Barbs, Cutters & Stuff

Category: Articles

 Jun 29th, 2011 by zboudreau

Modified Jun 29th, 2011 at 12:00 am

We’ll start with what may likely be the most important topic in Esox release: hook cutting. We’ve been over this a bunch, but will never stop.

Hook Cutting

This is a subject that may not have nearly as much importance for folks going barbless (more on that later), since with no barbs, hooks easily back out with no ripping or tearing. However, even when barbless, sometimes it’s just easier and quicker to cut hooks. Sometimes angles are such that it’s just simpler to cut a shaft, hook eye, or split ring rather than try to get the right angle to back a hook out – which brings us to the first part of John’s question: “when to cut ’em.”

For absolutely certain, with a fish hooked in or near the eyes or gill system (which includes where it attaches to the lower jaw), cutters should be the first choice without question. Any additional wiggling or tearing by the fish (which can happen whether water releasing or over the side of the boat in a net) can do further damage to these critical areas. The pressure created by hooks leveraged against the fish and the lure body needs to be released as soon as possible. For all aspects of release, faster is better.

Any hooks that are deeply embedded, especially those with barbs, regardless of where the hooks are located, should be cut. These are hooks that are hard to see, often, and the ‘cut first’ rule is especially true in cases where two or even three hook points on a treble are obviously buried. For certain with barbed hooks, we have totally unnecessary tearing and ripping that will occur here. Likely too that it will take longer trying with pliers. Hard to see hooks often scare anglers away from cutters, because they can’t see problem areas to cut and feel getting in with a long nose pliers may be easier. It isn’t.

That’s really it. If it appears unhooking via pliers will be tough, or if hooks are buried in critical zones, cutters are the way to go. Pliers and hookouts are for situations where hooks can easily be popped out. This is the case some of the time, but over 50 percent of the time, cutters are better.

The how involves a few more issues and suggestions. We all learn from experience and I’m still learning. First, have two pairs of cutters available at a minimum (I know that Ross Fisher mentioned this in the previous column). Just in case one is lost is a good reason, but working together with a partner is a case for a spare pair as well. Partners can both cut at the same time with multiple-hooked baits. And this brings us to where to cut hooks. The simple answer is anywhere. Just start cutting. Make lots of pieces. This way they nearly always fall out, and again, it’s the fastest.

Hooks don’t always present themselves in a perfect position for cutting at the most convenient spot (at the bend next to the barb). We talked earlier about embedded hooks and being able to see. If the hook bend is available, cut there, but often it isn’t. The key is getting the lure away from the fish. This is where the real leverage is – the embedded hook working against the lure body. It’s how fish can do more damage to themselves thrashing. Don’t worry about starting where you think you need to be. If you can’t see the bend, cut the hook eye. Most lures have split rings – cut those.  Eliminate the leverage, and get the bait out of the way. As soon as the bait is no longer attached, the fish’s head can be placed where it should be – in the water where it can breathe. Now, get a gill hold and using jaw spreaders if necessary, cut the heck out the remaining hooks, wherever you can reach them.

The majority of the time, all the pieces will fall out. However, sometimes a piece may remain. With the head in the water, pluck out pieces that may still be stuck.

Finally, and this has been harped on a lot and we will continue to do so… make certain you have quality cutters. From day one, Esox Angler Magazine has offered Knipex cutters for sale. The simple reason is that then – and now – they are the best cutters available for what we do. Access to quality cutters has never been easy. Most mini-bolt-cutters and side cutters available at the local hardware store simply don’t cut our big hooks easily enough. Most don’t last either. On average they’re good for about five cut jobs before jaws spring on large hooks or grooves develop in the cutting edges, and fade to worthless by the tenth.

We offer two models that you’ll see in these pages. One is the Cobolt. These are the strongest, and if you can only afford one pair, they’re it. However, the “High Leverage” cutters are a little longer, still cut very well, and are a little handier when digging a little deeper is necessary. I carry both. I suggest everyone does. Next season, I’m going to start carrying two of the Cobolts for two of us working together. Two of these cost about the same as the average 6-pack of muskie lures, and are far more important.

