Quite a poignant debate in the world of fishing is whether to fish with barbed or barbless hooks and as with all gear choices in fishing, they both have their pros and cons.
Picking the right hooks to fish with are paramount to your angling success and picking one over the other isn’t quite so easy as it comes down to your own personal views on the topic and your experience of using them both.
Having fished for over 30 years and guided for a lot of them, I can say that I have used both barbed and barbless hooks and I’m here to guide you through the pros and cons of barbed vs barbless hooks.
What Are The Differences Between A Barbed And A Barbless Hook?
What Is A Barbed Hook?
The only difference between a barbed hook and a barbless hook is a small “prong” near the sharp point of the hook. The barb acts as a retention point in the fish’s mouth to ensure that the hook does not fall from the lip of the fish when it is hooked.
What Is A Barbless Hook?
A barbless hook has no “prong”, the sharp point hooks into the lip, and by keeping tension on the line and is kept constant then the fish cannot escape from the hook.
What Is A Barb On A Barbed Hook For?
Chances are, you already know what a barb is, but in case some of our readers don’t, let’s make sure we are all on a level playing field before moving forward.
A hook barb is an extension protruding from out of the hook shank and sits below the point on the inside of the hook. The barb faces the opposite direction to the hook point and this is what makes it useful in a fishing context – more on that coming up.
What Is The Purpose Of The Barb On A Hook?
The barb on a fishing hook has two purposes.
The first purpose is to hold your bait on the hook, especially when you’re fishing with dead bait or live bait as the barb stops the hook from pulling out of the bait while it’s swimming or being pulled at by fish in the water.
The second purpose of a barb is to stop the hook from falling out of a fish’s mouth once it has gone in. Since the barb faces the opposite way of the hook point, it stops the hook from being pulled in the opposite direction and keeps it in the fish’s mouth.
Using Barbed Fishing Hooks
Barbed fishing hooks do have their place in the world of fishing and are probably the most popular hook used everywhere and for good reasons, in most cases. Here are the good things about barbed fishing hooks
Holding Dead Or Live Baits
Barbed hooks are designed, as I mentioned above, to hold on to natural baitfish such as herring, roach, or fish whether it’s dead or alive – particularly when predator fishing. They are also much better at holding squid or crab baits.
When you are using say a chunk of squid for bottom fishing or have hooked a live minnow in the back in the hope of a predator coming along, a barbed hook is going to be very effective at holding on to the bait.
When you’re bottom fishing with dead bait, fish will start pulling on the bait when they eat it, and without the barb, the bait can easily slip right off the hook after a few bites. This results in you losing your bait more often and possibly catching fewer fish.
If you’ve hooked a live bait in the back, the barb stops the hook from falling out of the fish as it swims around and tries to break free. Without the barb, your live bait could fall off the hook before a bigger fish comes along and has a chance to eat it.
Keeping You Hooked Up
Once you have hooked a fish, a barbed hook is more likely to stay in the fish’s mouth than a barbless hook, but only if you lose tension on the fish.
If you fight a fish and keep tension on it all the time, chances are no hook would ever come out. But, when fish run at you and create slack, or jump, shake their head and create slack, a barbed hook is far more likely to hold onto the fish than a barbless one.
Barbed Are More Readily Available
When you buy hooks, approximately 75% of the hooks available in shops, will be barbed and therefore you’ll be able to buy the exact hook you want for any purpose, but it will have a barb.
Barbed hooks are available in more sizes and are generally slightly cheaper due to the manufacturing process for hooks being more widely used for barbed hooks.
Why Are Barbed Hooks Sometimes Banned?
Barbed hooks are often banned as they cause more damage to fish than barbless hooks and you’ll usually find this rule at catch-and-release fisheries.
This can be a controversial opinion and some anglers have written articles that argue the fact, that the barbless hook can create more damage as it can move around more in the fish’s mouth as it is not “anchored”. The movement from side to side potentially increases the hold in the fish’s lip, making some small mouth damage.
In my personal opinion, I believe that most damage is caused when an angler tries to remove the hook from the mouth, and since the barb prevents this from being done easily, anglers tend to pull and be sometimes rough in trying to extract the hook. This is particularly an issue for young or inexperienced anglers.
So, this catch and release rule makes sense, as it will maintain fish health across the whole fishery population.
When Can Barbed Hooks Be Used Safely?
If you are fishing for saltwater fish or freshwater fish that you are allowed to remove and take home for eating purposes then barbed hooks are the best option.
Barbed hooks give a slightly better chance of landing the fish and any damage caused to the fish is not relevant since you are going to kill the fish anyway.
Using Barbless Fishing Hooks
Barbless hooks come without barbs when you buy them or become barbless when you crimp the barb down. I personally always use barbless hooks when they suit the situation and here is what is good about barbless fishing hooks.
Easier Hook Ups
When you’re fishing with barbless hooks, chances are you will find it easier to hook fish. When a fish eats a lure or bait with a barbless hook in it and you go to set, there is nothing getting in the way of the hook going into the fish’s mouth.
