A good friend who is a devout catch-and-release angler and expert fly tyer fishes with barbed hooks. I won’t use Doug Mawhinney’s name here, but he knows who I’m talking about. I use barbless hooks, or at least hooks with the barb squeezed down as flat as I can get it with the Leatherman Squirt® pliers that live in a pocket of my vest. My friend claims the mortality rate is so close to equal whether a fish is caught on a barbed hook or a barbless hook that it is statistically insignificant, and you stand less chance of losing a fish before getting it to the net when you used a barbed hook. I agree with the latter point, but disagree with the first part of his case for barbs. I do lose a fish now and then because it’s easier for a fish to shake out the barbless hook. Big deal, I say. The best part is the strike, the take, or whatever happens to connect you and the fish, and if I lose the fish before getting it into the net I experience only momentary regrets. But when I do manage to net the fish, more often than not the barbless hook just falls out in the net and all I have to do is flip the net over to release the fish. On the rare occasion when I forget to squeeze the barb of a new fly and I land a fish with it, removing the barbed hook from the fish’s mouth almost always does some damage. Sometimes it’s minor, sometimes there’s blood. The fish that bleeds has a poor chance of survival. My brother (the Bro) hooked himself one time many years ago with a barbed hook that went through his nasal septum (the wall between the nostrils) so that the fly hung down squarely in the middle of his nose. The fishing was so good at that moment that he snipped the tippet, leaving the fly in his nose looking like a Hitlerian moustache, if Hitler’s moustache had looked like a Royal Wulff, tied on another fly and continued fishing. Later, back at camp, the removal was swift but painful. He bled, but he survived. I think that was the moment he switched to barbless hooks.
Debate rages, as they say, in the angling community about barbed versus barbless — you can get an idea of the tone and tenor of the debate here and here. You can buy barbless flies in a few patterns at online retailers such as Big Y Flies, but usually if you want to fish barbless you have to squeeze down the barb yourself.
Sometimes a fish will perish despite barbless hook and careful handling. We are catch-and-release anglers (which is weird, right, because I do eat fish and love to eat trout) and we try to land a fish quickly so as not to tire it to the point of mortal exhaustion. That’s why we use sturdy 4X tippets most of the time when we are in water where we have a good chance of catching a good-sized trout or salmon. But every once in a while, maybe once a year, a fish dies for no obvious reason. It happened once last year, and once this year. The Bro caught, netted and released a nice trout that had no apparent injury. The fish swam into the depths, but a few minutes later he was on the surface, belly up, and 20 minutes of fish resuscitation efforts failed to revive him.
We mourned a bit, for sure, but one benefit of having a fresh dead fish in hand is that you can examine its stomach contents to see what was his favorite snack, and adjust your angling tactics accordingly. The other benefit, of course, is that you can have the fish for supper. To prepare the fish, drizzle lemon juice on the fish, sprinkle with a bit of salt, pepper and herbs of choice (fresh parsley is good), maybe place some onion pieces in the body cavity, seal in foil and bake at 350 for a half hour. To prepare the angler, set out a glass, add ice cubes, pour bourbon over the ice and consume slowly while the fish is cooking.