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Learning to Use Circle Hooks

It takes practice and adjustment, but they’re good for Bay rockfish

      My experience with circle hooks began some 20 years ago, when I took part in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources project studying mortality in rockfish caught with J versus circle hooks. All the fishers were chumming. In the control group using J hooks, we established that half of deep-hooked fish that were released died within two hours.
       The study eventually concluded that circle hooks drastically lessened deep hooking and had a significantly higher survival rate — about double — for released rockfish. Based on this work DNR has over the years strongly recommended fishing with circle hooks, particularly when many caught fish will be released.
       This year the regulators went a step further, mandating circle hooks be used in chumming and live-lining, the two angling techniques that most often result in deep-hooked fish.
      This good news for rockfish may demand you learn some new tricks. 
      Circle hooks worked exceedingly well in my first forays this year. More recently, I ran into problems.
      Outside of the mouth of the Severn last week, we ran into some undersized fish. The first one was hooked properly, but the circle hook stuck in the stomach lining of the second fish. Though I eventually managed to work the hook free, neither the fish nor I was happy.
      Getting our limit brought other episodes of deep-hooking. 
      Deep hooking with circle hooks is still not always as deadly as with J hooks. The J-hook design has this design fault: when the hook is swallowed, the point often penetrates a vital organ, and that is a sure death sentence. That type of penetration does not happen with the circle types.
      Rethinking my setups, I suspect my choices in hook size may have been faulty. Though the 8/0 hooks that I had been using turned out to be flawless in dealing with larger fish, some of the little guys (with their correspondingly smaller stomachs) ended up with the circle hooks snagged ­internally.
       I’ve since broadened my inventory of hooks all the way down to 3/0, based on recommendations from more knowledgeable anglers.
      Now rockfish of all sizes have vacated my customary fishing grounds, and I’ve been unable to confirm the solution to that problem. I’m going to need a little more time.
      For all of us, the proper circle hook solution should come as we get experience and make adjustments. Meanwhile, we can take comfort in the knowledge that making these hooks mandatory will be a very good thing for rockfish in the Chesapeake.
     Apparently, the circle hook requirement will only be in place for two years so that DNR can pause to reassess its effectiveness. I’m anticipating that results will be positive.
Fish Finder
     The rockfish bite has been hurt in two ways. First, the mahogany tide generated by an early summer algae bloom depleted the oxygen in large areas of the Chesapeake proper. Then heavy rains have sent massive influxes of fresh water into the Bay.
      There are good rockfish concentrations in the eastern Bay and around Chesapeake Beach, but around the Bay Bridge they’ve turned random and inconsistent from the mouth of the Patapsco all the way down past Hackett’s. In spite of the downturn, individual anglers continue to score nice fish when weather permits.
      Look for both crabs and white perch to blossom after the rains subside.