The biggest reason behind the rule change in
many tournaments this year requiring all boats to use circle hooks is to reduce
the number of fish that are gut hooked. A J-hook obviously has a greater chance
to gut hook a fish if given excessive drop back. In an effort to reduce the problem,
a maximum of a four degree offset is allowed for circle hooks used in those tournaments.
There is a list of acceptable hooks allowed so that all teams are using hooks
within these parameters.
Most of the captains and anglers that are not used to fishing circle hooks
have at the very least been worried about the hookup ratios, some are not sure
if they'll fish these tournaments. And because of the seemingly increasing numbers
of sailfish seen in recent years, their feeling is that " if it's not broken,
don't fix it." It's wrong to judge something before you've tried it - it
often leads to misconceptions.
Circle hooks aren't the first controversy involving sailfishing techniques
and the issue of gut hooking fish. In the early eighties, we fished the Merritt,
Monterrey, Rybovich tournament in Palm Beach. Out of 30+ boats, there were three
of us flying two kites, the "L & H" with John B. Dudas (Louie's
dad), "That's My Hon" with Dick Greiner (a local Palm Beach charter
boat) and us.
John originated the idea of flying two kites, and despite knowing what an advantage
this would have been to keep to himself and his team, he had been kind enough
to show Dick and myself how to do it, as well as, anyone in Miami who asked. As
I recall, most of the captains involved in this tournament, for the most part
preferred to simply criticize John for everything they could think of instead
of asking questions and educating themselves.
At the end of the tournament the three of us came in the top three places.
The following year there were five of us flying two kites and we all came in the
top six places. The local captains that fished either one kite or no kites were
noticeably upset with the outcome and a few comments were made at the awards banquet.
I didn't give it much thought.
The main reason the boats with two kites were so successful was because both
tournaments were very windy which made fishing flat lines out of a typical charter
boat with a cockpit much more difficult than the two kite approach. Here comes
the amazing part, the following year the tournament organizers banned kites from
the tournament and the reason cited was that kites were unsportsmanlike and resulted
in too many gut hooked fish.
I believe that kites are unsportsmanlike? No. Do they give you an advantage in
windy conditions? Yes, they do. But if someone is too stubborn to learn a better
technique, then they deserve to get beat. Remember, this occurred many years ago
when the idea of flying two kites was new, John and I were both from Miami and
Dick was a local captain but was not afraid to try something different. A lot
of the Palm Beach and Stuart boats could fish circles around us with dead bait,
but under windy conditions with live bait, the kites simply gave us an advantage.
The biggest thing that bothered me about their reasoning is their claim that
kites gut hook too many fish. I believe just the opposite. Almost every day that
we sailfish, we fish both flat lines and kites together and we have always used
J-hooks. I would say that we hook 50% to 60% of our flat line fish and 75% to
85% of our kite caught fish where the hook is visible somewhere on the edge of
the mouth or are foul hooked somewhere outside of the mouth.
Our percentages may vary from that of other boats, but that is truly where
our numbers fall. I'm sure that you could gut hook more fish on the kite if you
wanted to but we don't drop back much and I think this helps us to avoid gut hooking
more sailfish and improves the survival rate of the fish that are released.
Another reason why I think that a kite is less likely to gut hook a fish with
a J-hook is because no matter which way that a fish swims after eating a kite
bait, without a long drop back, the pressure quickly increases on the hook, pulling
in an upward direction hooking a lot of our fish in the roof of the mouth or in
the corner of the jaw.
Flat lines on the other hand, are usually pulled in a certain direction by
slowly bumping the boat ahead or the wind causing the boat to drift away from
the baits. Because of this pull on the bait, many times a sail will see the bait,
swim up behind it and eat it as he swims toward the boat, giving him a lot of
time to totally swallow the bait. Many times this will happen without you knowing
that your bait has even been eaten. This happens more often if you are fishing
from the cockpit level, without a tower.
On several occasions when Alex and I were both down below, we've had a sailfish
start jumping before it pulled off of the release clip on the reel. Overall, even
without long drop backs, our hookup ratios have been very good, so unless we get
a very lethargic bite, we don't drop back very much. It seems like using circle
hooks, especially on flat lines could reduce the number of fish hooked deeply.
From what I've seen, the type of hook and where it is attached to the fish
is only half of what affects a sailfish's chance of survival, maybe even less
First, the amount of time spent fighting a fish dramatically affects the amount
of lactic acid that builds up in a fish's tissue. The lighter the line and/or
drag causes sometimes fatal amounts of fatigue on a sailfish. I have seen two
or three sails die on us by staying deep on 6 and 8 lb. test after very long fights.
Second, dragging a sailfish across the gunwale of your boat or laying him on
the deck for a measurement, will wipe the slime coat off of the fish.. I firmly
believe that dragging a fish across the covering board or deck can doom that fish
to a slow death caused by an infection on the area that the slime was removed.
I believe this because of watching it happen every single time to baits that
are touched by human hands, gloves, the mainline on a sabiki rig if left hooked
on too long or by flopping on the deck. This infection occurs over a 2 to 5 day
period once baits are placed in a pen. I bait fish with as many as five livewells
and therefore separate what I consider "pen baits" or flawless baits,
from what I consider "day baits" meaning those were the baits that were
touched and will be great for the day but won't survive well beyond that day.
My pen baits will usually have about a 95% survival rate in the bait pen and
a 100% survival rate once they start eating and will live as long as I feed them.
On the other hand, my day baits will have a 5% to 20% survival rate if I put
them in the pen. Their skin infections will appear within a day or two accompanied
by their eroding tail fin tissue. You might have seen this condition before, we
call it "scabbing." If it is minor, occasionally the bait will heal,
usually leaving a visible scar on the fish. Usually though, it is fatal to the
bait, regardless of the species. I've watched it happen to blue runners, goggle
eyes, pilchards, tinker mackeral, speedos and even pinfish.
This is what leads me to believe that a sailfish, which was heavily abraded
could just as easily die days later, even though it swam away at that moment of
During a typical charter, if a customer wants a picture of the fish, we will
either take a picture of the angler leaning over the side of the gunwale while
Alex holds the fish halfway out of the water not letting the fish bang into the
side of the boat, or Alex waits until I am ready to grab the tail and we lift
straight up not letting the fish drag on the covering board or deck in the process
of getting a quick picture with the angler or an estimated measurement for a release
Afterwards, swimming the fish alongside the boat until it shows some signs
of renewed energy most likely increase their chances of survival. Generally though,
we would only worry about fish pictures at the boat during a regular charter,
not during a tournament. Obviously it is better to minimize contact with the fish
and some of our clients are satisfied with pictures of the fish near the boat
if they ask us what is best for the fish.