Estuary, Stuff we've learnt

To barb or not to barb – that is the question?

Will barbless hooks catch you more fish? Or more big fish?

Until recently I’ve never given much thought to the barb on the hook of jig heads and lures. I figured that if they come with a barb out of the packet that must be a good thing, endorsed by the lure manufacturers right?

Now, I’m starting to think twice. Mainly because of a series of recent events that ended with dropping a big flathead. This would be the third I’ve lost in the 80-100cm bracket (but who’s counting!). In sporting terms – I’m 1 from 4.  As is often the case, it’s in these times of disappointment and reflection that an angler does some of their best critical thinking …

It's a big barb!
The barb significantly changes the width of the hook

Consider the picture above of a ‘standard’ hook. Admittedly this is a Murray Cod lure, so the hook is big to highlight my point. How wide is the main shank of the hook? And how wide is the hook at the widest part of the barb?

Many lure anglers are passionate about the combination of main line and leader they use, treading a fine line between the thickness of a leader, the chance of a fish seeing it, and of course the amount of pressure they can exert on the fish before snapping the line.  The key word here is pressure.

It’s interesting then that for all the magazine articles on what pound line to use, the importance of ultra-light leaders, using fluorocarbon and so on, Ive never once seen any comment on whether to use barbed or barbless hooks.

Let’s consider our picture of the hook again. How much pressure is required for the main shank of the hook, which is 1.5mm wide, to enter the fish’s mouth? And then how much pressure is required to set the hook past the barb, which is 3mm wide? I’m not an engineer but I think it’s fair to assume that it’s going to take double the pressure  … In his latest book, Rob Paxevanos (who is an engineer!) says it takes 4 times more pressure to set a barbed hook.  Maybe the relationship between width and pressure isn’t linear?

So what does all this mean? When we are using light spinning or fly gear, a barbless hook will set into the hard mouth of some fish much more easily and could therefore be the difference between landing a fish or not. Consider how hard you would typically set the hook – now think about pulling up on the rod twice as hard, or even four times as hard!

1 from 4. The big flathead that has stayed on the hook
1 from 4. The big flathead that has stayed on a barbed hook

After a dropping the third (and hopefully last) big flathead on Day 1 of a recent fishing trip, I was despairing.  I had made a deliberate attempt to set the hook hard.  Well, as hard as I dare on a 2500-sized reel, 6lb braided main line and 8lb leader.   During the fight I’d kept even and constant pressure on the line.  The hook was razor sharp. I know, as soon as the line went limp I wound it in and tested it by dragging it along my fingernail – it dug in immeditately.  So why did the fish get off?

My best guess is that the hook simply didn’t penetrate past the barb.  Big flathead have hard mouths and on 6lb gear I didn’t (dare) apply enough pressure.  “Stuff this!” I said in frustration and squashed down the barb with a set of pliers.

Day 2

There was another subtle tap on the line and as I lifted the rod, the startled fish swam off towards the cover of nearby trees.  It was big and heavy and powerful; I struggled to slow it down.  Was it another big flathead?  We put the boat into reverse and slowly towed it out into the safety of deeper water.  After a couple of long minutes, a flash of silver and yellow appeared beneath the boat.  A mulloway!

A 70cm Mulloway on a barb

Curto slipped the net under the fish and we whooped and hollered like school kids (at least I did!).  I grabbed the soft plastic lure and the hook slipped straight out.  You guessed it – it was the barbless hook from the day before – and it did its job perfectly.  After a couple of quick photos and with no thoughts of keeping this fish, we returned it to the water and it disappeared back into the depths.  Wow!

From my combined experience of two days (not to mention the three dropped big flathead), I’ve seen enough to give barbless hooks a good trial run.  A lot of the fish we catch we let go again, and the barbless hook slips out much more easily and with far less damage.  And if barbless hooks can help convert more bites to hookups – especially for big fish on light gear – I’m all for it!




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5 thoughts on “To barb or not to barb – that is the question?

