It is not uncommon for a customer to enter the fly shop and, after looking around, ask where the flies tied on circle hooks are kept. Or sometimes, a related question arises as to where the circle hooks for fly tying are hiding. The answer to both questions is the same: there are none in the fly shop. While there are no pre-tied flies, there are numerous bare circle hook options right outside the shop in the conventional saltwater fishing department. They are available in all sizes, wire thickness, and colors.
In fact, in Florida, it is forbidden by law to fish with any hook other than a circle hook in certain situations. If fishing the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, off the western shore of Florida, usually for the highly coveted Red Snapper, the use of circle hooks is a must. The fish is popular for both its size and table qualities, and the fishery is highly regulated for both commercial and private anglers. Everyone must use circle hooks and undersized or released fish must be handled with very specific and somewhat startling procedures. Ever heard of venting a fish?
Off the east coast of Florida, in Atlantic waters, the fishery for the spectacular sportfish called a Sailfish is pursued year round, but their numbers dramatically increase during the winter. There are numerous release tournaments during the winter that bring fancy sportfishing yachts and their big money owners and professional teams. Tournaments catching, or rather releasing, dozens of Sailfish a day on dozens of boats is not unheard of. Once again, the use of circle hooks is mandatory. And not just any circle hook is acceptable, in this case the point of the hook must not be offset. In other words, the hook must be planar.
Although not mandatory, the use of circle hooks for live-baiting large tarpon is also very popular. It is possible, even likely, that non-fly tarpon tournaments require them also, but that is outside my radar screen. I do know that one highly controversial non-fly tarpon tournament required circle hooks, but that tournament drew so much negative attention it was run out of business.
In all of these cases, the circle hook is valued for its ability to almost specifically hook the fish on the edge of the mouth, and therefor not cause any internal damage to a fish that will be released. Another fact, in that hooking the fish requires almost no input from the angler, other than restraint and constant reeling, is a big positive for the live bait guides who allow the fish to hook themselves while the rod remains in the rod holder.
Circle hooks migrated into the recreational angling scene from the commercial side. They were, and still are, commonly used when commercial long-lines are deployed to be fished unattended. The hookup ratio for these unattended lines is significantly higher when circle hooks are used compared to standard J style hooks.
But what about flyfishing? The general census around here is that circle hooks are unnecessary. For a short time they were highly touted, but that story has faded. A wise old guide once called them a solution searching for a problem. Most folks that I know who have tried them reported poorer hook up ratios and quickly discontinued their use.
While they may excel in situations where the bait is swallowed and the line is unattended, neither case is common when fly fishing around South Florida, or at least not in my personal case. Almost all of my fishing is visual. Seldom do I hook a fish deep in the mouth, and it is very rare that I do not get a visual clue that the fly has been attacked.
I admit I did give them a try, and I blame ‘em for losing the largest Seatrout I ever witnessed take my fly. Our Seatrout are not a true Salmonid, but they sure look like one. They are aggressive and were once so abundant that fishing for them was scorned by the “real” anglers. Or at least that is how my friends and I felt when I was growing up around here. They are decent table fare and are about the same on the end of the line. They neither jump nor run fast, but one characteristic of their fight is sticking their head into the air and shaking it violently, usually when swimming (or, more likely, being pulled) toward the boat. That is how my potential personal best Seatrout threw my circle hook fly.
I am keeping an open mind about them however. I commonly see fly anglers who have no sense of feeling for their flies as they allow slack to form between their rod tip and the water. Worse yet, some actually manipulate the fly by moving the rod tip, which introduces even more slack. These anglers tend to go full trout-set when they do imagine they have had a bite, which even lessens their odds of getting a good hook set. When they do manage to hook a fish it is often deep in the throat as they did not feel the fish until it swam away with the fly and the line finally came tight. I am considering some circle hook flies for these anglers even though a trout-set technique will likely lessen their hook up ratios to almost zero. Circle hooks do not work well at all when any sort of yank is employed.
However, you may have noticed above that I said most folks I know have abandoned circle hooks. Not all. I know one very cagey snook angler who routinely fly fishes the surf of the Atlantic beaches. He is more than likely the best snook fly angler on the east coast and he routinely uses circle hooks. The beaches around here are short and sharply angled. It is common to tick the higher shore on the back cast and that can damage the point on a standard J hook. The circle hook point is protected from this. If you can control yourself and not yank in response to a hit, a circle hook will find a home to nest in, and after that, it is less likely to be dislodged by a frantic fish. Of course, after you have caught thousands of beach snook it is probably easier to not get excited, too.
I was curious if circle hooks were used in other parts of the world when fly fishing in situations much different than those I encounter. I would think that dredging with weighted shooting heads would severely limit ones ability to detect hits, and maybe the continued stripping by the yet unaware angler would not be a perfect scenario for a circle hook to work its magic.