Do Fish Heal from Hooks? The Latest Insights for Anglers

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While some catch and release anglers may not think about it too much, more and more studies are being done to find out just how much damage catch and release fishing can do to fish populations.

Fishing is a fun sport for people of all ages around the world, but when using a sharp hook around the face of a living animal and causing physical damage to that animal, some anglers may wonder about the caught fish after it is released back into the lake.

This article gives some perspective on hook damage to fish and ways we can minimise their suffering whether we are fishing catch and release or keeping fish for the table.

Does Getting Hooked Damage a Fish’s Mouth?

In short, yes. Getting hooked does in fact damage the mouth of a caught fish. And this damage can be anything from minor puncture wounds, to broken jaws. In a detailed study conducted by Tim Higham and his team of biologists at UC-Riverside, hook damage was seen on some fish more than a week after their initial capture.

In addition, the team found through their various research that not only was the fish’s mouth damaged, but their feeding habits were altered as well. Suction feeders, such as bass, perch, bluegill and other popular target fish, were found to have a 34% reduction in the speed at which these fish eat.

It turns out, having a hole in the side of the fish’s mouth can not only hurt fish physically, but could potentially lead to smaller weight gain and growth due to the reduction in their feeding speed and abilities.

How Quickly Does a Fish’s Mouth Heal from Being Hooked?

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Keeping fish wet after capture is another way to promote survival if you are fishing catch and release

Various field studies have been done in order to assess how quickly the mouth of a hurt fish will heal after being hooked. In one study, a team took to a few different popular fishing spots and one tournament location in order to catch fish and observe their hook injuries.

Of the fish they caught, less than 10% healed from their hook injuries within a week. The other 90% still had observable holes or wounds on the 7th day onward. The team also found that four percent of the fish that were caught had broken jaws, and this was not in relation to their size.

Tips To Reduce Damage To A Fish’s Mouth

  • Limit the amount of time a fish has to struggle in the water. Reel it in quickly to reduce exhaustion as well as additional damage to the mouth and jaw.
  • Use barbless hooks when fishing. These can prevent damage done to the fish when the hook is removed, and allows the fish to heal quickly after release.
  • Don’t use treble hooks. Not only are these hooks extremely easy to hook through the roof of the mouth, the eye, and other non-mouth areas, they are also extremely difficult to remove without severely damaging the fish. See here for info on replacing treble hooks on lures with other types of hooks

What To Do When You Deep Hook A Fish?

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Treble hooks cause more damage to fish than single hooks

Deep or gut hooking a fish can be a very painful and potentially fatal experience for the fish. It has been estimated that up to 60% of deep hooked fish will die during or shortly after the experience due to the damage to internal organs in the fish’s stomach.

However, there are ways anglers can help improve these odds and give the gut hooked fish a good chance at recovering and surviving. 

In many cases, accessing the hook through the mouth of the fish is difficult, even with a longer tool designed for removing deep set hooks. Instead, you may need to enter through the gills to get better access to the hook. When dealing with the gills, try to be extremely careful as these tissues are delicate and can be ripped without much pressure. Even minor tissue damage to the gills can cause long term harm to the fish.

For single barbed hooks, use your pliers to crimp or cut the barb at the end of the hook. This can make it easier for you to pull the hook back through and remove it normally. For treble hooks, the easiest way to free a fish from this multi-pointed hook is to cut the hook itself. 

Cut the hook prongs at the base and remove them one by one so no further damage is done to the bass or other fish species. You may need to place the bass back in the water between each cut in order to allow it to breathe and to moisten the gills throughout the process. This will help increase the survival odds as well.

Will A Fishing Hook Dissolve In Water?

Fish hooks can dissolve in water, but it may not be as quickly as you think. In most cases, standard metal hooks can take years to dissolve completely, with some research showing an estimate of around 50 years for certain metals.

In many cases, you can find an estimate of time on the packaging of the hooks to let you know how long it might take for that particular hook to dissolve. In general, several hooks will dissolve much quicker in saltwater than they will in freshwater. The quality and age of the hook itself can also have an impact on how fast or slow it dissolves.

Best Hooks for Catch and Release Fishing

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Handled and released correctly, most fish recover well after being hooked

If you plan on releasing the bass or other fish species after your catch, and have an interest in the wellbeing of that fish, single barbless hooks are your best option to reduce mortality rates. Many anglers say they dislike barbless hooks as it is much easier for the fish to get free from the hook once caught. 

However, this is only true if you lose tension in the line. If the fish is putting up a good fight and you are keeping tension while reeling it in, there is no difference in a barbed hook or a barbless hook when it comes to keeping a fish on the hook.

Quick-Release Hooks

J-Hooks

This style of hook is an excellent choice for beginner anglers and experienced anglers alike. The J hook is the most common and traditional shape of fishing hooks on the market today and works great with plastic worms or live baits.

J hooks are great for getting the hook set in the corner of the mouth where it should be. Additionally, if a gut hook does happen, a J hook is one of the easier styles to get removed without further damaging the fish.

Circle Hooks

This style of hook is great for letting the fish set the hook themselves. With other hooks, the angler will normally need to perform a quick action to get the hook set into the mouth, which can also potentially hook an eye, gill, or other body part if done at the wrong time or with too much force. 

With a circle hook, the fish can set the hook itself simply by grabbing the bait and pulling away as they normally do. Circle hooks are also made to almost guarantee a corner-of-the-mouth hookup instead of any other part of the fish.

Circle hooks can be used with a variety of different lures to help bring big bass and other fish species up from the depths to strike.

Barbless Fishing Hooks

The absolute safest option for being able to quickly release a fish after capture. Barbless hooks can be found in various shapes and sizes, but barbless circle or barbless J hooks are an excellent choice for catch and release angling.

The biggest benefit to barbless hooks is that they won’t leave larger holes like barbed hooks do when removing. You also won’t cause more harm when removing the hook since there is no need to tug on or damage the fish’s mouth when removing a stuck barb. This reduces scar tissue and allows for faster healing of that fish. They are also great for foul hooked fish as simply reducing the tension in the line can sometimes let the hook come loose.

Final Thoughts

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Consider catch and release for certain fish species

Catch and release is a great choice when it comes to a wide variety of fish species, and ensuring you are doing your part to help the fish live a long and happy life after the capture is important. 

Fishing is a hobby everyone should be able to enjoy, but together we all need to take steps and put in a bit of effort to help the fish we just had fun catching give another angler, young or old, some fun as well.

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AUTHOR
Jeff Knapp is an expert fisherman, guide and outdoor writer whose work is widely published across a range of sites including Tackle Village.