Skip to main content

The Game-Changing Circle Hook and How to Fish it Effectively

Sam White

Few things are as rudimentary and fundamental in design as the fishhook. At its most basic, it’s a sharp point, bended belly, shank and eye, roughly in the shape of the letter J. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Japanese commercial longline fishermen started experimenting with a different design, one with the point curved back toward the hook shank, more in the shape of the letter C rather than J. They found that their prized tuna and swordfish remained hooked more efficiently with this new design. Mustad, Eagle Claw and other hook manufacturers took note and were soon producing their own modified designs for the recreational angling market: the circle hook was born.

a group of circle hooks

Circle hooks are unique in their shape and design, and nearly always result in a fish that’s well-hooked in the corner of the jaw.

Perhaps the largest en masse transition came in the offshore fishery, specifically for marlin and sailfish. With nearly all billfish outside of tournaments being released, it made sense to use a hook that could significantly reduce incidents of gut-hooking and post-release mortality. In 1998, famed big-game skipper Capt. Ron Hamlin declared that he would only use circle hooks in the booming Guatemala sailfish fishery, of which he was a pioneer. Hamlin was disgusted by the number of sails his anglers were hooking deeply with conventional J hooks, so he set about mastering the rigging and angling techniques needed with this new style.

Through long weeks of trial and error, he learned was that the hook should not be buried within the bait, as with J hooks, but rather flossed to the nose and left exposed. Anglers should also not violently set the hook as they had done for decades but instead should simply freespool the bait for a count of four at the strike, then engage the drag and begin reeling. The hook would usually find purchase in the corner of the fish’s jaw. An unexpected benefit: Hamlin’s hook-up ratios skyrocketed. He was also noticing fewer sailfish and marlin were being lost to thrown or pulled hooks as well. Once a circle hook penetrates the corner of the jaw, it usually stays there.

Read More: Catch and Release Stripers

Several Central American nations, including Guatemala and Costa Rica, mandated the use of circle hooks for catch-and-release billfishing, and in 2008 Atlantic federal fisheries councils required the hooks to be used with natural bait or bait/lure combinations in billfish tournaments on the East Coast of the US. While there is no federal regulation requiring circle hooks outside of tournaments, they became the standard among billfish enthusiasts.

a billfish caught with a circle hook. it is airborne

A sailfish takes to the air off Costa Rica. Many nations in Central America have now mandated the use of circle hooks for recreational anglers targeting marlin and sailfish using natural bait.

Today, circle hooks are in widespread use in scores of fisheries around the world. There are some basic caveats to remember though:

  • Artificial lures and circle hooks aren’t the best combination. Circle hooks work best when the fish has a chance to fully swallow the bait and turn away from the angler; slashing strikes at a lure armed with circle hooks usually results in a missed opportunity. Natural bait is the way to go. If you want to improve conservation measures with lures, consider swapping out treble hooks for singles.
  • Don’t bury the hook within the bait; be sure to leave enough room for the belly of the hook to engage the fish in the corner of the jaw.
  • Don’t actively try to set a circle hook. Rather, give the fish a short dropback by either lowering the rodtip or freespooling the reel before coming tight and slowly reeling to pick up the slack. As the fish moves away, the hook will slide into the corner of the jaw and set itself.
  • Match the size of the hook to the bait and the quarry. Using a hook that is too small to find purchase in the jaw will result in a missed bite every time. Circle hooks also vary widely by size among manufacturers. For example, a 3/0 Eagle Claw will be a different size than a 3/0 Mustad or VMC.

a closeup of bait that is hooked by a circle hook

A circle-hook-rigged ballyhoo. Note the hook’s placement in front of the bait, where it’s able to rotate freely.

The most effective tactic for using circle hooks is to fish with bait—live or dead, just about any style works fine. Just cast and then place the rod in a holder and wait. At the strike, let the rod bend over and load up, then just pick it up and fight the fish as usual. It’s a great way to get kids involved in fishing as well, as there’s rarely the need for long or even accurate casting.

While circle hooks work well for a wide variety of species, there are some that don’t do well. Flounder tops that list. They have a habit of mouthing a bait without actively moving off, and a flounder’s jaw structure also isn’t conducive to allowing a circle hook to work effectively. A Kahle-style hook is a better bet.

While they’re not suited to every piscatorial pursuit, circle hooks definitely have a time and place in every angler’s lineup, especially for species that are intended to be released at the end of the fight.

Latest Content