More anglers today are experimenting with circle hooks for various species, like catfish, smallmouth and largemouth bass, panfish, and walleyes, based on their perceived conservation benefits: shallower hooking, reduced gut-hooking, lower mortality, easier hook removal, and ease of use for novice anglers, among others. In many instances, anglers are finding that switching to circle hooks doesn't sacrifice hooking efficiency and catch rates. At times, however, less deep-hooking can come with lower catch rates — a conservation trade-off anglers may weigh.
The term "circle hook" has been applied to a range of designs. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a circle hook is defined as a hook with the "point turned perpendicularly back to the shank to form a generally circular or oval shape." By definition, this could include both offset and non-offset designs. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission says a circle hook is a "non-offset hook with the point turned perpendicularly back to the shank."
Some fishery management agencies have recommended or mandated circle hooks for their conservation benefits, frequently in marine fisheries, but also in freshwater. In Wisconsin, for example, a quick-strike rig or non-offset circle hook is required if using a live baitfish 8 inches or longer. In Delaware, it's unlawful to fish during the striped bass spawning season on any striped bass spawning ground with natural bait using any hook other than a non-offset circle-hook. While not mandated, the New York DEC asks that anglers "please use non-offset circle hooks" if you plan to use natural baits for striped bass in the lower Hudson River.
While the science of circle hooks has been extensively studied in the field, little information exists on angler perceptions and use of circle hooks. In their keynote address at the recent International Symposium on Circle Hooks, researchers Steven Cooke, Vivian Nguyen, Karen Murchie, Andy Danylchuk, and Cory Suski presented results of a survey they conducted to better understand angler perspectives of circle hooks.* They also inventoried the scientific literature for field studies conducted since Cooke and Suski's first comprehensive review of circle hook science published in 2004, to see how anglers' perspectives match scientific findings.
From their literature search in 2011, the researchers identified 71 circle-hook studies published on recreational fisheries, with 17 taking place in freshwater and the remainder in the marine environment. No new freshwater studies were published since 2005. Based on their literature review, they summarize the current state of knowledge on circle-hook science:
— Circle hooks have less deep hooking than J-style hooks, with circle hooks catching mostly in the jaw.
— Circle hooks tend to reduce hooking mortality by 50 percent on average, although there are exceptions.
— Circle hook configuration, like the degree of offset, can obscure benefits.
— Catch rates with circle hooks can be comparable to J-style hooks, but using circle hooks effectively requires a change in technique.
— Circle hooks tend to work best with natural baits or when lures are fished passively.
So what is the anglers' take on circle hooks? According to the survey by Cooke's group, there has been a steady increase in the use of circle hooks from the 1970s through 2011. The data suggest a lag between when anglers first hear about circle hooks and when they first use them. Looking at 2005 and beyond, about 17 percent of anglers surveyed rarely or never use circle hooks, while 11 percent always use them.
We've often written about the conservation benefits of circle hooks in In-Fisherman publications and covered them on television. We've fished various hook models extensively for catfish, and rarely have we seen instances where hooks weren't embedded shallow, almost always in the fleshy corner of the mouth, making fish highly releasable. The notable but generally rare injuries we've seen for catfish are hooking through an eye or eye-socket, due to using hooks that are too large. We've found downsizing reduces eye-hooking without sacrificing hooking effectiveness, unless hooks are too small.
In-Fisherman editors continue to experiment with circle hooks for panfish, bass, and walleyes, and find that fish are almost always hooked shallow. Hooking effectiveness (catch rates), however, varies with species and other factors like hook size, type, and fishing technique. More on that later.
Consistent with the published science on circle hooks, about 77 percent of anglers responding to the survey by Cooke et al. say circle hooks are an important conservation tool. About 87 percent agree that fish are almost always hooked in the jaw, and circle hooks reduce deep hooking compared to conventional designs.
Anglers had mixed opinions regarding which fish they think circle hooks work best for. Some fish listed in the "most effective" group by some anglers were in the "least effective group" for other anglers. Most species identified as good choices for circle hooks inhabit marine environments, although those found in freshwater also were listed, including striped bass, black bass, catfishes, and salmonids (trout and salmon). Panfish and esocids (pike and muskies) were in the "least-effective" group.
For a circle hook to work properly, it needs to turn and the point to catch shallow in the mouth, typically in the corner of the mouth as the fish turns and swims away from the direction of the angler and rod. These mechanics set up well in situations such as catfishing where natural baits are fished stationary on bottom or moved slowly. We've also found circle hooks effective for smallmouth bass when paired with natural baits like minnows and leeches and fished on slow-to-still presentations like vertical fishing or fishing under floats. Circle hooks also tend to work best for walleyes on slower presentations, such as livebait rigs and float rigs. While science shows a shallow-hooking benefit to circle hooks for walleyes, it also suggests hooking efficiency may be lower.
Most anglers in the Cooke et al. survey agree that circle hooks are best for presentations with natural baits, citing baitfishing, anchored bottom fishing, drifting, and fly-fishing as examples of techniques. Ineffective techniques included artificial baits and more active methods utilizing trolling, jigging, casting, and fly-fishing. Little research has tested circle hooks on hardbaits.
We hear from anglers who abandon circle hooks because they have trouble hooking fish and are frustrated trying to learn how to use them. Anglers are told not to set circle hooks in the sense of how a bass angler sets a hook. For many, remembering not to set can be difficult. Some anglers in the Cooke et al. survey reported they prefer not to fish with circle hooks because "part of the thrill of fishing is setting the hook." Most respondents agreed that adjustments in fishing technique are necessary with circle hooks.
