Hooks In or Out?
Getting the word out on hook removal. Those
of us who try to share the findings of scientific study with
non-scientists are often frustrated. It seems very difficult to
get the word out. We write about some important discovery, but
find anglers, particularly the influential professional bass
anglers, either don't read the new information or dismiss the new
scientific insights because they conflict with beliefs the
anglers already hold.
by Ralph Manns
Professional and TV anglers aren't the only
ones to be slow in learning and applying the latest
"word" from scientists. Biologists, particularly state
fisheries workers are too busy with their own assigned tasks to
read all of the literature produced by other scientists. They
continue to advise anglers to handle fish using outmoded
The recommendation that anglers cut the leader close to the
hook when bass are "deep-hooked" is a good example. It
is hard to find a publication on catch-and-release (C&R)
techniques that doesn't pass on this poor advice. Yet, recent
research on release techniques strongly suggests there is a
Some years ago, Doug Hannon noted that most magazine articles
and state publications recommend leaving hooks in bass and other
fish to "rust" out. He claimed that hooks don't rust
fast enough, even in salt water; and suggested that the shank of
a hook pointing up the throat of a bass acts like a lever or trap
door that prevents swallowing. Bass can die of starvation while
waiting for normal body processes to eject the hook. Food coming
down a bass' throat will bypass a hook-shank, IF the shank lies
tightly against the side of the throat where the barb is lodged.
However, if the shank protrudes into the throat, food coming down
can push the shank across the esophagus, blocking it. Deep-hooked
bass may even feel pain as the food rotates the barb and
regurgitate the food. Recently, Hannon's observations have been
scientifically verified. John Foster, Recreational Fisheries
Coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources,
studied striped bass at Chesapeake Bay. His researchers held
throat-hooked stripers between 16- and 28-inches long for
observation in half-strength seawater so that hooks had ample
opportunity to rust away. Size 1/0 and 2/0 stainless steel,
bronzed, nickel, tin and tin-cadmium hooks were hooked in the top
of each fish's esophagus, with an 18-inch length of line
connected to the hook.
After four months, 78 percent of
the hooks were still imbedded. Cadmium coated hooks poisoned 20
percent of the fish, and production of these hooks has been
stopped. Bronzed hooks were less likely (70%) to be retained than
tin-cadmium (80%), nickel (83%), or stainless steel (100%) hooks.
In a second test, the line was clipped at the eye of the hook,
as advised by most existing C&R guides. One-hundred percent
of the stainless hooks were again retained, while 56 percent of
tin, 76 percent of bronze, 84 percent of tin-cadmium, and 88
percent of nickel hooks remained. Fish mortality was greater when
all line was trimmed. Foster theorized that the lengths of line
hanging from a fish's mouth kept the hook-shank flat against the
side of the esophagus and allowed food to pass. Without the line,
food could move the hook and close the throat.
Hooks rusted slowly in stages, and
the bend and barb became smaller very gradually. Stripers formed
scar tissue around imbedded hook points, a typical reaction of
body tissue to foreign matter. Foster noted, however, that once
the tough scar tissue formed, hooks became more, not less,
difficult to remove. Months after fish were hooked, infections
sometimes developed around points, causing some deaths.
Based on his research, Foster recommended anglers carefully
remove even deeply imbedded hooks. If the hook can not be
removed, then it seems better to leave about 18 inches of line
attached. Perhaps, someday, these findings will reach C&R
anglers, the biologists who are researching C&R and publish
C&R guidelines, and TV anglers who teach by their example.
Another good idea is to carry strong wire-cutting pliers. Cur
off protruding barbs in the throat and the hook shank falls free
Texas researchers recently compared the mortality of
largemouth bass hooked with live bait and artificial lures. Their
main finding: "there is no biological justification to
regulate use of live bait to catch bass" has been widely
publicized. Other findings may help anglers make appropriate
adjustments in technique.
