Fly-fishing hook debate is circular

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The Independent Online

February is almost over, the skies are getting bluer, I haven't worn a thermal vest for weeks. And the trout season will soon open. Hurrah! Meanwhile, over cups of tea and jugs of ale, a debate rages in the world of fly fishing. Should hooks be J-shaped or should they be circle? Circle hooks are very much the buzz word del momento.

February is almost over, the skies are getting bluer, I haven't worn a thermal vest for weeks. And the trout season will soon open. Hurrah! Meanwhile, over cups of tea and jugs of ale, a debate rages in the world of fly fishing. Should hooks be J-shaped or should they be circle? Circle hooks are very much the buzz word del momento.

Circle hooks have been around for a long time, although they seem like the new kid on the block. They were used by pre-historic man to fish because they are the simplest of hooks - the shape you'd get if you bent a piece of steel over; the shape Captain Hook's hand is.

So they seem like the latest thing. But in fishing, as in fashion, nothing is ever really new (I am still waiting, however, for the remote control heli-fly that you can send to hover over the exact spot you want - like a helicopter - and then land).

In the 1980s, for example, there was a great deal of fuss about fishing with upside down flies - upside down in that the pattern is tied so the hook pointed upwards (this is how some people also fish circle flies today, although I can't help thinking the next step for them might just be dynamite).

This seemed revolutionary at the time but, actually, some 300 years previously upside down flies were tied by a soldier in Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. And I'm pretty certain that someone did it before him, too.

The reason there is such a hoo-ha about circle hooks is two-fold. You can catch more fish with them, or at least you get more fish to the bank (or boat) with them because they are much harder for the fish to "throw off" - especially good for fish prone to aerial acrobatics.

There is also much argument that fish caught with circle hooks sustain less damage because they tend to get hooked in the bony scissors part of the mouth. With J-shaped hooks there is more of a tendency to hook fish in the fleshy part of their mouths or throats, or even further down in the gut - all of which cause more damage, some of it fatal. Thus fish caught on circle hooks are more likely to be successfully and safely caught and released.

Circle hooks are already greatly used in salt water fly fishing, for tarpon and sailfish - fish that are notoriously difficult to set a hook on because of their tough little mouths.

They are also used on tiger fish, which are widely regarded as the hardest fish - of salt or fresh water - to keep on the hook (you tend to land about one in every six you hook).

The Connecticut Coastal Conservation Association actually urges fishermen to use circle hooks, saying they would save 1.1m bass a year. That they may "save" fish is ironic considering that circle hooks have been used by long-line commercial fishermen for years for the precise reason that they are so efficient in catching fish. You also don't need to "set" a circle-hook in the same way as you do a J-shaped one. The fish hook themselves.

I've never fished with circle hooks and I'd really like to hear from those that do or have. I'm in a quandary about them because on the one hand, anything that causes less damage to fish is to be applauded. But isn't setting of the hook and the skill that is involved therein - knowing when to strike - part of the skill of fishing?

Circle hooks are also best fished with a slack line on lakes, something I'm just not keen on (too boring, I like that plugged-into-the-mains feeling a nice, taut line gives me so I feel every bit of silt and weed with the hope that it may be my best fish ever - I like the act of retrieving).

For those that want to give it a try, more and more fly manufacturers are now offering flies tied on circle hooks. You may also like to know that tying the hook on with a snell knot can yield something like 30 per cent more fish (at least in salt water fly fishing). But do you want to catch 30 per cent more fish? I know I don't.

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