By not having a barb, the hook can slip into the fish’s mouth unfettered with menial force whereas if a barb was there, it would require an extra set to drive it into the fish’s mouth. Overall, barbless hooks slip into fish’s mouths a lot more easily and with less force than barbed hooks.
They Are Better For The Fish
When a barbless hook enters a fish’s mouth, it goes in like a needle whereas when a barbed hook goes into a fish’s mouth, it goes in like a needle initially and then the barb takes a big chunk with it too.
By not having a barb, the part that holds the hook in the mouth of a fish, a barbless hook will slide right out of a fish’s mouth without causing it lots of damage. When you go to pull a barbed hook out of a fish’s mouth, you’ll need to shake it a bit and may take a small piece of the fish’s mouth with the hook.
Not only will it potentially remove a piece, but the handling time spent removing the barb will take the fish out of the water for too long and cause it stress. Now, if you are planning to keep the intended fish for dinner, it doesn’t quite matter if the barb damages the fish more.
But, if you are releasing the fish, it will swim away in much better condition than if you used a barbless hook since you can slide it out of the fish’s mouth while it’s in the water with minimal handling, no air exposure, and without a chunk missing.
Barbless Are Easier For Fishing Catch & Release
It’s probably obvious to you now after what we went through above but using barbless hooks is much easier when fishing catch and release.
When releasing fish you have to be certain that the fish swim away in as good a condition as possible. By being able to slide a hook out of a fish’s mouth with minimal force, minimal handling, and minimal air exposure, it will swim away in the best condition possible.
Hook Safety – Barbless Are Much Safer For You
If you have ever had a hook go into your finger, hand, or head, and I have had all three, then taking it out of your finger, hand, or head is going to be a lot easier with a barbless hook.
Removing a barbless hook is as simple as pulling the hook back out the way it came. But, pulling a barbed hook out of your hand the way it went in, that’s going to leave a big chunk in your hand and it’s going to hurt a lot.
To remove a barbed hook, you need to cut the hook with bolt cutters above the barb and then slide it through. A much longer and more troublesome process!
They Don’t Have To Fall Out Of Fish’s Mouths
The main reason why anglers choose to use barbed hooks instead of barbless hooks is that they feel they lose fewer fish after they have hooked it. However, losing a fish is almost always because the wrong techniques have been used.
The only reason you would ever lose a fish with a barbless hook is if you lost tension on the fish during the fight, which is just poor fishing technique. Now, you can not always control losing tension but 90% of the time you can.
Using barbless hooks will actually improve your fishing skills since you’ll work as hard as you can to ensure you stay tight on the fish.
Removing a barbless hook is generally more time-consuming. If you are planning to go match fishing, or you are in a hurry for some reason, the hook removal process is much easier and means you can be back fishing quickly. Speed is key when match fishing.
Also, the quicker the fish is released means less time out of the water and a better opportunity for the fish to recover immediately.
How Do I Make A Barbed Hook Into A Barbless Hook?
If you only have barbed hooks and want to make it into a barbless hook then this involves taking a barbed hook and crimping down the barb with pliers in a squeezing motion on every hook you use.
Removing barbs from hooks can be quite a tiresome task when you have to do it all the time, as even though it takes two seconds to crimp down a barb, the quality of the crimp and the strength of the hook can be compromised. Personally, I am not in favor of Flattening the barbs, I would prefer to buy the right hooks from the shops.
Barbed Vs Barbless Hooks – Which Hooks Should You Use?
So, which hook should you use: barbed or barbless? This comes down to your own opinion and the choice is yours but I would suggest using barbless 100% of the time unless you plan on eating the fish.
If you plan on eating the fish, then using barbed hooks makes sense, since you don’t want to lose your dinner. But, when you’re fishing to release, using a hook that harms the fish a lot less and has a smaller chance of harming you makes sense to me.
Most anglers will own both types of hook, and my suggestion is that you do the same. Just keep them segregated and labeled correctly to avoid any potential of breaking laws or bans from fishing commercial waters.
What Is A Micro Barbed Hook?
I left this question at the end of my article as it’s another option for some anglers. Micro barbs are a compromise between barbed and barbless hooks.
There is a barb on the hook but it is much smaller, this small barb works the same way as the normal barbed hook but is slightly easier to remove from the fish’s mouth safely.
Micro barb hooks are not commonly available and are usually available only in small sizes used by match fishermen. It should also be noted that hooks with micro barbs are also banned by some commercial fisheries.
Anglers have been debating the use of barbless hooks and barbed hooks for decades. Many have a split opinion and some anglers will only fish barbless, while others don’t use them unless the law or the fishery rules dictate which type can be used.
There are cases for both types depending on the fishing you are doing and the species you are trying to catch, however where possible my personal choice is to use barbless where possible.
Growing up fly fishing on trout streams in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fly fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles, there aren't many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.