February 05, 2014
Hooks are the unsung heroes of the fishing scene. While high-tech electronics and other glitzy tackle grab front-page headlines, even the slickest steel often slips quietly under the radar. Nonetheless, hooks remain as critical to angling success as ever. And one of the biggest trends in the world of shanks and barbs continues to be the circle hook.
Once relegated to a small suite of applications, circle hooks have blossomed in recent years. "We continue to see the use of the circle expand both in freshwater and saltwater," says Eagle Claw's Matt Gray. "As more anglers are exposed to the benefits and functionality of circle hooks, we're able to cast a broader net in terms of different fisheries and species that are targeted with them."
Gray notes that circles offer promise for anglers pursuing virtually any gamefish. "With manufacturers such as Eagle Claw constantly expanding the breadth and scope of their circle hook product line, finding new and unique applications for freshwater fish is that much easier," he says.
Circle Hooks By Definition
A circle hook is forged so the point turns back at a 90-degree angle to the shank. "True circles almost come around in a complete circle," says John Jamison, lifelong catman and veteran competitor on national venues including the Cabela's King Kat trail, where he earned coveted Angler-of-the-Year honors. "With this style, the fish does the work loading the pole and burying the hook in the corner of its mouth. You don't need to pull back hard to set the hook."
True circles are time-tested designs, but newer modified circles, the points of which turn at roughly 45-degree angles to the shank, are a bit more forgiving. "These are the next generation of circles, a cross between a J-hook and true circle," Jamison says. "The hooking percentage is still very high, and you still have a fighting chance even if you accidentally jerk back when a fish takes the bait."
Such clemency can be key because even though circle hooks have been mainstays on the catfish front for years, Jamison still sees otherwise astute cat fanciers making mistakes. "Even serious tournament anglers come up to me and vent their frustration about missing fish on circle hooks," he says. "With a little coaching, however, they get the hang of it pretty quick."
Jamison's favorite circles spring from the Cabela's King Kat and Rippin' Lips' Tournament Grade Circle Hook lineups. Though not exactly opposites, they highlight different undercurrents on the circle hook scene.
"The Cabela's King Kat is made of heavy wire and is designed for big fish," he says. "It can hold a 100-pound catfish. I use the King Kat for monster blues on big rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri, either from an anchored position or walking baits with a bumping rig."
Rippin' Lips' rendition, meanwhile, features sturdy VMC Vanadium Steel wire of thinner proportions, along with a more modified design. "It's also offset, so the point is not perfectly in line with the shank," he says. "In my experience, offset points hook catfish faster and more solidly than in-lines."
Another notable design steadily gaining traction is Team Catfish's Double Action circle hook, which features a wide-gap, offset motif that allows multiple hook-setting methods. "It's our number-one seller," says company owner Jeff Williams. "You can either let the fish set the hook, sweep the rod above your head, or simply reel down, which is the preferred technique. The big advantage to that is, in a lot of still-water situations such as big reservoirs, catfish don't swim off with the bait, and this allows you to set the hook for them."
Eyes are another pivotal point in circle-hook design, and not without debate. Jamison favors straight eyes. "When you snell a straight eye with the line coming through the front of the hook, it cants forward and produces a better hooking percentage," he says. Upturned eyes, meanwhile, remain a popular choice among legions of fans.
For example, veteran high-country trout and salmon guide Bernie Keefe, of Granby, Colorado, rarely deploys circles for salmonids due to his affinity for jig-borne presentations. But when chasing catfish across Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska impoundments, he swears by the Lazer Sharp L9222 Circle C, which sports an upturned eye. "It's deadly on channel cats of all sizes," he says. "Just leave a little sag in the line once your slipsinker rig hits bottom. When a catfish starts to run with it, point the rod at the fish and when the line tightens up, start reeling."
In-Fisherman Managing Editor Rob Neumann likes the TroKar Lancet (TK4) and AP (TK5) circle hooks. "These non-offset hooks are scary sharp and start to work as soon as the point pricks the skin. I can't recall a single instance I hooked a catfish on these other than in the corner of the mouth. I like the non-offset designs, which for certain species has been shown to not hook as deeply as offset hooks. Hooking percentage is as good as it gets." Another one of his favorites for cats is a classic modified octopus circle design, such as the Lazer Sharp L7228 and Gamakatsu Octopus Circle.
Outside the catfish scene, circle hooks are gaining ground as well. In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has chronicled his and other anglers' experiments with a variety of circle hooks for smallmouth bass and walleyes, with both livebait and artificial offerings. "With livebait like minnows, crawlers, leeches, and crawfish, there's no excuse anymore for using standard hooks for smallmouth bass," he says.
South of Straw's northern stomping grounds, veteran guide and touring bass pro Scott Martin shares similar appreciation for livebaiting largemouths, along with numerous saltwater species. Martin, a decorated competitor on the FLW Tour, doesn't rely on circle hooks with soft-plastic presentations when fishing tournaments — though a fair number of anglers use them for wacky-rigging and other tactics — he considers them a go-to for presenting live wild shiners to giant Florida largemouths on famed Lake Okeechobee.
"Five years ago, everyone was using Kahle hooks," he says. "Gut-hooking bass was common, and you had to wonder how many fish survived." Today, circles are more prevalent lake-wide, and the choice aboard Martin's boat. "You can let bass eat the shiner a split-second longer, and gut-hooking isn't an issue," he says. "From a catch-and-release and conservation standpoint, circle hooks make a huge difference. But they're also extremely effective, and easy for anglers of all abilities and levels of experience to fish."
Martin uses 4/0 or 5/0 circle hooks for bass, and favors a straight shank. "With offset designs, the hook sometimes circles back and catches in the bait's gills while it's swimming around," he says. "With straight shanks, that doesn't happen."
Offset shanks get the nod with cutbait and squid in saltwater, where he fishes circle hooks extensively for a variety of species from cobia to goliath grouper. One of his latest applications is fishing live crabs for tarpon. "Last season I used a TroKar TK5, which has a three-sided cutting point that whittles through a crab's shell like butter, simplifying rigging," he notes. "Plus, while other brands may break under the strain of a 150-pound tarpon, we've never had a tarpon break or throw the hook, and we're using 80-pound braid and horsing them to the boat in under 10 minutes."
He also says that circle hooks have made the time-honored practice of "bowing to the king" obsolete. "We don't tell the clients to bow anymore," he says. "They just stand in the bow and hold on for dear life."
While he gives the TK5 high marks, Martin is quickly working the new TroKar TK619 into his programs as well. The hook claimed Best-of-Show honors in the terminal tackle category at the 2014 ICAST trade show in Orlando, and promises to be a heavyweight powerhouse for seasons to come. Available in medium and heavy wire options and 1/0 to 12/0 sizes, it's designed for taming the sea's toughest species, and will no doubt earn its stripes for freshwater behemoths as well.
Indeed, as the circle hook revolution progresses and more options emerge, no doubt more applications and benefits will surface for species from giants of the brine to the smallest sweetwater species.