Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 49
Dec. 7-13, 2000
Current Issue
Preparing the Pageants
Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Burton on the Bay
Earth Journal
Not Just for Kids
Good Bay Times
What's Playing Where
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us
Rockfishing Resolution 2001

Bait Circle Hooks when Chumming

The use of circle hooks will result in up to a 90 percent decrease in the release mortality of striped bass.

-Rudy Lukacovic, DNR fisheries scientist

Sounds like pretty good odds to me. But an awful lot of anglers either aren't convinced, or they selfishly choose to stay with traditional J-hooks on the assumption they can hook more fish in the good old-fashioned way. In the meantime, they're wasting striped bass.

Now that we've wrapped up the 2000 rockfish season, it's time not only to look ahead to next year but also to make a New Year's resolution to give the new hooks a try once chumming time rolls around. We could save countless thousands of fish.

Adapt and Flourish

The circle-versus-J-hook debate could be considered a low-key version of the lead-versus-steel shot waterfowl hunting controversy that played prominently hereabouts a couple of decades ago. It was obvious, based on extensive research at the time, that lead shot was poisoning ducks and geese that ingested the pellets. But most shooters griped the substitute shot was not as effective.

It lacked the punch, didn't drop as many birds from the skies, traditionalists insisted. They also argued, contrary to research, that the lighter steel shot would increase crippling mortality.

Lead-versus-steel was the hottest conflict on the outdoor front. In the end, it was solved only when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service stepped into the fray, mandating that toxic lead had to go. Too many ducks, geese and other fowl were being poisoned by lead. Case closed.

Today, waterfowlers hunt with steel or other non-toxic metals. They still harvest birds, and countless other fowl no longer die agonizing deaths after ingesting lead pellets while feeding or consuming grit for digestive purposes.

It all boiled down to hunters faced with no choice: Either learn to modify their shooting to compensate for the ballistic difference in steel - or stay at home. Nearly all chose to adapt.

Lead-versus-steel started on a voluntary, or shall we say, an "educational" basis. It was hoped hunters would switch on their own once aware of how they could spare fowl. In some states, including Maryland, waterfowl managers implemented unpopular lead shot bans.

In Maryland, the meddling General Assembly vetoed the ban, but not long thereafter the feds tired of trying the educational route. Duck and geese populations were in decline, and the Fish and Wildlife Service decided it could wait no longer.

Time to Evolve

One wonders whether the circle-hook issue will play the same route among those who chum for rockfish. Hopefully, it won't come to that - but that depends on chummers. Are they willing to voluntarily make the switch?

"The use of circle hooks will result in up to a 90 percent decrease in the release mortality of striped bass" is pretty convincing, especially when spoken by a respected fisheries scientist who has been studying the problem for many years. How can any angler concerned about the welfare of stripers turn a deaf ear?

Here's the situation. Between the waning days of Maryland's spring trophy season and well into late October - possibly well into November - chumming is the most popular technique among those who target rockfish. It's very effective, especially for smaller fish.

In chumming, fishermen attract stripers to the boat by tossing ground-up menhaden or clams into the water to turn on the taste buds of the fish, which often feed voraciously. And here's where the problem comes.

The frenzied feeding of many of these fish prompt them to take the bait deep into their mouths, not infrequently deep enough to inflict serious, if not fatal, injuries.

Add to that, in chumming - especially in the past couple seasons - many of the fish caught were smaller than the 18-inch minimum established by regulation. Thus, they must be returned to the water, whether or not they will survive. Those that don't survive are wasted.

Meet the Circle Hook

Here's where the circle hook enters the picture. The traditional hook is the J-hook, so called because of its shape: a J. It's designed to hook a fish once inside its mouth and hold on. And it does a commendable and efficient job. Often, too much so.

Likewise, the circle hook gets its name via its configuration. It's not a complete circle, but almost. There is a gap between the eye of the hook and its barb, and the gap is sufficient to allow the barb to be set in the flesh of the mouth area.

But the principle of the hook goes far beyond that. If the hook is taken deeper in the fish's mouth and even beyond its throat, as occurs not infrequently when fish are feeding in a chum line, the circular shape of the hook allows it to be pulled free, usually without inflicting serious or fatal injury.

Of course, this means that unless a circle hook is fished properly, there is less chance of setting the hook once a fish picks up the bait. Studies indicate the catching rate is slightly less with the circle configuration.

So why use circle hooks if setting them pulls the hook out of the fish? How can you catch rockfish?

That brings up another aspect of the design of a circle hook. It has been around a long time; it's the traditional hook of commercial fishermen who long-line for tuna, marlin, sharks, swordfish and such.

The long-line hook is baited and dropped into the water. A fish takes the bait into its mouth and starts to move off. As it does, the line slips through the side lips of the fish, the hook follows - and as it does, it sets itself. And it holds.

Adapted to sportsfishing, the circle hook means an entirely different approach by those with rod and reel. With the traditional J-hook, an angler is accustomed to jerking the rod to set the hook once a fish takes the bait.

But when the circle hook is substituted, the fisherman is obliged to resist the natural impulse to offer a counter strike. Instead, he must allow the fish to move off and set the hook itself, as fish do on long lines.

Many fishermen find it difficult to resist the temptation to set the hook when they feel a fish pick up the bait. So they lose the fish so they're skeptical of its effectiveness so they don't use it.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources has done a commendable job in promoting circle hooks, but a majority of chummers still don't use them. So needlessly many thousands of fish die, not infrequently due to injuries to their heart and liver punctured by J-hooks.

Often J-hook fishermen are not aware of this. They remove a hook that's set deep, release the fish, see it swim away vigorously and assume no damage has been done. Too often, this is not true. Within six hours, the fish can be dead.

Studies conducted by Lukacovic indicate that for rockfish deep hooked with J-hooks, the mortality rate is 17 percent. With a circle hook, the mortality is 312 percent. That's a difference of five fold.

If that isn't enough, what can convince fishermen that circle hooks are worth a try?

Hooking mortality has become of considerable concern to fisheries managers along the coast, and many fingers are pointed at Maryland and Massachusetts, where it's found to be the highest. It's time that we of Chesapeake Bay display concern about the needless killing of our prized fish - beginning in 2001. Enough said.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly