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October 26, 2001

Round Up to Higher Numbers

Bridling ballyhoo on circle hooks will put more billfish in your book.

Mass destruction or conservation: It's all a matter of how technology is applied and by whom. A rather eloquent irony resides in the fact that the basic tool employed in the longline fishing industry has recently become a symbol of billfish conservation among recreational anglers. Circle hooks, so effective in hands-off hook setting, help the commercial fleet harvest countless tuna - and kill billfish as bycatch. At the same time, circle hooks help sport fishermen improve the post-release survival rate of pelagic and other game fish.
Like any tool, circle hooks should be optimally employed in order to deliver best results. Capt. Ron Hamlin has been using circles aboard Capt. Hook in Iztapa, Guatemala, since April 1998, constantly evolving and improving techniques for rigging dead ballyhoo on the odd-looking hooks.
"It took nine months to find a method that worked consistently," says Hamlin. "At first we tried standard rigging procedures, placing the hook in the bait's belly. When that didn't work, we started bridling ballyhoo. Through trial and error we evolved this latest technique."
Hamlin and his crew continue to experiment; their efforts have been well-documented and divulged by fishing magazines. But more recent refinement to their technique, explained here, involves a few extra stitches and wraps to hold the bait together and secure the hook firmly.
Another important detail: The hook-to-leader connection affects a circle hook's angle and movement when the line tightens on a fish. Hamlin strongly recommends snelling or crimping leaders around the shank rather than tying off to the hook eye - but the mono must pass through the eye from back to front. (See photo below.)
Here's how to do it: Snell hooks on the back side of the shank and thread the leader through the eye; when crimping, run the leader through the eye from the front, then around the front side of the shank and back out the eye. This connection turns the hook as the line comes tight, positioning it for better penetration in a fish's mouth.

Additional Advantages
As a charter-boat skipper in one of the world's hottest billfishing destinations, Hamlin grew concerned about the high frequency of gut-hooked sailfish while using J-hooks and extra-long drop-backs - a technique that assures a good number of solid hookups to keep clients happy but adversely affects the survival rate of released fish.
Since switching to circle hooks, Hamlin sees the vast majority of his catches coming to boatside with the steel sticking in the corner of the jaw, no matter how long the drop-back. The unexpected bonus has been an increase in the ratio of sails raised to sails hooked. "I'd say my hookup ratio has improved 12 to 15 percent since I switched to circle hooks," says Hamlin. "So far [mid-June 1999], I've released 2,010 sails out of 3,138 bites."
The no-jerk hook-setting technique required for circle hooks makes it easy for novices to enjoy billfishing success, but veterans must unlearn old habits and control the urge to raise the rod tip abruptly once a sail starts running with the bait. Hamlin explains, "When a fish grabs the bait, give it the standard drop-back, then point the rod directly at the fish and start reeling. Keep winding until the fish takes line out against the drag. You'll miss him if you stop winding just when the line comes tight."

Lighten Up
Smoothly tightening the line (instead of performing a cross-his-eyes hook-set) usually moves the hook to a corner of the fish's mouth, where it lodges. "That means you can use light leaders because the monofilament doesn't rub on the fish's jaws or bill during the fight," says Hamlin. For Guatemala's Pacific sails, which frequently top 100 pounds, Hamlin prefers 80-pound leaders on 20-pound tackle. He recommends dropping down to 50- or 60-pound leaders for Atlantic sailfish. Along with circle hooks, using light leaders could provide an edge for anglers targeting shy sails in heavily fished waters.
Light leaders also provide Hamlin with an effective, convenient way to release sailfish in good condition. "Sails thrash violently when billed at boatside, so trying to remove the hook often does more damage than good as the fish beats against the boat. And I don't like cutting leaders to release fish because it leaves monofilament trailing from the mouth. I grab the light leader and just pop the fish off," he says. "The line always breaks at the snell."
Hamlin rigs ballyhoo on Eagle Claw L2004 circle hooks, using sizes 7/0 or 8/0 for Pacific sails. He recommends the same hooks in size 5/0 or 6/0 for Atlantic spindlebeaks. The same bridling technique described here has also proven effective in preparing dead mullet, mackerel and bonito for marlin. Hamlin employs a different hook model when he rigs baits for blues, Eagle Claw L2022 in size 10/0, because it features a wider gap. His current score: 19 releases out of 31 blue marlin bites.
Dr. Eric Prince, fisheries research scientist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, recently spent time aboard Captain Hook, conducting a study of the effectiveness and effects of using circle hooks in dead baits for billfish. Prince is still organizing and analyzing data; he'll present the conclusions at a catch-and-release symposium in December. But already, Prince has observed that "circle hooks offer a promising approach to reducing hook damage because they prevent deep-hooking and foul-hooking." Reducing injuries to fish means increasing chances of post-release survival.
Try trolling or pitching a circle-hook-rigged ballyhoo on your next billfishing excursion. It could help round your release totals up to a higher figure.