Barbs Or No Barbs, Does It Matter?
The age-old debate, for anglers, are barbless hooks safer/more ethical than barbed hooks? This debate is primarily fought between fly anglers but can also apply for rod and reel folks. For those unknowing, a barbed hook has a small barb facing towards the bend of the hook (opposite direction of the point of the hook), where as a barbless hook, is as exactly as it sounds, a hook without a barb. So, what’s the big deal? Why does anyone even care about this? The general belief, whether true or not, is that a barbless hook is safer for the fish. Now, that begs the question, what is safer? Primarily, the most dangerous moment for a fish is during fish handling. Fish handling begins the moment the fish is netted or grabbed by an angler. The idea is, that a barbless hook will simply slide out of the fish’s mouth (or flesh if foul hooked) and fish handling time will decrease. Thus, leading to less time spent out of water, minimal contact with the angler, and minimal physical damage to the fish’s mouth and or flesh. In theory, this all makes sense. If you’ve ever caught a fish using a barbed treble hook (hook with 3 points), you know what kind of damage (or so it seems) this type of hook can do to a fish’s physiology. Single barbed hooks, in my experience, can do similar damage if hooked in a sensitive area, such as the throat/gills or worse, if you have to cut your line because the hook is lodged too deep, thus making it risky to retrieve the hook without making matters worse.
I mentioned ethics earlier. What in the world does ethics have to do with it? Due to the nature of barbless hooks, they become dislodged easier than a barbed hook. A barb is placed on a hook exactly for this purpose; preventing the dislodging of the hook during retrieval of the fish. Some argue that having a barbless hook gives the fish more of a chance to free itself during the fight. Thus, giving the fish a better chance of winning the battle. Conversely, a barbless hook is lessening the ability of the angler to successfully retrieve the fish. By giving the fish a better chance of becoming free and decreasing the chance of a successful catch, I suppose anglers are leveling the playing field or at least attempting to. However, a barbless hook does not lessen the chance of initially hooking a fish, which is another instance where damage is likely to occur. The initial tug, putting an unnatural amount of force on the sensitive mouth parts of a trout, is a likely instance of causing damage to the fish. Is the initial tug where most of the damage occurs? If so, the age-old debate is fictitious.
Is there any data to support either side? Inland Fisheries and Wildlife of Maine suggest to anglers, “One way to release your fish quickly is to use barbless hooks.”1 Countless guides and fly tiers swear that barbless is the only way to go. The professionals seem to lean towards the barbless side, but what about actual data? Has anyone done a scientific study? Luckily, there has been many. One study comes to mind by DuBois and Pleski2, looking at hook shedding and mortality rates between barbed and barbless hooks. Using brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), they found that hook shedding of lodged hooks after a 6-week period did not differ between hook styles. However, they did find that there was a significant decrease in bleeding caused by barbless hooks. So, they suggest that while fighting a fish, if your line snaps and the fly is stuck in the free-swimming trout, it won’t fall out quicker just because it is barbless, but the initial hooking will likely cause less harm, due to the less intrusive nature of a barbless hook.
What about fish handling? Is there a difference then? Schaeffer and Hoffman3 found that there exists some differences. Studying various species of fish in the Gulf of Mexico, they found that barbless hooks reduced time spent handling and unhooking injuries during dehooking events compared to barbed hooks. Alos et al.4 also found that barbless hooks decreased time spent during unhooking events compared to barbed hooks. What is interesting is that Schaeffer and Hoffman, contradictory to Dubois and Pleski, suggest that barbless hooks did not reduce bleeding, but rather bleeding was influenced by hook placement, not simply the barb.
So, what have we solved looking at these studies? Nothing really. However, one conclusion all barbless vs. barbed studies seem to agree on is that barbless hooks decrease time spent during unhooking events, consequently decreasing time spent handling fish. In theory, less time handling a fish should equate to decreased mortality, given the harmful nature of fish handling. However, the evidence is shaky at best. What now? Leave it to Schill and Scarpella5 out of Idaho. They summarized results of past studies examining mortality rates of resident salmonids caught and released using barbed or barbless hooks. They found, that for flies and lures combined, mean hooking mortality was 4.5% for barbed hooks and 4.2% for barbless. Considering natural mortality rates for wild trout in streams commonly falls between 30 – 60%, a 0.3% difference in mortality is hardly a biological basis to restrict barbs. Schill and Scarpella suggest, rather than biological reasons, the hatred for barbs is a social issue. Anglers and managers alike view barbs as some Neanderthal way of catching fish, bound to cause more harm than barbless hooks, because why wouldn’t it? Schill and Scarpella say it best, “Managers implementing a barbless hook only law should consider the social costs of a law that have no demonstrable biological gain”.
After taking all this in, I am still only going to use barbless hooks, pinch all my barbs, and push fellow anglers and fly tiers to only use barbless hooks. I’m a man of science, have conducted scientific studies on fish, and am for the most part, unbiased, I let the data do the talking. The data says that barbed or barbless, it doesn’t really matter when looking at the safety and survivability of fish. Yet here I am, still shouting, go barbless. Why? As I stated, I am, for the most part, unbiased.