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Great Shape

Self-setting circle hooks are growing in popularity, especially among those who claim they lower the mortality rate of released fish.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2002


Self-setting circle hooks are growing in popularity, especially among those who claim they lower the mortality rate of released fish.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Brad Kenyon has to laugh when he hears anglers talk about the "new" circle hooks that are all the rage.

"Circle hooks?" Kenyon said. "We've been using them for 15 years."

Kenyon, an avid recreational grouper fisherman, first learned about circle hooks from a commercial longliner.

"The fish hook themselves," Kenyon said. "Circle hooks tend to hook fish in the side of the mouth -- you never see one gut-hooked. This means it is easier to release undersized fish, which keeps the overall mortality rate low."

Conservation organizations such as the Catch & Release Foundation and the Billfish Foundation actively have been promoting circle hooks for several years.

"We have heard from the captains that circle hooks do less damage," said Kay Davy, a biologist with the Fort Lauderdale-based Billfish Foundation. "And studies have shown that the circle hooks really don't lower the catch ratio."

Over the past three years, the Billfish Foundation has given away more than 150,000 circle hooks to anglers who wanted to use them instead of the traditional, straight-shaft J hooks.

Major tournaments, including those that target billfish out of Miami, have encouraged participants to use circle hooks because of the decreased release mortality.

Jon Lucy, a biologist with the Virginia Sea Grant program, hosted a conference in 1999 that chronicled circle hook use from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

"It seems that works for everything from Chinook salmon and halibut on the west coast to striped bass to flounder on the east coast," Lucy said. "The mortality is low as long as the hooks are non-offset or low-offset. That makes all the difference."

But anglers should remember that circle hooks are not for every situation.

"It all depends on what you are after," said Larry Mastry, whose tackle shop on Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg long has been a meeting place for serious tournament fishermen. "They don't seem to work well for the fast-hitting species such as mackerel or kingfish. But we are finding that for something like a tarpon, they not only help with the release, but you get a higher number of hookups."

Karen Burns of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota is running an ongoing circle hook catch-and-release study.

"It took a full year just to convince the fishermen to start using them," Burns said. "But once the fishermen started using them, they found they really liked them."

Burns said circle hooks seem to be most popular with anglers who target deep-water fish such as grouper and snapper.

The results have been promising, Burns said. "As far as red snapper go, of 416 tagged fish caught on circle hooks, 28 were returned to us," she said. "If you look at the same number for J hooks... 626 were caught, but only nine returned."

But not all fishermen believe circle hooks hold the future of sport fishing.

"They have their place," said Chris Turner, a veteran local captain who recently opened a blue-water tackle shop in St. Petersburg called Fathoms. "As a self-setting hook they are great, because you almost always hook the fish in the corner of the mouth.

"But for something like billfish here in the gulf, where you may only get two or three shots in a day, I am not convinced circle hooks are all that they are cracked up to be. We can't afford to lose a fish. If you are lucky, you could be a hero with three fish or a zero with none."

Turner said anglers are better off learning the proper way to fish deep water regardless if they are using circle or J hooks.

"When you get deeper than 120 feet of water, monofilament line can stretch up to 20 feet," he said. "Then the important thing is crank, not yank, or you will lose a fish."

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