Barbless Fishing Hooks in Fly Fishing: The Case For & Against

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Barbless hooks are becoming increasingly common in fly fishing, particular in the trout fishing community.

Barbless hooks can be kinder on the fish when fishing catch and release, and on the angler’s skin in the case of accidents.

But there are some areas in which barbless hooks can be if anything more harmful to fish.

I’ll explore the pros and cons of using barbless hooks in this article.

I should add that while this is sometimes seen as a polarised battle between different camps of anglers, I use barbless in some situations, and others I prefer barbed hooks.

Should You Use Barbless Fishing Hooks?

Barbless hooks are quick to remove from a fish when you are fishing catch and release

In some regions (parts of the Rocky Mountains and in Patagonia for example) the use of barbless hooks is mandatory when fly fishing. Check the regulations on using barbed and barbless hooks wherever you choose to fish.

In most regions, you have the choice of using barbless hooks or convention hooks with the bard.

Proponents of using barbless hooks make the point that a barbless hook causes less damage to the fish’s mouth, both when it enters and when you are removing the hook.

That’s certainly true – barbless hooks slide in and out very easily, whereas a barbed hook, if it isn’t pulled out on the exact same angle it went in on, is harder to remove.

So on the score of damage caused to a fish’s mouth, barbless hooks have a clear advantage.

The other related advantage flows from this – because they are faster to remove, it is far faster to release the fish. A fish caught on barbless hooks can be derigged in the net in a few seconds, lifted for a quick picture and on its way back to the river within 15 seconds.

Are Barbless Fishing Hooks Safer for Anglers?

Barbless hooks are much easier to remove from your own skin when accidents happen

Aside from being kinder on the fish, barbless hooks are definitely kind to fishermen and women.

Most likely if you have fly fished for any length of time, you have had a hook penetrate your hand, face or ear beyond the barb.

Maybe you’ve needed to tie some tippet to the bend to yank it out in the opposite direction. It’s not fun is it?

With barbless hooks there are no such problems – sure the hook stings as it goes into your skin, but you can remove it in less than a second.

Do You Risk Losing Fish with A Barbless Hook?

In many situations, no. Say you are fly fishing in a lake with no structure and you are to let the fish run. You are fishing with a large arbor reel and you are able to quickly take up any slack when the fish swims towards you. In that situation, it’s not going to matter – if you can keep the tension on the line and the fish can’t burrow into structure, you will be able to land it just as well with a barbless hook than a conventional barbed hook.

But if any of those elements is not there – you aren’t able to take up slack line quickly, the fish can head into weed beds or snags, then you stand a real risk of the hook being dislodged and the fish getting away.

This is when a barbed hook is needed to maximise your strike rate.

Another Disadvantage of Barbless Fishing Hooks

The other argument people make against barbless hooks is that anglers tend to play fish more carefully and therefore are slower in getting them to the net. That then causes more stress on the fish and a higher mortality rate in catch and release situations.

I am not 100% convinced of this to be honest. I think that the need to keep tension on and keep fish from scraping the hook on structure, probably means anglers fishing barbless hooks are faster at reeling the fish in.

Buy Barbless Hooks or Converting Barbed Hooks

While fishing barbless is becoming more popular, barbed hooks on flies are better in certain situations

Most hook manufacturers including Tiemco, Orvis, Ahrex, Gamakatsu and others have a reasonable range of barbless fishing hooks. Ahrex in fact makes every one of its hook models in a barbless variant.

The other way to get a barbless hook is using pliers (preferably) or a forceps/hemostat to crimp down the barb. This is fast and easy on trout sized hooks and the remnant of the barb probably helps keep the hook in place a bit better than a pure barbless variant without sacrificing much in terms of speed of release and lowered risk of damage to the angler.

Final Thoughts on Barbed and Barbless Hooks

My final thought on this is that you don’t have to choose one over the other – it’s horses for course. I’d recommend tying all your main patterns – Parachute Adams, Caddis patterns, nymphs etc – on both barbed hooks and barbless hooks so you have the choice when you are on the river.

Consider the situation carefully with the above in mind – is it suitable water for fishing a barbless fly, or do you need the extra holding power to keep the fish hooked.

If you decide on fishing barbless and you’ve only got barbed flies, then crimping barbs on the fly with pliers is an easy solution.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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