Barbed vs Barbless Hooks - Time To Make The switch?
Barbed vs barbless hooks is probably one of the most debated subjects relating to fly fishing in modern times. With catch and release becoming the norm for competition fishing and also encouraged for wild stock conservation should we be switching to a barbless approach? Some, if not many have already made the change with noticeable results. Others continue to resist, often for logical reasons, but for me I’ll never look back after reluctantly moving to barbless several years ago, and here are the reasons why.
One popular argument for barbless is that they are better for fish welfare and cause less damage and distress. I had used barbless extensively for Coarse species but had found them to damage the mouths of the larger fish such as Carp and Barbel, ironically my view was that barbed seemed to be better for their softer mouths as they didn't rotate and gouge a hole. However, my opinion is that this is not an issue for Trout and Salmonoids with tough bony mouths and jaws. A barbless hook is far simpler to remove from a deeply hooked trout, but more importantly also from a tree, bush, rope, boat partner and any of the plethora of things that seem to attract a fly. Now this point is important, not only for safety (we have all hooked ourselves or someone in a boat), but in relation to Jamie's view on barbless hooks saving time while fishing. Barbless often fall out in the net once the tension is off - particularly important for competition anglers, but also for simplicity and to reduce fish handling (we need to keep em wet right?).
The main argument against barbless hooks is the most obvious, you lose more fish. I've heard this many, many times over the years. Anglers after poor performances often question their equipment rather than decisions, we're all human I suppose, but there is some truth in this. The only time I can honestly say I’ve lost a fish because I was using a barbless hook is when the tension on the fish has been lost. On a couple of occasions over the years I’ve had a double hook up and while landing the first fish seen the second swimming beneath the boat and subsequently spitting the fly out. Other than that specific scenario I can honestly say I have not seen any evidence to suggest you lose significantly more fish. And given this as my personal learned experience, I’d argue that the other benefits of using barbless hooks outweigh the handful of fish lost over the seasons, mainly through time saved in landing and returning fish and recovering snagged flies for example.
Another argument for barbed over barbless is that you can simply de-barb the hook as and when required. This is a logical approach for most anglers and prevents the problem of having a mixed selection of barbed and barbless flies but isn't without complications. Firstly the barb may not be fully crushed, not a huge issue from a fish care perspective, but could result in disqualification during a barbless only competition, for me that's not worth the risk. Secondly, and controversially, barbed hooks generally have straight rather than curved hook points and once debarbed don't have the same holding properties afforded to barbless patterns. I share this view, but maybe it only exists in my head, but that's the key factor in this debate, confidence, it's all about confidence.
Soon after my day out with Jamie, I spent a another day fishing with Lindsay Simpson, a top river angler (check his YouTube channel here) who gifted me some small barbless nymph patterns to try on my local River Avon. These patterns were killer, so I copied them and used them increasingly, and as a perfectionist I tied them on barbless to ensure they were exactly the same as the originals. I'd argue this was the turning point for me, I fished a few sessions a week on the Avon during that period, and didn't fish river competitions. So without the pressure of performance and with time on the water to gather evidence I quickly noticed that I didn't lose anymore fish on barbless, handled less fish as the hooks released easily and retrieved them from my waders with less damage! At a similar time Jamie Thomas went on to win The Lexus European Fly Fishing Championships using barbless patterns. By this time I’d seen enough to make the switch and that winter worked tirelessly to replace my fly boxes with barbless patterns. Maybe next I should review my continued use of barbed hooks for Salmon and Sea Trout, there are some barbless doubles and trebles out there which I can tie on, watch this space.
For me the benefits are clear, both for competitions and pleasure angling, but that's only my opinion. As previously mentioned, as long as the fish is caught and released in good order, the only other key factor is your confidence in the hook you use, because confidence is the most effective component for catching fish.