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Barbed vs Barbless Hooks

For many years as I was starting out fly fishing I fished with flies that had barbs on them.  I’m pretty sure this is a common practice for many out there learning to fly fish as well as many veterans to the sport.  After a while though you begin to think about whether barbed vs barbless hooks are a better option.  I’d like to share my views on the matter and hopefully convince a few of you out there to a different way of thinking when fishing barbless  flies.

Barbed vs Barbless Hooks

Barbed vs Barbless Hooks?  Which Way Should I Go?

Most people fish barbed flies today.  You’ll probably hear people talk about how horrible this is for the fish and their health as well.  You’ll also probably hear arguments against fishing barbless hooks as well.  So how do you know which way is better?  As you already know, there are two sides to the story here.  I’m a firm believer in one of those sides as you’ll soon find out.

Argument for Barbed Hooks

The proponents of barbed fishing hooks are everywhere.  I’d bet that 99% or more people out there who started fishing and fly fishing started out doing so with barbed hooks.  It’s the norm.  It’s the standard.  I will admit there are benefits of using barbed hooks while fishing.  A few such benefits are:

  • Keeps the fish hooked in one spot
  • Less chance of losing fish
  • No worries about crimping barbs before you head out
  • Every shop sells barbed flies

Those are just a few arguments for the benefits of using barbed fishing hooks.  I have no problem with any of these and will admit that 90% of the flies I purchase are barbed.  I then spend an hour or so crimping all of them, which admittedly is a pain to do.  I’ve broken many a hook in the process as well.  Doing so on a $5.00 fly you just bought is a tough pill to swallow.  However, there are a few downsides to barbed hooks, such as:

  •  Higher mortality rate for fish due to increase damage from extracting barb
  • When you accidentally stick yourself, it’s a much worse experience to extract the hook
  • Fish that break off cannot shake the hook that is attached and must wait for it to rust off
  • Hooks broken off on a fish can impede their ability to eat

As you can see, the pros and cons (at least those I’ve listed) pretty much equal each other out.  However, I’d like to present one of the those downsides more clearly.

 Higher Mortality Rate with Barbed Hooks

Rusted fish hooksThe mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths (in general, or due to a specific cause) in a population, according to Wikipedia.  In this instance it basically means that it is the number of fish that die due to a certain cause, as in the damage caused by the barb being extracted.  Studies have shown that in some cases the mortality rate of fish is almost double when using barbed hooks (check here for a few statistics and references).  To me, fish are a precious resource that must be taken care of.  And so anything I can do to reduce the amount of deaths to these fish is a worthy thing to do.

It is just like limits placed on the amount of fish one can keep from a river or lake.  Those regulations are in effect to help preserve the fishery for future generations.  Being a catch and release fisherman is a great idea as it helps this same cause all while still allowing us to pursue a sport that we all thoroughly enjoy.  However, catch and release angling is far less effective when fishing barbed hooks due to the damage it causes to the fish.  If you’re planning to keep the fish within the regulated limit, I don’t see much problem with using barbed hooks.  It is the catch and release aspect that I firmly believe barbed hooks cause more damage than good.

Argument for Barbless Hooks

The information above presents my point fairly clearly.  But if you aren’t aware of the benefits of using barbless hooks, I’d like to present a few that I feel are worth a mention:

  • Lower mortality rate to fish
  • Easier to extract from fish
  • Allows for quicker release of the fish
  • Easier to remove from yourself if accidentally hooked
  • More challenging to fish with
  • Flies broken off can easily fall out of a fish’s mouth
Fish Caught with Barbless Hook

Fly-Caught Brown with Barbless Hook.  Lived to fight another day.

Those are just a few of the benefits of barbless hooks.  You may be wondering why I’d say they are more challenging to fish with though.  That leads me to a few of the drawbacks of barbless hooks, and then I’ll clarify my view on the challenge.

  • Easier to lose a hooked fish
  • Potential to unhook and rehook the same fish
  • Painstaking process of removing barbs from hooks (by filing or crimping)

The first point there is that it is easier to lose a fish hooked on a barbless fly.  This is true and there are no arguments against that.  However, does this not make fighting those fish that are hooked all the more of a challenge?  I think so.  You have to be more conscious of the pressure and angles of the fish.  You have to be aware of what the fish is doing and where it’s going in order to not provide that small amount of slack for the fish to throw the hook.  To me that is a challenge and one that I look forward to.  It adds another dimension to this sport that only adds to the enjoyment one has when out on the water.

Final Thoughts on Barbed vs Barbless Hooks

Barbless Hook - A Better Way to Go

Barbless Hook – A Better Way to Go

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a huge proponent of fishing with barbless hooks.  I’m not saying that anyone that fishes with barbed hooks is a monster and shouldn’t be allowed to fish.  I’d never say that.  We are all fisherman in this great sport and we each choose a different way to experience it.  I used barbed hooks for the majority of my fly fishing life.  Only a few years back I made the switch to barbless and have been a firm believer in that choice ever since.  My only hope is to provide information on the subject to allow any fisherman out that to make an educated choice on the barbed vs barbless hooks decision.