  1. Nice work Graz. Interesting read. It has also got me thinking about trebles vs singles. Given that using trebles there is a far greater likelihood of more than one barb simultaneously penetrating, that could conceivably mean it takes 8X (2 barbs) or 12X (three barbs) the pressure to set a treble hook over a barbless single hook. At the very least, it might mean the benefits of going barbless with treble hooks are likely to be greater than when using single hooks where you don’t have to account for the extra pressure (above the simply barbed vs barbless stuff) needed to set the hook caused by more than one hook/barb penetrating at the same time…

    Of course the other big benefit is barbless hook are far easier to get out if you hook yourself. I’ve found this is a massive benefit if when you are fishing complicated multi-fly rigs when you have a penchant for being somewhat careless… I hook myself far more often than I probably should, but barbless hooks mean its no biggie 🙂


  2. Barbs to me are more about holding on bait. I have fished with and without them and the hook ups seem about the same, and the loss/caught ratio seems the same. Just less damage noticed by the barbless. As long as you keep on the fish you shouldn’t lose any more without the barbs.

  3. In the broadest assessment, I don’t lose any extra fish due to using barbless hooks on native fish.

    Yes, there are several losses over the years which stung, which probably were due to barbless hooks, but over hundreds of fish caught (and released) … these losses are insignificant. Generally speaking, there’s been no increased losses.

    Generally speaking, a sharp barbless hook and consistent line and rod pressure keeps fish hooked … and as you say, they may not have been hooked in the first place if the hook wasn’t barbless.

    And of course, if you’re catch-and-release fishing, why damage fish unnecessarily, and stress them to near-death levels with complicated unhooking “surgery”, by using barbed hooks? Barbless hooks make for beautiful simple releases, and almost zero damage, and healthy fish going back in the water quickly. For me, using barbed hooks on cod or goldens or bass would be unthinkable now.

    I think barbed hooks really are for the ham-fisted bumblers who are flat-out keeping the rod bent on a fish, and any half-experience fisherman doesn’t need them in most situations.

    Several observations I have made though:

    * the standard Yankee lure set-up of trebles straight to hook mount, without a split-ring, IS a disaster waiting to happen in barbless format. I lost a trophy bass on Jitterbug due to this stupid set-up. If going barbless, always retrofit these types of lures with split-rings — the movement they allow to the hooks are essential to keeping fish hooked.

    * recurved point or triple-grip style trebles stay in much better that straight-point hooks when going barbless

    * a rod with a more moderate cushioning action is often helpful with barbless hooks.

    some fish I still used barbed hooks for. Introduced trout. They jump, and they’re also feral and don’t get released. Barbed hooks help keep them attached.

    Also surf salmon, which are masters at chucking slices. Even with barbed hooks, they throw the hook so often. But as I release salmon, I still use an option that minimises hook damage and aids release — namely the Japanese single hooks meant for lures. The single hook makes for very little hook damage and easy release, and yes, they are barbed, to help stay attached to leaping fish, BUT, the barb is a very small “whisker barb” which is a lot less damaging than the standard ski-jump barb … and also easier to set.

    Finally, yep, anyone who’s been pinned by a lure with an angry fish still attached will be very grateful that the hook is barbless. Getting pinned on a barbless hook is a painful and swiftly and easily fixed situation — getting pinned by a barbed hook is always a disaster.

  4. Thanks Dan and Simon, some great feedback. It’s possible that my tendency of running slightly too light drag pressure is contributing to this phenomenon, but I don’t see much point popping a leader on the strike? From what you’ve said The biggest difference between barbed and barbless hooks, apart from damage to the fish, seems to be how long it might take to lose a fish… Barbed hook = bite or on for a few seconds. Barbless hook = better hook up and longer fight, then the fish gets off. The second is much more memorable and harder to swallow! Also agree with you about trout, but would never say that in a public forum 😉 Cheers Graz

  5. Pingback: Catch and release: a users guide | Flick and Fly Journal

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