Also very important here, product-wise, is having the proper landing device mesh. This is another hugely important factor with regard to the knotless, treated, tangle-free net mesh now standard on Frabill nets. The standard mesh on the PowerCatch, Big Kahuna and Kwik Kradles is big, and the coating nearly completely prevents tangles. A huge point here is that it’s far easier to get in there to cut hooks. (Esox Angler’s policy is to not over-promote product within our text. However, when it’s pertinent to the point, and especially the most important point – successful release – we do talk about it.)


Esox Angler reader Greg Bolinski, who with his wife recently started operating a fishing lodge in Ontario, had some information and advice on the barbed vs. barbless issue after reading my column in the fall, 2003 issue, which he was very complimentary about (thanks Greg). He had some interesting input, and a compromise, of sorts.

Said Greg: “I was running into big numbers of pike, most in the 24 to 32 inch range, but was forced to keep more than I wanted because they were engulfing the lure. The critical hooks were always deep down the throat.”

So, Greg started pinching the barbs down on the rear hook and left the barbs on the front hook. There’s an idea that never got mentioned previously. We talked about going with barbs or without. On multiple-hooked lures we can do both. And it’s working for Greg. There are barbs on the front hooks for extra security, but these are easy to get at to pop out or cut.

Going barbless in back when fish are prone to engulfing lures makes sense. Certainly all bodies of water are different. Lure types and actions make fish react differently, but overall it seems pike are more prone to overtake lures from behind than muskies. I could theorize for several more paragraphs on that issue, boring you all to tears, but in situations where fish tend to overtake with rear hooks well into the mouth or throat, barbless in back is a good idea. Thanks for the tip Greg!

Possibly the only downside here is with real big hooks. As discussed in the previous column on barbless hooks (and as experienced by Rob Kimm and Doug Johnson), on big hooks, going barbless means big spears. On bigger lures, part of the equation likely should be sizing-down rear hooks along with going barbless.

Greg also mentioned keeping the fish’s head in the water during release and NOT bringing fish in the boat for release – and that he sees a lot of that – which means we have more work to do. The head breathes.


Frankly, this story is a little embarrassing, since I’m supposed to be a release expert, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? Last September while fishing with Esox Angler contributor Marc Thorpe, a real nice muskie nibbled on my crankbait. Soon, I was hanging over the side of the boat holding the tail of a fish that didn’t quite make 50 inches. It was a smooth release: got some photos, but quickly. The fish didn’t fight exceptionally hard, the hooks were easily cut, the water was cool and I smiled as I saw the fish breathing perfectly while I enjoyed the moment.

Normally I just hold fish upright so they don’t have to “work” to maintain their balance, and they tell me when they want to go. But this fish, to me, should have gone right away. All signs were positive. A couple minutes later though, when I tested her to see if she’d hold herself, she’d tip. By this time, I’m thinking to myself, what’s going on; what could possibly be wrong with this fish? Finally, I say to Marc that I wonder if there is something wrong with the fish.

So Marc took the fish’s tail from me, swung the fish side-to-side for two seconds, and pointe her head down a little. She stiffened and powered off like she’d never been caught. At that point I felt like a dope. But it brings up a great point, and it’s something I’ve actually done before, and seen done before… I guess I had a brain freeze. (Actually, I just think that lady muskie really liked me. She just wanted to sit there and have me hold her – but she didn’t care for Marc.)

Seriously, a couple great points here. Most of the time, just holding the fish and helping it maintain its equilibrium as it recovers from the effort of the fight is the best thing you can do for the fish. The majority of the time they’ll tell you when they’re ready to go. Sometimes though, they need a little direction.

Understand that there is a big difference between swinging the fish side-to-side and pumping the fish back and forth. Many folks used to promote the back and forth motion to revive fish, but Esox usually keep their mouths shut, so you’re not forcing water in the right way (from the front and over the gills), but rather forcing some water in the wrong way (through the back of the gills), collapsing the gill filaments. This just adds to the fish’s stress, especially if your action is exceptionally vigorous.

Occasionally though, a fish that is perfectly fine just doesn’t quite “get it” yet. These are the same fish that will just lie on the surface for a while. Marc’s technique often works on these fish. Unfortunately, I can’t remember and did not write down the reader’s name, but a subscriber to the magazine also talked of how great it works to point a muskie’s head down at a 45 degree angle. It does work. So, if you have a fish that seems to be breathing normally, appears healthy in all ways, yet it isn’t going anywhere. Try Marc’s trick of swaying the fish side-to-side and then point its head down.

They get it.

Remember, releasing Esox to die later really sucks.

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