It had been a slow day on the river when the pike hit my line. Roused from my daydreaming, I was slow to set the hook, and now both prongs of the Dardevle’s 2-prong treble hook were buried to the shank in the bottom of the pike’s mouth. Try as I might, I could not get them out. So, I cut the hook off at the shank and released the fish, hoping it would be ok. So, would it be?
If you leave a hook in a fish, it will more than likely be ok, provided that you handle matters quickly. By that, I mean that the fish is not out of the water for too long or that you do not use an excessive amount of force trying to remove the hook. Low stress is key to the fish’s survival.
Leaving vs removal
A hook left in the digestive tract or mouth of a fish will eventually rust away, fall out, or become covered by scar tissue. Hooks will rust away faster in salt water or if they are plated steel rather than stainless steel. The presence of the hook may blunt the fish’s appetite for a few days but should not prevent them from eating altogether.
Removing the hook should be done if possible to do it quickly and without damage to the fish. Using significant amounts of force in an attempt to dislodge a firmly planted hook from deep within the fish can result in severe stress and damage to the fish. These factors (especially the stress) will affect the recovery of the fish afterward.
A study of hooked bluegill showed that most fish left with a hook lodged in the esophagus expel it within ten days. Cutting the line resulted in a thirteen percent mortality rate after ten days. This rate is far lower than the forty-four percent mortality rate observed for fish with the hook removed.
Mitigating Stuck Hooks
While a deeply hooked fish may have better odds of survival if the hook is left in, we as sportsmen should do our best to prevent deep hooking in the first place. Two proven ways to do this are by using barbless hooks or by using circle hooks.
Barbless hooks are just that – hooks with the barbs crimped down or made without them. Not having a barb on the hook will allow the point to be pushed back out of the flesh without impediment. While the lack of a barb will make it easier for the fish to shake or spit the hook, the lack of a barb will increase the survivability rate of any fish released after catching.
Circle hooks are a type of hook that is deeply curved so that the point of the hook will not snag anything until it is tilted. They are designed to hook a fish in the corner of the mouth. Do not use a traditional hookset, but rather keep the line tight and begin to reel it in. As the fish turns to run, it will hook itself.
By virtue of its design, a circle hook is nearly impossible to get stuck in the throat of a fish and will slide back up the esophagus into the mouth when an angler begins to reel in their line. Sailfish and tuna anglers report higher catch levels with circle hooks, and many tournaments now require them to help lower the mortality rates.
Not everyone likes circle hooks however as West Coast salmon fishermen say that the hooks do not hold in the bony jaw of these fish, resulting in fewer fish in the boat than when j-hooks were allowed.
So, I feel better about cutting off the hook in that pike years ago. As we have seen, leaving a deeply embedded hook in a fish is not a death sentence for the creature. Rather, cutting the line and swiftly returning the fish to the water can be the best course of action to keep it alive. Next time I will crimp the barbs on the treble hook.