The date today is 18-02-11

Some thoughts on safe hooking

Pelamid considers the issues associated with catching fish them in a manner that minimises the chances of the fish being overly stressed, or physically damaged. He uses cod, pollack and bass – three of the favourite fish the Scottish sea angler.

Most sea anglers fish for enjoyment and often release some, or all, of their catch. These anglers choose fishing tackle that is fun to use rather than purely efficient. With the huge selection of modern rods and reels it is all too easy to concentrate on these lovely bits of equipment and ignore what is more important in the actual catching of fish – THE HOOK.

Clearly the hook is capable of damaging the fish and it is most anglers aim to minimise the chance of any damage. Then the lucky angler has the choice of a fish for the pot or a healthy fish for release.

This article is neither intended to teach anyone how to catch these fish nor to dictate what should be considered “best practise”, but hopefully to prompt anglers to think about the issues, trial the methods and add to the debate by providing their feedback .

Before looking at types of hooks and their use it’s as well to understand how the fish deal with their prey and what is likely to be damaged should the hook be taken too deep.

Atlantic bass

Let’s take the bass first, a powerful predator that is top of most sea anglers “wish list”


Now there is a mouth that will engulf any bait an angler cares to cast out. No problem with hook size, just use a hook big enough for the bait. But bass will mouth the bait and often eject it before finally closing their jaws over the bait and moving off.

So the problem there is to know just when to set the hook. Too early and the hook point may not be in the fishes mouth, too late and a deep hooked fish may result.

Photo by the late Ian Gillespie


This streamlined predator is well camouflaged to approach baitfish shoals from beneath. It has a longer lower jaw that shows how well it has evolved to hunt in that manner.

Pollack are common in Scottish waters. They are sight feeders and rarely caught if there is any suspended silt in the sea. Most anglers will have caught them from west coast, deepwater rock marks – usually in summer when the water is crystal clear. These fish love rock overhangs and kelp beds from which to ambush their prey. Such marks also give them cover should a seal or porbeagle shark take a fancy for a pollack supper.

You would not expect them to be a problem for hooking – but, as any keen pollack angler will tell you, they are sometimes a frustrating fish to set a hook into. The best method to attract a pollack is with a slowly moving bait or lure. Pollack will gently tug and pull at your bait, often until you are about to lift it out of the water. So often the fish is not hooked, but sometimes the bait is inhaled too deeply - without the angler having any indication of a bite at all.

So the pollack presents its own set of hooking issues. Let’s come back to that after considering our most common species – the cod.


The cod is a fish of cold waters with a reputation for having an insatiable appetite. Perhaps not entirely justified, but it is true that when conditions are right the cod will eat almost anything.

In clear water conditions the cod is a sight feeder, often following the shoals of herring, sprats and sandeels. But they are opportunist predators and make the most of the early summer crab moult in the shallow, tidal reefs. During the winter onshore gales the cod move into shallow water to graze on shellfish, worms and small fish dislodged from their cover.

In the summer boat anglers will get cod on lures, but winter is the time for the keen shore angler. Casting big baits into rough seas, often in darkness and freezing temperatures, the winter shore angler has a lot to contend with. Lip hooking fish in these extreme conditions is not an easy challenge. That does not mean we should accept deep hooked fish as part of this type of fishing. I am sure anglers can minimise the number of deep hooked fish even in the roughest of seas.

The Target

All three species have similar mouths, wide opening with small teeth along jaw edges and other gripping pads inside their mouths leading to the pharyngeal (throat) teeth at the entrance to the throat. Prey caught in the jaws of these species is drawn to the pharyngeal teeth by negative pressure created by the action of the gills.

Not a pretty picture, but one that will have been the last sight of many a small baitfish. That photo shows the mouth of a 2 kg pollack, it is big enough to drop a tennis ball into.

As is clearly seen the throat is close to the gills. You may just make out the pharyngeal teeth as two pads at the top of the throat. These are intimately linked to the gills and that area contains many crucial blood vessels. If there are any marine biologists reading this feel free to correct any mistakes in my description – but I hope I have made a point about how vital it is to not damage this area of a fish if it is planned to release it.

So for the angler to hook that fish the target area is only the jaw edges. Any other part of the mouth is either a large void – or an area critical to the welfare of the fish.

Hooks and Rigs

The first hooks were made of bone, shell or wood and probably attached to a leather or twisted fibre line and tied at one end to a fixed object such as a rock or branch. These were set-lines and could be just one hook of many stretched across a river or beach.

Those ancient designs of hook were designed to be completely swallowed into the soft gut of a fish. Indeed, the very earliest “hooks” were short sticks with pointed ends and the line was attached to the middle of that. These were “gorge” hooks and fish would have to completely swallow them to be trapped.

