Crush Barbs and Plan Ahead for Safety

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:

  • As gruesome as this looks, it could have been much worse.
  • 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.

The ER at Cape Cod Hospital. Great staff, but their tool kit left a little to be desired.

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.

Always carry hook cutters, even to the ER….

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.

Striped Bass are a precious resource. Handle with care.

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.

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15 thoughts on “Crush Barbs and Plan Ahead for Safety

  1. Glad things didn’t go too horribly! I have gotten hooks stuck in me, but nothing bigger than a 10 or 12 or something like that. I think I would faint with a 4/0! When I was a kid, I remember my dad got a bass plug stuck in his cheek. He cut it off, but the part in him sucked inside and didn’t come out until dinner several months later as it worked itself out!

    1. I once buried a hook in my heel. I went to the emergency room. The doc say’s you’re a fisherman and don’t know how to remove a hook. He takes about 18″ of gauze off of a roll. Rolls it into rope, wraps it around the bend of the hook, pushes the shank down to touch the skin and yanks it out clean as a whistle. You can do the same thing with piece of heavy mono.

    1. As someone who has had hooks embedded in his hand and fingers multiple times, I’m always interested in whatever a savvy angler like Damon has to say. He fishes both the salt with spin tackle and the rivers with a fly rod, and so, he has a unique ability to apply lessons learned from both activities to both activities. My 2 cents.

      1. Treble hooks, owning a pair of hook cutting pliers, and reeling in fish “quick so you could keep a plug in the water” are not things that resonate with many fly fishers.
        Damon does not even commit to going barbless, only stating that he will crimp “most of the barbs” on his lures. While it is sound advice to be prepared and have a first aid kit, this post still feels out of place on blogflyfish.
        Given that Damon’s last post was in March, I’m sure that there are more appropriate stories and images from the past six months that he could have shared that would resonate better with this audience.

        1. I actually asked him to write about his saltwater adventures. He recently wrote two posts, one of which will appear tomorrow.

          He is free to write what he wants. You’re free to read or not read what we write.

          I loved his post. My 2 cents.

        2. Hi Dave. When I wrote that post, I thought it’s relevance was to those throwing large streamers in either fresh or saltwater although the story was rooted in surfcasting with a spinning rod. In hindsight, I could have the point more clearly.

          You’re right, though, I still use barbs in certain circumstances while surfcasting with spinning tackle. I have my reasons.

          I am committed to barbless hooks on trout streams regardless of regulations.

          1. Understood Damon, I appreciate the follow up. I commend you always going barbless on trout streams. I confess that I am not as diligent, though when regulations require I do always comply. Thus, many of my flies in general now have crimped barbs that I will fish wherever, no matter what the regulations. PS I enjoyed your post today on tight-lining with a dry fly, it’s something I’ve never heard of, and certainly an interesting approach. Thank you.

            1. Thanks, Dave. There are a number of reasons barbless is better for trout. One illustration; I can generally remove a 6/0 barbed hook from a 30lb striped bass much more easily than I can remove a barbed size 22 from a 10” trout. I can’t remove that 6/0 barbed hook from my hand without cutting pliers…
              Thanks for the compliment on today’s post.
              I enjoy writing and offer my stuff for free, but buyer beware; you get what you pay for!

              1. “Offer my stuff for free.”

                Agreed. I hope readers remember that we are all volunteers for this blog and that any profit it makes will be donated to charity.

  2. Barbless is the only way to go. Not long ago I had forgotten about a dropper fly while tending to the other fly getting it untangled from a bush. The dropper got buried to the bend in my finger, but came out pretty easily being there was no barb on it. Bass fishermen should consider going this route with their plugs for the good of the bass and in the event they get hooked themselves.

    1. Sam, I feel the same way.

      Unfortunately, on one occasion, I took had a dropper fly embedded in my finger. I had pinched down the barb but inadvertently left a bit “unpinched.” The only thing I could do was push the hook through, re-expose the barb, pinch it completely back down, and slide everything back out.

      Lesson learned!

  3. Worst foul hooking event I ever saw was a lady whose boyfriend embedded both trebles from a Rapala in her leg. He wanted me to try to remove them by cutting off the exposed but embedded hooks. No way!
    Anyway, I have gone mostly to barbless Siwash hooks on my trolling lures (yes I do more than fly fish), and pinch down all barbs at the vise before tying. I am converting my hook supply to barbless as I run out of hooks. You will lose a few more fish, but since I release 99% who cares!

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