The "set" for circle hooks might be best described as a progressive loading or pulling force. When I fish for catfish with circle hooks I typically set rods in holders. I use rods with a softer tip and midsection, so when a fish takes the bait, the rod loads steadily as the fish turns and swims away. In 95 percent of situations I don't have the reel in freespool. The fish picks up the bait, turns, and swims. The rod loads and the circle hook goes about it's business. When the rod takes a good bend downward with constant pressure, that signals the fish is hooked. From that point on, I do one of two things. I either lift the rod from the holder and start reeling while making a slow sweep of the rod, or while the rod is still in the holder I make 4 or 5 turns of the reel handle to tighten the trap even more for extra insurance that the hook is set.
At that point, with the rod loaded with steady pressure from a hooked fish, forgetting not to set and giving a quick hard hook-set usually doesn't result in a lost fish, because it's already hooked. A hard hook-set is mostly detrimental if delivered before the hook penetrates, before the rod bends with constant pressure.
A variety of circle hook styles and sizes are available online, with a growing selection in retail outlets. Anglers in Cooke et al.'s survey don't seem to have problems finding circle hooks as over three quarters of them found them in stores. Results show that most anglers can buy them locally rather than ordering them online or by telephone. So it seems more retailers are carrying circle hooks
As for the regulatory aspects of circle hooks, respondents were split on whether agencies should mandate their use. Rather, a common thread was that circle hooks should be highly recommended but not mandated. Agencies often avoid adding new regulations unless there's a scientific basis to do so.
Most of my experience with circle hooks is in catchfishing with live and cut baitfish. I prefer to use a modified design with a wider hook bend and gap, to accommodate bulky baits. Modified octopus circles, like the Lazer Sharp L7228 and Gamakatsu Octopus In-Line Circle hook are nearly identical and are two of my favorites. I prefer the thinner wire on these hooks compared to heavier gauges used on circle hooks designed for saltwater. Thinner wire is easier on livebaits and seems to have better hook penetration.
I also like the Daiichi Circle Chunk Light, Team Catfish Double-Action, and Rippin' Lips circle hooks, all of similar design. Mustad's Demon Circle in light wire is another good hook. This past year I fished the new Lazer TroKar Lancet circle hook for both channel cats and flatheads with excellent success and it quickly became one of my favorites (TK4 hooks are non-offset). Lancets have the surgically sharp TroKar point.
Doug Stange has experimented with circle hooks for smallmouths, and likes the modified octopus design for bronzeback applications. He says it hooks well, from both shallow-hooking and catch-rate standpoints.
One benefit of this type of hook, he says, is that you can actually do somewhat of a hook-set without sacrificing too much hook-up percentage. As such, accidentally setting the hook isn't usually a problem.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw often uses circle hooks for smallmouths and walleyes. "My son's far better at it than I am because he has patience," Straw says. "He fishes vertically with minnows with the Eagle Claw 787, a thin-wire circle. He just waits for the rod to double over and starts reeling. Fish that way with standard hooks and you up the odds for gut-hooking. Circles do a much better job of hooking smallmouths in the corner of the mouth, if you have patience.
"Smallmouths can be hooked at the first indication of a bite most of the time. In most cases, standard hooks catch them in the snout. I use circles when they're biting aggressively, swallowing baits on the bite.
"Walleyes are a different story," he says. "They typically pick livebaits up by the head or tail and drop them at least once, often 3 or 4 times. Circles work better for walleyes with impatient souls like me. I let them drop the bait once or twice, then I begin applying increasing pressure. I start with a light drag or by letting line slip easily between my finger and the blank as the fish runs. I increase pressure gradually. When the tip bends all the way over and stays down, I put a good bend in the rod and start reeling. It's not a hook-set. Generally I just stand up and let the rod bend more fully with the added pressure.
"For smallmouths and walleyes, I use 1/0 most of the time, maybe a size bigger or smaller, depending on size of the minnows. A light-wire hook like the Eagle Claw 787 penetrates easier. It works better with walleyes, and we've never had a smallmouth straighten one. The 787 does break sometimes when you try to remove it with pliers — they're pretty brittle."
Straw also uses Owner Mutu Light Wire and Gamakatsu Inline Octopus Circles. "These have less metal — they're shorter — than the 787s so, aesthetically, they seem right to me with smaller minnows, crawlers, and leeches (sizes #2 up to 1/0)," he says. "I almost never start fishing with a circle with those baits, but when fish get really picky I switch and let them take it longer. The circle is insurance against gut hooking — which is all it ever is, really. Not a guarantee — just insurance."
I've seen anglers actually throw their rod to the ground because they get frustrated missing fish after fish with circle hooks, usually setting so hard the hook rattles out of the fish's mouth. Once they get the hang of it, though, circles become their go-to choice, with nary a missed fish. Grab some circles and experiment. Different types, too. It's a good idea to shop around for insurance.
The state of knowledge about circle hooks in freshwater is still young, with lots of opportunities to experiment for a variety of species. For those who say circle hooks are no fun — winch down on a 70-pound blue cat and you'll never think about missing out on the hook-set.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.
*Cooke, S. J., V. M. Nguyen, K. J. Murchie, A. J. Danylchuk, and C. D. Suski. 2012. Scientific and stakeholder perspectives on the use of circle hooks in recreational fisheries. Bull. Mar. Sci. 88:395-410.