The Great Circle Hook Debate

Circle Hooks vs J Hooks

We use circle hooks 80% of the time during our fishing charters aboard the Marauder and there’s no doubt they contribute to our stellar hookup ratio. It’s no mystery circle hooks are less harmful to fish intended for release than J hooks, but there is a downside when it comes to catching larger pelagic predators – circle hooks don’t set well during ferocious bites.

The debate between using circle hooks and J hooks offshore is a topic which comes up time and time again.  The argument could be made that it’s better to use J hooks when targeting fish that eat with vigor, but conservationists of all varieties would just as well ban them if possible. When you hook a fish in the gills, gut, or face with a J hook, it’s pretty much lights out if the fish is going back into the drink.

So is the great circle hook debate one of conservation?  Or is it one of effective fishing methods? Whatever your stance on the matter may be, we’ve found that circle hooks and J hooks have their own set of advantages and disadvantages – an issue which is specific to the species you’re targeting.

Capt. Charlie Ellis with a big Mahi Mahi

The right hook made all the difference

What we love about circle hooks

Now I have to say, some of the most epic fish i’ve ever caught have been captured using circle hooks. From bluefin tuna to tiger sharks, circle hooks made the successful catch and release of these titans possible. Just the other month, we caught a blue marlin on a 6/0 mustad demon circle hook that was bridled to a big goggle eye.

The strength and resilience of circle hooks constantly amazes me – even if the actual process of the hook setting itself remains a mystery. We regularly catch kingfish (to 30lbs) hooked perfectly in the corner of the mouth – just out of reach of toothy razors.

But what I find truly amazing, is the gap between the hookpoint and the shank – It’s less than an inch if you’re fishing a 6/0 or 5/0 demon circle, but it sets seamlessly in the mouth of a sailfish just as it does in the mouth of a wahoo. Of the fish we do catch on circle hooks, less than a handful have ever been foul hooked.

One critical factor we’ve observed when it comes to using circle hooks is that each hook must be completely exposed if it’s going to set. If we’re using small baits like pilchards or sardines, we’ll often just hook the bait in the back, directly in front of the dorsal fin (as shallow as possible without breaking free). If we’re using larger baits like threadfin herring, goggle eyes, blue runners, or mullett – the hook absolutely must be bridled.

When we don’t bridal big baits, we tend to miss lots of bites. I’m of the opinion that the actual sharp point of the hook, if not cleanly exposed, will be ineffective.

When we’re dropping live baits on wrecks for grouper, cobia, or amberjack – we use mutu or 3x strong demon circle hooks bridled through the nose of big baits – it’s a surefire combo.

Tiger Shark hooked in the corner of the mouth with a 16/0 Circle Hook

What we don’t love about circle hooks

If you’re slow trolling live baits, or pacing baits in a strong current situation – circle hooks can be a fool hardy decision. We’ve also found that fish which feed very aggressively at the surface tend to blast the bait right off the hook (i.e. skyrocketing kingfish, blackfin tuna, and wahoo).

Circle hooks need time to set, which is why it’s important to feed the fish for a few seconds after it grabs the bait – getting tight too fast or putting excess pressure on the fish while it’s feeding results in a missed opportunity. While circle hooks are magic when it comes to kite fishing, we’ve found they are relatively ineffective when live lining baits with wire leaders or drifting larger rigged baits for sharks or swordfish.

When it comes to using circle hooks for tuna – if we’re chunking it’s absolutely the way to go.  If we’re kite fishing for tuna, it depends on the bait we’re using. While i’m personally a fan of 6/0 circle hooks for all kite fishing applications, I feel like we catch more tuna off the kite when we use small aki J hooks baited with pilchards.

One other point of contention regarding circle hooks is that lighter versions will straighten out on big species. We’ve made the mistake of using light wire circle hooks when bottom fishing for mutton snappers and groupers – only to have our hooks pull straight or open up. We’ve since changed our tune and use only 3x strong demon circle or mutu hooks on the bottom – but those first few lessons in hook strength will never be forgotten.

What we love about J hooks

When a school of mahi-mahi are circling the boat or we’re drifting live baits with wire leaders – you had better believe we’re tying J hooks (typically aki or owner cutting point).

When we’re deep dropping or night drifting for swordfish, we break out the LP commercial swordfish hooks or big mustad’s. If it’s time for vertical jigging over structure – the sharpest J hooks available will do the job.

J hooks are tried and true when it comes to big game fishing and you’ll rarely see anyone hammering big species without them. J hooks can also be sharpened with a file which helps to set the hook in bone studded jaws or the throat of a billfish.

If you’re “meat” fishing, J hooks are always the way to go – especially if you’re using a wire leader.

Hardly hooked wahoo on a vertical jig

What we don’t love about J hooks

If catch and release is the name of the game – J hooks are not well suited.  Most of the fish we catch with J hooks are gut hooked or snagged somewhere in the throat/gills. This causes massive damage to the critical organs of the fish and leaves them critically wounded. J hooks tend to snag wherever they can, which can tear big holes in the specimen’s digestive and respiratory system. It’s also common to snag fish in the back, gut, tail, or eye when using J hooks – all of which don’t bode well for successful revival.

What it all boils down to…

There’s an old proverb/guideline in sportfishing which I feel applies here: match the hook to the bait.

While I agree with that statement and I think it’s important to consider the presentation of the bait (as that’s what gets the bite!), there are thousands of hook varieties to choose from…and it seems hook manufacturers have created a science within an industry.

With so many choices for so many different species, picking the right hook, circle or J, can be a daunting task. I’m of the opinion that it’s best to understand the feeding behavior of the fish you’re targeting, consider the bait you’ll be using, then weigh the hook options for the conditions you will be fishing.

We carry about two dozen hook varieties (ot including sizes within each variety) on our fishing charters because we aim to be prepared for everything. If you’re fishing offshore, you need to be prepared for everything…and if you’re missing lots of bites on a regular basis – consider the hook choice you’ve made.

You don’t need big hooks to catch big fish, but you do need the right hook for the job. If kite fishing is the main technique, stick with circle hooks (unless you’re getting ripped apart by kingfish, then add a small bite wire and use a small J hook) of the 5/0 or 6/0 variety.

If you’re pitching live baits to schoolie dolphin, go with a J hook. Again – always consider the feeding behavior of the species you’re targeting and make sure the hook you’re tying doesn’t impact the presentation of the bait.

It’s best to leave the politics of the great circle hook debate to the people who have time to argue and no time to fish.   🙂

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Captain at Miami Fishing Charters LLC
Capt. Charlie Ellis of Miami, FL has 25 years experience fishing for big game species like Bluefin Tuna, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Sharks. Capt. Charlie is also an avid scuba diver, world traveler, writer, and entrepreneur.
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