by Carmen Macdonald
Sportsmen's shows always provide great opportunities to connect with folks. At this year's show in Portland, one of my first stops was the Camp Cooking area where I knew I'd find Herb Good, Jack Smith and Dub Burnham. Between the three of these guys, there are mountains of plug fishing experience...and when faced with what appears to be a compact Columbia River Spring Chinook season and a new regulation requiring barbless hooks, well, experience matters.
Kwikfish come packaged with VMC Perma Steel treble hooks. In light of new Columbia River barbless hook regulations,
should we simply pinch barbs, or are single hooks better?
The question I had for them was centered on the barbless hooks: given the regulation, should I be converting to single hooks or simply pinching the barbs on stock trebles? It's a question making the rounds at a feverish pace these days.
Herb Good has been there, done that. Now retired from guiding, his input is exceptional because for decades he transitioned from Oregon/Washington to Alaska's Kenai and back again every year. With Kwikfish being an integral part of his playbook, differing regulations required he experience different hook setups.
After all these years, Herb's thoughts were very straightforward: type of hook does not matter. Where the difference is made, he described, is the reaction to the strike. "You have to let them eat it," Good said. By eating it, he means the fish hook themselves. Kwikfish bodies are big, there's a lot of mass there. When the fish strikes the plug, initially they can get a mouth full of lure body. Jerking too soon, or jerking at all, can simply pull the big lure from the fish's mouth. By resisting the temptation to set the hook on the initial explosive strike, the fish, by working against the power of the rod, will set the hook itself.
By waiting until the rod is loaded under steady pressure, Good maximizes his hookups. Overall, he feels that a fish hooked on a large single hook is less likely to fall off during the fight, but cautions that with single hooks it becomes even more important to let the fish hook themselves.
Jack Smith, operator of one of Oregon's highest quality guide businesses, was quick to point out that barbless hooks are not new to Oregon's salmon fisheries. In the early 1990's, there was a short period where barbless hooks were previously mandated on our rivers. The regulation was removed when it was shown to be of little benefit.
In Smith's experience, barbless treble hooks made no difference to his hook-to-land ratio with Kwikfish. In fact, he felt that by pinching the large barbs on the treble hooks, he achieved better hook penetration due to the smaller diameter of the hook point overall. His thoughts were that the smaller diameter equaled less resistance, which equaled deeper penetration and better hold overall.
Surprisingly, Smith said that once the barbless regulation was removed, he continued to pinch the barbs on his Kwikfish hooks for a long period because of the advantage of deeper penetration with barbless hooks.
Dub Burnham covers a lot of ground and puts in a lot of time on the water. You won't see him giving seminars at retailers, but paying attention to the whereabouts of his black sled can pay serious dividends.
Burnham described a period in the early 2000's where he documented the landing of 96 plug-caught spring chinook with different hook types, single versus treble. All hooks were barbless. In his experience, overall hook-to-land ratio was not effected by single or treble hooks, at all. The two hook types performed equally. What Burnham did remember clearly, was that single hooks, set back on swivels, were more apt to hook fish in the gills or through the eye socket.
He did not communicate this happening at alarming levels. But where hook injury was inflicted, it was most often with single siwash hooks.
Burnham's comments become very important because many anglers are switching to single hooks to have a lighter touch on wild fish. The core thought is that one hook point has to be easier on the fish than three, and therefore single hooks are better. What the studies say, however, is that mortality from hooks is based upon where the fish are hooked, not how. In essence, single hooks which normally have longer shanks and larger gaps than trebles, could prove to be more damaging overall.
On the Deschutes River, barbless single hook rules were eliminated because larger gap single hooks were negatively impacting wild steelhead, at levels high enough to backtrack out of well-intentioned regulations without resistance. In the process of adopting barbless regulations for the Columbia, the state of Washington wanted also to mandate single hooks. Thankfully, Oregon's direct experience with hook types prevailed.
Spring chinook are not overly large, so while steelhead are a different fish, hook location is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Change can often be a source of excitement and nervous tension, and the barbless hook rule on the Columbia is certainly no exception. From the experience of three top anglers, the nerves could prove to be much ado about nothing.
For me, the plan of attack is to pinch barbs and go fishing, making changes to successful systems only when necessary.
Have fun out there.