod sits unattended—or if you’ve set aside an afternoon for a little family fishing—circle hooks are the answer. Toss out a bunch of baits, rods secured in bankside holders, and return to the family. Throw a football, eat a picnic lunch, read a story. Race your kids to the lurching rods. Marvel at those fat handsome catfish, and harvest selectively.
Which Circles When?
Industry standards for circle hook sizes are not uniform: Gap distance, bite, throat, angle of hookpoint bend, eye size, offset angle, and total length vary greatly from circle hook to circle hook (even within one manufacturerʼs line). Each model must be fished and examined separately. Even the definition of circle hook has been blurred, as some styles more closely model beaked points than the perpendicular in-turned points seen on original circle hooks.
Given the lack of clearly defined terms, as well as how function relates to specific hook features, top cat anglers remain on the lookout for great circle hooks, working through every model on the market to reveal top performers for each situation. Hereʼs a sampling of preferred circle-hook applications:
Continued after Circle Hook gallery…
*Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler, freelance writer and long-time contributor to In-Fisherman publications.
Circle Hook of Science
A study of circle hooks by S. J. Cooke and C. D. Suski reveals findings that should interest catfish anglers.* The authors combine their own results with those of 43 other studies, including data from 25 fish species. In all cases, circle hooks were tested against standard J-hooks.
Post Release Mortality Rates: Mortality was higher for fish caught on J-hooks in the majority of studies:
Hooking Depth and Location:
• Circle hooks embedded shallower than J-hooks about 80 percent of the time; equally shallow in 20 percent of instances; deeper in 0 percent of instances.
• Circle hooks lodged in the jaw roughly 85 percent more often than J-hooks; less often in about 10 percent of cases.
• Circle hooks became gut-hooked 80 percent less often than J-hooks; 20 percent equally often, relative to conventional hooks.
Offset versus Non-offset Circle Hooks: Offset refers to the degree of deviation in the plane of the hook point, relative to that of the shank.
• Bleeding and deep-hooking rates of striped bass caught on offset circle hooks were 7.8 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively. Rates fell to 0 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively, for non-offset circle hooks.
• Deep-hooking in Pacific sailfish was nearly 3 times more prevalent in severely offset (15 degrees) circle hooks compared to minor offset (4 degrees) and non-offset hooks.
• Gut-hooking and deep-hooking were generally rare for fish captured on circle hooks.
• Some fish showed increased tissue damage, especially to the eye region, from the use of circle hooks. Mouth structure, it appears, determines tissue damage from circle hooks.
• Circle hooks occasionally caused more damage to tissue than J-hooks, as they can be more difficult to extract.
*Cooke, S. J., and C. D. Suski. 2004. Are circle hooks an effective tool for conserving marine and freshwater recreational catch-and-release fisheries? Aquat. Conserv.: Mar. Freshwat. Ecosys. 14:299-326.