I’ve been in the business of risk mitigation for a long time, but I’m often not so quick to practice what I preach. A recent “episode,” a.k.a. “brush with disaster,” was an eye-opening experience worth sharing.
On the trout streams and rivers, barbless hooks are not only encouraged, but required by law in certain cases. There are no shortage of excellent barbless hooks on the market in the most common sizes. Good fish fighting technique (avoiding slack) keeps a solid connection, and they are critical to reducing fish mortality on catch-and-release waters.
I do a lot of surfcasting and recently commented to my fishing partner that I didn’t like the damage that sometimes results from a barbed treble hook, particularly on smaller striped bass. But I hesitated to crush the barbs on the treble hooks of my plugs because I’m after big fish and when I hook up on a truly big fish, I want to land it.
The internal debate was settled back in August, however, when I buried a 4/0 VMC treble hook into my thumb. I found myself with an 11′ surf rod in one hand, connected to a 4 oz. wooden pencil popper buried in my other hand.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that it was daylight, the hook wasn’t in my face or a major artery, I had a friend with me, and it was a short walk to the truck where I had hook cutting pliers. After walking very carefully back to the truck, plug still attached to my hand, we began the awkward task of cutting the hook off the plug.
The treble was buried deep past the barb and the only way it was going to come out without doing major trauma was to push it through and expose the barb so that it could be cut. I wasn’t about to attempt this myself for a number of reasons:
- I didn’t want to cause additional damage to nerves or tendons.
- Fishing was dead anyway. If there was a blitz of 40 pounders underway, I may have reconsidered my options….
Off to the ER we went.
Thankfully, after a short wait, I was seen by the Doc, who struggled to find the right tool for the job. Fortunately, I had the hook-cutting pliers with me. It took quite a bit of effort for her to push the hook through my thumb with a pair of pliers, but my cutters did the trick once the barb was exposed on the other side.
I had plenty of time to replay the day’s events in my mind and realized how fortunate I was. I resolved to crush the barbs (well, most of the barbs) on my plugs and to always carry the hook cutters with me in my plug bag, as opposed to leaving them in the truck.
Imagine if that happened to me alone, at 3 am, out on a rock. I also considered wearing safety glasses.
Two days later, my fishing partner and I were into a good bite in the dark with mixed sizes of striped bass ranging from about 24 to 45 inches.
Fishing was fast, and the goal was to get your fish in quick so you could keep a plug in the water before the bite ended.
My friend was landing a smaller school bass, and these are the most dangerous because they bounce around, throwing the plug and all of its trebles.
A fish-handling tool such as a Boga Grip is a must. However, in a moment of carelessness, he had the fish at his feet and the rod under tension as the hooks came out of the fish. The tension sent the plug flying upward into his face.
“Oh, no.” I heard him say in the dark to my left. “What?” I asked. “Oh, no.” he replied again, followed by “We’re going back to the ER.”
Hearing that the plug was in his face, I quickly made my way over and assessed the situation. Fortunately, he had one hook of the 3/0 treble completely through his cheek with the point and barb exposed on the outside.
This time my hook cutting pliers were in my plug bag, and I was able to cut the exposed point and back the remaining portion out carefully. I saved him a long walk back to the truck with a 9″ swimming plug attached to his face.
We both continued fishing.
Another friend relayed a harrowing experience from earlier this season on the Cape Cod Canal. He happened into a daytime bite with no one around, which is a truly rare occurrence (not the daytime bite, but the fact that no one was around).
While unhooking a striped bass of about 15 pounds, he buried a hook into his hand and found himself connected by steel to a thrashing striped bass on the rocks. The only thing he could do was bear-hug the fish in an effort to keep it still.
Having no cutters, and a death grip on the striper, he had to rely on the assistance of a passerby to remove the hooks from the fish so that he could head to the ER with only the plug attached to his hand.
Once again, he was fortunate that he wasn’t truly alone at 3 am somewhere out on a rock.
The moral of the story: Plan ahead, and don’t think that accidents like this won’t happen to you.
Be prepared to provide first aid in the worst of conditions to yourself or another person.
Whether you throw large plugs, fish large flies, or size 22 dries, do yourself and the fish a favor by going barbless.