Those methods may have been efficient in providing food but are not acceptable to modern day anglers. We need to avoid gut hooked fish and then have control over which fish we keep or return. Of course any fish returned must be fit to survive and our hooks and angling methods are developed to achieve that.

Most anglers will looks at hooks and rigs with the intention of “fooling” the fish to eat the bait. That may not always be important – a hungry fish will often eat a juicy bait no matter how it is presented. So perhaps the real angling skill comes from presenting our baits and lures in a way that will only lip-hook our quarry? Now that really is the challenge!

To achieve that goal we need to get the fish to take our bait into its mouth, but not allow the fish to swallow it. As that is not something even the most skilled angler can always achieve then perhaps our end rigs can be better designed to prevent deep hooking.

Hook design choice is crucial in avoiding damage to the fish, so here are the common choices:

left – standard J pattern long shank

middle – circle hook

right – standout hook

J pattern hooks have been the standard type used by rod and line anglers. There are many variations but in general the hook point is parallel to the shank. As the hook is pulled forward in the fishes mouth there is plenty of opportunity for the point to find a hold. Unfortunately should a fish swallow the hook past the gills or pharyngeal teeth that hook point will connect with some critically important areas around the gut and gills.

With the J pattern hooks it will be the terminal tackle design or the anglers skill and timing that allows lip hooking of the quarry.

Circle hooks have become quite fashionable in recent years. You can see in the photo that the point turns directly back in towards the shank. The major benefit of this is that the point is unlikely to catch around the gills or even in the top of the gut should the hook be swallowed.

Only when the hook is pulled to the jaws and the shank pivots around the jaw edge does the hook point curl in to get a hold.

Well, that’s the circle hook theory - but in practise it still requires a degree of skill on the anglers part to tighten into the fish before the hook is well down the fishes throat. Any hook that gets that far has some chance of damaging something vital.

Standout hooks are used with the drop-shotting method of angling and ensure the hook stands out from the line.

Sea anglers have long used similar rigs with hooks on droppers (short stand out loops of line) above the weight. Fresh water predator anglers have refined this technique to catch pike, zander and perch and that odd looking standout hook is quite efficient for presenting the lure. It has the added benefit of making it more difficult for the fish to swallow the hook.

This photo shows how the standout hooks are rigged:

The drop shot rig in the photo uses heavy line purely for illustration. For pollack it would normally be 15lb fluorocarbon which gives low visibility and high abrasion resistance. The weights can be split shot or heavier bomb styles depending on conditions. Weights are attached in a manner that allows them to slide off when snagged. The length of fluorocarbon between the hook and weight depends on just where the angler considers is the striking zone for the fish.

Although designed to trip the weight lightly across the bottom I found the rig still caught pollack on a slow retrieve with the rig well up in the water. The light fluorocarbon and small weights beneath the lure did not put the pollack off the bait in the least.

One major advantage to this set up is the tight line direct to the lure allows the angler to instantly feel when a fish is mouthing the lure. Much less chance the fish will then completely swallow the hook.

Certainly the rig is worth trying for bass and pollack. My first attempts using the rig for pollack were quite successful but time will tell and it would be interesting to get feedback from other sea anglers trying the technique.

Other hook styles, some to avoid

Many other types of hook have been developed for specific applications. One type I would recommend sports anglers avoid are so called “semi-circle” hooks. In my experience they have none of the other designs good points (excuse the pun!) but retain all of the bad ones. Probably a design closest to the original “gorge” hooks and only of use on set-lines – not a tool for anglers.



All the hook styles described can have “offset” points, as shown in this photo:

Again this is a hook style to avoid as the offset does increase the risk of deep hooking a fish. Choose hooks with the point described as being “in-line”




Conservation hook development

I recently found some survey information on snapper fishing in New Zealand. It was this that made me think of trying the standout hooks as a conservation tool – but now I think it is worth trying the circle hooks and shank attachment described in their survey for our local species.

Here are links for that information:

Anyone interested in developing safer methods of hooking our local species will get some food for thought amongst those surveys and discussions. I am sure there will be ideas there for us to debate and experiment with. Perhaps we can even organise our own survey – we certainly now have the structure and organisation in place with SSACN to develop something similar to the NZ theme.

That’s enough about hooks. Sometime soon I hope to have another article on end-rigs – of equal importance in ensuring our fish are hooked properly. Then will look at how to handle our catch and remove the hook.

Before then I hope I will have had feedback on this article - please use the form below.


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Related posts:

  1. Catch and Release
  2. Spurdog - Best practice
  3. Ribbon Fish- Updated
  4. Oban pollack – April 2010
  5. Pollack Otter Boards

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