All In For Circle Hooks

The last half of July found me hanging out at East Cape doing a little fishing plus visiting with old friends. In our many discussions, I was surprised how popular circle hooks have become. When I asked about using circle hooks, a few of my friends who were fishing in the Dorado Shootout, simply responded, “We just catch more fish with them.”

Circle Hooks

Fair enough. Then I bumped into Axel Valdez, manager of Buena Vista Beach Resort Hotel who had switched over to circles exclusively last year for all of their bait fishing. And asked if they were still using them? (

“Yes, sir! And we wish we had started a lot sooner,” he replied enthusiastically. “Jeff Pierce of Mustad Hooks has been a big help.”

Nearly a decade ago I wrote an article that stated that fishing with circle hooks was a hot topic of discussion throughout the sportfishing community. The debate about circle hooks was hardly new. With plenty of respected anglers weighing in on both sides, it was confusing for individuals to determine which hook, circle or “J,” was the best for a particular fishing situation.

Ancient fishing hooks

New technology? Hardly. Native fishermen hundreds of years ago began fabricating hooks by hand that looked suspiciously like today’s circle hooks. You have only to visit your local Natural History Museum to find examples of hooks fashioned from bone or stone that are virtually similar to today’s circle design. By the late 1800s/early 1900s conventional anglers of the Tuna Club of Avalon in Southern California had discovered the merits of circles and were catching some impressive-sized billfish and tuna using them. Around the same time, the commercial fishermen discovered them and found that they worked perfectly to catch tuna as well as bottom fish with the hook almost always making its way to the corner of the mouth. Pretty soon, saltwater anglers, both commercial and sportfishing, began to sing the praises of circles.

“J” hook and the circle

When comparisons are drawn between the more popular “J” hook and the circle, the enthusiastic comments include “more user friendly,” “safer,” “higher hook-up ratio” and “more attractive from a conservation perspective.”

Fishing hooks

Ellen Peel from The Billfish Foundation (TBF) actively endorses the use of circle hooks at tournaments, fishing and boating shows, and club meetings. The National Marine Fisheries Service has mandated the use of non-offset circle hooks when using natural bait in billfish tournaments on the East Coast.

Jason Schratwieser, IGFA Conservation Director, states,

“Studies have shown that the use of non-offset circle hooks with natural baits in place of the more traditional “J” hooks can dramatically increase a fish’s chance of survival.”

And finally, Bisbee Tournaments in 2010 mandated the use of circle hooks in their tournaments as well.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this year’s striped marlin and sailfish run at East Cape has been extraordinary. Comparisons with the epic billfish action usually found off of Magdalena Bay have been common.

Sam Guardamundo, a longtime/part-time resident of Los Barriles with a home overlooking the Sea of Cortez had just pulled his Baja Magic II, a tricked-out 28-foot Precision sportfisher for the season. “This is the best season we have had in years,” he exclaimed as I walked into his boat storage area recently.


“The fish were thick! We used just light outfits, none of the heavy stuff … 20-pound line with naked ballyhoo on circle hooks. Trolled them out of the riggers with super-light drag and clicker; and multiples were common. The new method was soooo much fun for all of us. Woody Sales from San Diego was asking me just the other day. ‘What are we going to do when we have to go back to catching only one or two a day?'”

Interested in trying out the technique yourself? What’s it take to switch over from “J” hooks to circles? The short answer is not much. For the uninitiated, circles are designed to lodge in the corner of the jaw, avoiding internal injuries that can be caused by deeply embedded “J” hooks.

circle hooks

If you and your crew have not fished circle hooks before, old habits are hard to break and the hook-set will take a few times to master. Don’t be weirded-out by the process. Basically, when you have a bite, let the fish run with the bait without applying much pressure. Now comes the hard part – don’t slam the reel in gear; raise the rodtip and swing to set the hook. Simply start slowly applying the drag and let the line come tight as you slowly raise the rodtip. If the fish drops the bait, go back to free spool and let some line out; often the fish will pick up the bait on the second or third dropback.

Fishing hook and lures

After your first hookup and you see for yourself how it works, the rest will come naturally. Just don’t wind. You may miss a few in the beginning. Even when charter fishing with inexperienced anglers, hookup ratios went up about 20 percent and fewer fish were lost after the hookup. Billfish are more acrobatic when hooked in the corner of the mouth as opposed to possibly gut-hooked on a “J” hook, and they are in much better condition when released – showing vibrant colors and energy. The angler/crew simply cuts the leader at the hook, minimizing stress to the fish.

Naked ballyhoo

Naked ballyhoo, or add a skirt or two for color. Some like skirted baits for no other reason than to make them easier to see. Properly rigged baits may be pulled at the same speeds you’d use with “J” hooks. Whatever trolling pattern you normally use is fine. Riggers, dredges, squid daisy chains or flat lines – it’s your call.

It is important to note that not all circle hooks are created equal and while they may appear the same, not all will meet the criteria established by both IGFA and TBF. Interested in the science behind circle hooks? Read Circle hooks, J hooks and drop-back time: a hook performance study of the south Florida recreational live-bait fishery for sailfish, Istiophorus platypterus, an article by E. D. Prince, D. Snodgrass, E.S. Orbesen, J.P. Hoolihan, J.E. Serafy and J.E. Schratwieser published in Fisheries Management and Ecology, April 2007.

Don’t assume that discussing the use of ballyhoo is irrelevant for targeting billfish here in Southern California. Even though they are not a common bait here, they work well when there are some fish around. I know of several boats that scored well using them as described several years ago.


There are still those who resist change in spite of the evidence. But more and more, circles are becoming the hook of choice everywhere I visit … on a wide variety of species.

Of course, there are circles, and other circles, as the article above will tell you, but that’s a different story….

How To – Circle Hook Balllyhoo Rig

That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world record...