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As summer approaches, a cautionary tale

Blog by: Bill Prater 5/29/2022

If you need one more reason to crimp the barbs on fish hooks, let me admit to foul-hooking my brother's ear.

It was 1958 or maybe 1959. But you'd swear it happened only yesterday, as Paulie still works that story into darned near every shared conversation we have with a new acquaintance. (And the older he gets, the more likely it is he's recalling and embellishing the same incident to relatives at every major holiday.)

Okay it happened; took place on the muddy bank of Lake Wappapella, in the Missouri Bootheel. I don't recall how it came into my possession, but I was armed with an ancient steel, telescoping fly rod. Didn't even have a reel, just some thick flyline-like cord attached to the butt end, poked through the guides down to some kind of big old fly. Obsessed with getting that beauty into the water, I was flailing away while paying insufficient attention to Paulie, who was using a simple cane pole to my right. Wham! the fly slammed into the softest part of a Prater ear lob - the right one, I think, though to hear him tell it, the impact nearly ripped off both ears. It was admittedly a pretty good sized, heavy hook, consistent with tackle of that era, with a sturdy metal barb. It seemed like hours before Dad could set my brother free; I'm pretty sure he had to push the barb right on through the ear before he could clip the hook off with pliers.

The point is, even after 60 years Paulie, now a much-respected, retired minister, is still bitching about the incident. That is a strong hint that you should crimp those barbs of yours before flinging any bait into open air.  

Most anglers who crimp their barbs say they do so to reduce harm to their catch. That's a pretty decent, humane reason, though I generally favor the reason that a barbless hook will be less likely to rip up my own delicate flesh. Regardless, a hook without a barb on the end, particularly the sharp ones they're making these days, will penetrate anyone or anything's flesh more painlessly, and come out with far less fuss. Regardless of how simple some You Tube or Tik Tok video makes it look, the old "string technique" for hook removal is kinda tricky. It's even harder to practice, or to pull off when fishing alone. For most amateur anglers, the more common and reliable technique is to just grimace, close your eyes and push the barb on through the flesh so the hook can be snipped. And trust me on this: if your spouse or other fishing buddy is squeamish like mine, you will wind up trying this by yourself. 

Critics - and there are some - contend that a fish is more likely to escape a barbless hook. Yeah, that's probably true, particularly really feisty, squirming species like trout. It's a situation, though, where the more practice you have, the more successful you'll be keeping the fish pinned to a barbless lure long enough to be caught, kissed and easily set free.

There are two additional, valid reasons to go barbless: One, just as it's easier to remove a barbless hook from a thumb or other protruding member, a barb-free hook is drastically less likely to snag in your fancy Orvis sweater or Simms landing net. And two (you should talk to my former brother-in-law Mike about this) bad things happen using a treble hook. Before I sat down to share all this, I hunted without success for the selfie he sent me a few years ago. With cell phone firmly in one hand, he had photographed himself holding up a huge largemouth with his grisly hand grimly attached to at least two barbs on a treble hook. (As I recall, it was the front hook on a half-ounce lipless crankbait, crawfish pattern. It was winter in Florida). Anyway, I was impressed: he had chosen to show me his prize fish before heading to the emergency room. Lesser anglers would have gone straight to the doctor. Or at least cried a little.

So. Get out your pliers and smash that barb flat. The Loveland Kids Fishing Derby and similar events for angling novices are just a few days away, with hundreds of eager anglers in close proximity to the water and to your ears.

Blog content © Bill Prater
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