I’m probably not the first to say that barbless hooks are harder to fish with.  It is a challenge as previously stated and one that does take time to get used to.  But it’s all in the spirit of progression and furthering our skills as anglers.  I highly recommend you try it out.  If you decide to go back, that’s perfectly alright.  Although some of  you may try barbless and never want to go back.   I’ll step down from my soapbox now.  Tight lines everyone and if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to leave them below.

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 25+ years, web developer, and Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

  • Chase

    I know this article is nearly a year old, but I strongly agree with the author. The experience that changed my mind was spending 20+ minutes trying to remove the hook from the gut of a bass. The experience had to be physically traumatic for the fish and I know it was traumatic for my daughter who had hooked it. I eventually got the hook out of it’s gut and watched it swim away. I’m pretty positive that the damage that was done was probably lethal and the fish wouldn’t last three days. I hope I’m wrong. Ever since then, the kids and I have been fishing with barbless hooks and the only time we have ever lost a hooked fish is if they broach the water. Releasing the fish typically takes less than five seconds and they never even have to leave the water unless we snap a quick picture.
    Like the author, I don’t judge those that use barbed hooks, even for catch and release. It is a personal decision that we made as a family to preserve the fish in our favorite pond.

    • Thanks for your comment Chase. While the article is getting older now, my thoughts on barbless fishing never changes. Your experience even furthers it more. I’d urge anyone to take a second and read through your experience. Hopefully it could change a few minds.

  • Dan

    Hello Clint,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I have recently returned to fishing after a 10 year period, and I’ve realized I am a lot more sensitive to the well being of the fish I catch from when I was a youth. I have been fishing a stocked pond lately, usually targeting bass, while occasionally aiming for trout (after having been taught how to fish for them by the regulars using powerbait). I only fish for the trout when I know others are around who will take the fish, as most times the fish are mortally hooked. My conscience is heavy when doing so, as I enjoy myself while catching the fish, but then I immediately hand them over to be killed-I don’t want to do this anymore. My question is about fly fishing in general, which I have never experienced before: is using flies (barbed or barbless) safer for trout? Does the fly usually catch the lip, as opposed to other baits being swallowed deep? Furthermore, can flies be used with casting rods/reels? I am really interested in learning methods to safely catch and release trout, specifically. I have already pinched down my barbs, and I have attempted using beads with 2″spaced hooks on leaders to catch the lip (no bites yet), but I am curious to learn more about flies. Any information on how to safely hook fish would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance! Dan

    • Thanks for your comment Dan! In my experience and research, fly caught trout, and other species, are primarily hooked in the lip. I honestly can’t say I ever remember a time in which I hooked a fish that swallowed the fly deeper than that. My opinion…fly fishing is much safer for trout. Others may argue different, but research also suggests that the mortality rates are lower with fly fishing then with other conventional bait fishing methods. I believe this 110% and so that is why I fly fish 99.9% of the time and have pretty much stopped standard bait fishing (nothing against those that do though). My respect for the fish has increased to the point that my main goal, while still enjoying the sport, is to see them swim off safely to fight another day.

      Barbed or barbless is another topic in and of itself. As mentioned, fly fishing will lead you to hook a fish in the lip whether or not you are fishing barbed or barbless hooks. The benefit of the barbless is the decreased damage to a fish when hooked and the lower mortality rate due to the decreased damage. That in my mind also strengthens the reason to fish barbless, but I do not fault others that choose not to.

      Lastly, you certainly can use conventional casting gear with flies. In my earlier years before taking up fly fishing, I did this quite often with great success. The setup I used involved setting up a bubble filled partially with water above a swivel on your line. This gives you the weight to cast the fly out. Attached to the swivel is a section of leader that the fly is then attached to (I’d say 5-6 feet or longer). The method I used was to slowly (really slowly) reel in the fly and the fish would come up and grab it as it was moving. This worked great for me in the past. I’d recommend trying it out sometime if you’re still testing the fly fishing waters. Thanks again for your question and concerns for the well-being of the fish you catch. Tight lines!

  • Dexter

    I have a question…

    Is it very noticeable between the barb and no barb hooks when loosing a fish?

    • If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking if the barbed/barbless hooks creates a noticeable difference in losing fish. I’d say yes. With barbless hooks you do need to exercise more caution and pay more attention to the pressure you are putting on a fish and how you are playing them to the net. The slightest decrease in pressure on hook and the fly will slide right out. It does make it a bit more challenging, but it adds to the fun of it all as well. The first few times losing fish you’ll probably wonder why you crimped the barbs. After getting used to it a bit, you’ll wonder why you never did earlier. Let me know if you have any other questions Dexter! Thanks and tight lines!

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  • Been an advocate for barbless fishing for many years now, one thing I use to help with the catch rate is to slightly twist the hook point to the left or right so its no longer straight.