In two separate tests, largemouth bass in a private water were
landed by TPWD anglers using Carolina-rigged scented plastic
worms, crankbaits with multiple treble hooks, and live carp
fished with either a Carolina rig or a float. To simulate normal
fishing conditions, anglers with different levels of expertise
While fishing with floats, anglers were instructed to delay
hooksets until floats went completely under, simulating the way
typical amateur anglers fish with unattended rods. Under all
other conditions, anglers were to strike immediately upon feeling
a hit. Captured bass were immediately examined to identify
hook-related injuries. When bass were hooked deep in the throat,
the line was cut and hook left in place. (TPWD did not identify
whether the cut was made in the traditional way near the hook, or
with line remaining outside the fish's mouth.) Bass were then
kept in a large holding net over a 72-hour observation period to
determine short-term mortality rates. Sixty bass were taken using
each method. Tests were made in August, when water was warm and
stress and mortality are normally high.
The average mortality under these worst-case conditions was 22
percent. Carolina rigs with scented worms caused the highest
mortality, followed by live carp used under floats, crankbaits,
and Carolina-rigged carp minnows.
TPWD biologists concluded that the timing of the hookset
appeared more critical than the type of bait used in the
determination of short-term death rates. The data show bass
hooked in the throat had poor survival odds. Evidently,
largemouth bass took both lures and live bait fully into their
mouths almost immediately. The bass pros' advice to strike
without delay is important to reduce fish mortality. Angling
techniques that delay hooksets should be avoided.
Carolina-rig and worm combos likely killed more fish because
the loose-floating leader prevented immediate detection of some
strikes and flavored worms are easily swallowed or held in the
back of a bass' mouth. Eighteen percent of bass taken on rigs
with worms were throat-hooked.
In contrast, Carolina rigs with live bait and live baits under
floats caused less mortality, likely because live preyfish are
often held in a bass' mouth for a few seconds, killed, and turned
to be swallowed headfirst. This gives anglers a few seconds more
to detect hits before baits are ingested. The decision to delay
hits when live baits were used with floats and to strike
immediately with Carolina-rigged baits likely caused the
different mortality rates of these two techniques. Nevertheless,
10 percent of bass hooked on Carolina-rigged live baits were
hooked in the esophagus.
It is no surprise that crankbaits are less likely to be
swallowed, as their artificial nature is immediately detectable
to fish. When fisheries are managed primarily for C&R or
trophy bass production, it may be appropriate to ban use of
multiple rods to reduce delayed hooksets, or to limit lures to
items unlikely to be swallowed. In any case, C&R sportsmen
will want to avoid techniques that delay hooksets, like fishing
with unattended rods.
The TPWD study showed that bass hooked in the tongue and
esophagus had about a 50 percent chance of dying, while bass
hooked in the lips mouth, jaw, roof of mouth had 25 percent or
less mortality. Interestingly, only 12.5 percent of gill hooked
fish died. This finding suggests anglers who kill and eat or
mount gill-damaged bass because "they are unlikely to
live" are in error.
TPWD also compared the survival of bass when they were
bleeding and when leaders were cut and hooks left in the fish.
Removing hooks improved bass survival when bass were not
bleeding. But there was little difference in mortality when bass
were bleeding or hooks were left in the fish.
Anglers practicing C&R rather than to eat bass might note
these findings. Fish caught with only superficial wounds are
likely to survive release. Small, deeply-hooked and bleeding bass
likely should be eaten, rather than released to die later. But
lunker bass are so valuable that they should be immediately
released, even if they are bleeding or deeply-hooked. Remove the
hook if posible. Leave an 18-inch leader if you can not remove
Ralph Manns is a distinguished outdoor writer whose materials
appear in popular publications such as In-Fisherman
and other outdoor magazines. On the web, he is a contributor at
the Bass Fishing Home Page.
Ralph is a strong proponent of conservation and proper care of
the great bass fisheries and water resources that we must manage
and protect as anglers. His articles always encourage proper
handling of bass by anglers, in livewells, and during weigh-ins.
Email Ralph Manns at firstname.lastname@example.org