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Barbless Hooks

Published: 30th September 2021 | Author: Fulling Mill

This feature on hooks is a collaboration between Keep Fish Wet and Fulling Mill. A similar version appears on their blog here.

Barbless hooks have been around for years. However, as catch and release angling has surged in popularity, so too has demand for these hooks. You might be asking yourself, what’s the big deal? After all, you can just crimp the barbs on your other hooks.

Here’s the thing: when you crimp the barb on a barbed hook you remove the one thing meant to keep the fish on, the barb. Barbless hooks—on the other hand—are engineered to have excellent fish holding power without the barb there in the first place.

They’re extremely effective, AND they’re much less harmful to fish.

A few of our favorite euro nymphs tied barbless.

The History of Barbless

So, where did it all start? According to Fulling Mill Technical Manager Steve Carew, Fulling Mill has been selling barbless hooks for 25 years or more. “Initially, it was the increased popularity of catch in release fishing that led to demand for these hooks. These hooks were exact barbless copies of the successful barbed hooks that we sold and used in our fly production. I have to say, though, that these hooks were a resounding flop. It took us many years to sell through the stock, and initial production batch were quickly discontinued.”

However, the story doesn’t end there. Steve continues, “around 2011 we saw that competition style fly fishing on rivers was really gaining in popularity. The top teams were using manufactured barbless hooks from Eastern Europe. As a result, we decided to launch a range of barbless flies and initially we used the hooks from Eastern Europe to tie them. But, the hooks from Eastern Europe had quality issues. So, after a serious sales job on the then owner of Fulling Mill, he invested once again in getting barbless hooks manufactured. This time, however, the hooks were not just straight barbless copies of barbed designs. The rest is history. The fly range and the hooks were a huge success and they continue to be a core part of Fulling Mill’s fly and hook offering.”

A few popular hooks from the Fulling Mill Barbless collection.
Roza’s Pink Hare’s Ear is tied on the standard Jig Force.

What Makes Barbless Hooks Unique?

Barbless hooks are specially engineered. They hold hooked fish just as well as their barbed counterparts. According to Fulling Mill Technical Manager Eric Kelley, when you remove the barb on a hook “you need to look elsewhere within the design to see what can add holding power to that hook model.”

The Ultimate Dry is an excellent standard gauge wire hook for dry flies.

As an example of this, he says “a popular method is extending the hook point to give the angler better leverage to hold a fish more securely. You can mess with the angle of the bend as well to increase holding power and leverage applied. Basically, we tweak the hook shape in a variety of ways to get what we’re after. Hook development is incredibly fun fun.”

The Fulling Mill Barbless Range.

When we introduced our second round of barbless hooks, they were an immediate success. According to Eric, “We released a handful of models all at once to better suit the needs and wants of anglers who kept asking for them. The Grab Gape, Jig Force, Heavy Weight Champ and Czech Nymph hooks were the original forerunners. That was a decade ago and immediately after their release, anglers and tiers kept knocking on the door for more.”

We’re adding new barbless hooks every year. Pictured here is the Jig Force Short, which was added to the collection in 2020. Photo by New England Riverworks.

There is still demand for barbed hooks in some applications, but that’s changing. The competition scene is in the spotlight, so more people are now starting to realize that barbless hooks aren’t what they used to be decades ago quality wise. More and more anglers are making the change.

Catch and Release Success.

These hooks are not only popular for their efficacy, but also for their reduced impact on fish.

Hooks are one of the more well studied aspects of catch and release angling. The resounding consensus is that barbless hooks are better for fish than barbed ones.  There are three main reasons why no barb helps create better outcomes for each fish you release. 

They cause less injury and bleeding.

Studies on species as wide ranging as trout, bass, and triggerfish have shown the there is less bleeding and injury associated with barbless hooks. Most of the injury from barbed hooks is a result of the unhooking process. This study found that barbless hooks significantly reduced moderate or severe injury.  When we hook a fish in sensitive areas (gills, throat, gut, or foul-hooked) where bleeding is more likely to occur, this becomes is increasingly important

Barbless hooks reduce injury and bleeding.

They’re easier and faster to remove. 

Based on research on a wide range of freshwater and marine fish, using barbless hooks tends to reduce handing time by half. This is important because the longer you handle a fish the more stressful it is for them (see Principle 3 for more info). A study on Rock Bass in Lake Erie found that hooks without barbs were faster and easier to remove. They also reduced the duration of air exposure fish experienced by 50%. 

With no barbs, handling time is cut in half.

Reduced Mortality.

There are a number of studies that show that barbless hooks reduce mortality of fish after they are released. In this meta-analysis, the authors found that in some studies they did decrease mortality. Overall, the authors found that in the studies they examined the average mortality rate for hooks with barbs was 14.6% and for barbless it was 8.2%. They hypothesized that it was often either or a combination of both of the first two reasons (less injury and bleeding, and faster unhooking) that led to decreased mortality for fish caught with barbless hooks.

Barbless hooks, in particular those designed as without a barb as opposed to barbed hooks that have been crimped, lead to advantages for anglers and fish alike. Each time you catch a fish, it’s an opportunity to put conservation into action by using Keep Fish Wet’s best practices.

We all want to see this fish swim away to grow bigger and stronger. Fishing barbless hooks is key to ensuring that happens!

If you want to read more from Keep Fish Wet, check out their piece on Winter Fish Handling.

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