Bait & Bass: Circles In The Surf - The Fisherman

Bait & Bass: Circles In The Surf

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With a bait fishing for striped bass circle hook regulation now in effect everywhere migratory striped bass are caught, are you ready to hit the surf?

I used to lose at least one fish for every few I hooked, I now go weeks on end without dropping a fish on a circle hook.

First and foremost, if the fact that the use of inline circle hooks is required when using bait (live or dead) for striped bass this season comes as news to you, then I have to ask, “Where have you been for the past year-plus?”

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s dive in.

Bait fishing, and especially chunking, gets a bad rap, and at times I find myself lumped onto furthering this sentiment. When I was a practitioner of the “bait is bad” mantra, I did so, really, because I was jealous. Jealous because bait fishermen often caught when I couldn’t on plugs, and more so when I was catching bass on plugs and the bait guys were often catching bigger fish, and more of them.

If you’re opposed to bait perhaps you have your own reasons, but I’d be willing to bet it stems in some way, shape or form from jealousy (whether or not you’re willing to admit this publicly.) You might even try to wash away this feeling with an air of arrogance as if chunking or fishing live eels is somehow “beneath” you, and I too felt this way at times—but eventually I learned better.

I was slow to come around on the use of circle hooks in the surf when fishing with live eels or chunks. I first dabbled in circles and eels in the late 90s, but I was not pleased with my success—or should I say lack thereof—so it was little more than a passing, failed experiment. From that point forward, I stuck with standard j-hooks for all of my live eel and chunked bunker, mackerel and shad needs. My success rate was acceptable, and therefore I never felt a need to revisit the experiment further.

Somewhere around 2010, schools of bunker started popping up more and more frequently where I fish. Fishing with artificials near these bunker schools produced some very good catches, but I kept thinking about what I might be missing by not fishing the real thing. It took quite a bit of work, but eventually I figured out how to score myself a pretty reliable supply of free bait. I quickly took note of the power a fresh chunk of bunker has on a passing striped bass, and I started to really take the tactic of chunking the surf quite seriously.

While I will not go as far as to say that fishing with bait is magic, but it is about as close to a ‘sure thing’ as one can get when fishing the surf for striped bass. That said, it cannot manifest a bite out of thin air when there are no fish to be caught, so you still need to be able to find fish and find a location where bait can effectively be presented, which is not as easy as some portray it to be.

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It can be difficult to get over the impulse to ‘set’ a hook when using circles, but all that is required when a fish takes a bait is to raise the rod tip slowly and begin reeling. So long as the proper hook is being used, this will result in the hook catching perfectly in the corner of the mouth.

Evolving Ways

My chunking evolution from j-hooks to trebles, back to j-hooks, and eventually to circles was pretty organic. By this I mean it wasn’t done out of some feeling of wanting to do better for the fishery, but instead out of a need for better results.  I lost a lot of fish on j-hooks, and I deep-hooked some fish along the way, but more often than not my biggest complaint was a poor hook hold. Sure when that straight point buried itself in the tongue or top of the mouth there was nowhere it was going, but I lost far more fish chunking with j-hooks than I could reasonably accept. I tried short-shanks, octopus, siwash, O’Shaughnessy; you name it and at some point, I tried it but the results were not up to my standards.

Somewhere along the line, it was my fishing partner, John Hanecak, who first suggested switching to circles. I immediately preached my previous pitfalls with circles when using them some 10 to 15 years earlier on eels, but I was willing to listen as I am always seeking to improve. So for a few outings Jay and I compared success on j’s to circles when chunking with cut bunker. I don’t recall exactly who did better (although my gut tells me he ‘won’ on those nights) but it didn’t take me long to give it a go.

Right off the bat, I found that I lost far fewer fish with a circle hook. With a j-hook, it doesn’t take much for a big bass to roll on the leader, change direction or find any other of 100 different ways to change the angle of the line in such a manner that it works to pull the hook from the fish’s mouth. With an inline circle, it is all but impossible for this to happen as when the fish changes direction, since the line and hook point are not on the same plane, the forces are always working in different directions. It’s not fool-proof, but where I used to lose at least one fish for every few I hooked, I now go weeks on end without dropping a fish on a circle hook.

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Whether using a head or tail chunk, make sure that as much of the hook gap is left free and exposed. This ensures a proper and successful hookset.

A Power Play

Another way in which I find I lose far fewer fish than with the j-hook—and this crosses over for both live eels and chunk bait—is in how I attach the leader to the hook.

When I get into something new, I dive in headfirst. I did this with trout, kayaks, and even circle hooks. What I mean by this is that I do a ton of research. I read every old article I can on the subject, I watch an excessive amount of videos on YouTube, and I talk to anyone willing to speak on the subject. When it came to circle hooks, I learned a lot from the commercial fishery, where their use really exploded. I also looked into the offshore fishery where at times rather large hooks are fished on light lines with the hook buried inside the bait. This all led to me to a somewhat lesser-known knot, the power snell. A single video of this knot existed on YouTube at the time, and it was a grainy video with little detail shot at ICAST a few years earlier. I researched the knot further and eventually figured out how to tie it myself (you can view the video right now at https://www.thefisherman.com/the-fishermans-how-to-series-tie-the-power-snell/)

The power snell is your basic snell knot, but with the addition of a wrap of non-loadbearing line acting as a cushion between the loadbearing line and the gap in the hook eye where it is bent over on itself. The idea here is that when using leaders of less than 80 pounds, but with large circle hooks where that gap can be somewhat larger, the edge of the hook eye can sever the leader when a long battle ensues with, for instance, a very large tuna. While I wasn’t so concerned with a lengthy battle in the surf, but will take any advantage that I can, a second benefit of this knot quickly presented itself in that the way the line exits the hook eye actually produces a natural tendency for the hook to turn in the direction of further burying the hook point into the fish, as opposed to pulling it out (hence less dropped fish). When tied correctly, the harder you or the fish pulls on the line, the more the hook continues to spin on the circle in the direction of the hook eye. Tie the power snell, catch the hook point on the palm of your hand and slowly pull—you’ll know what I am referring to here almost immediately.

Keep Stacking The Bennies

Another benefit of the circles that I have found over standard j-hooks came when fishing with chunks and a fish doesn’t fully commit. When using a j-hook, upon feeling a hit, my process was to drop the rod tip and yank back once the line comes tight. If a fish didn’t fully have the bait in its mouth, often times the hook would tear from the bait and the fish would swim off with a free meal. If the bait stayed on the hook, but I still missed the fish, quite often the fish would be spooked and usually not return for a second bite. This was also the scenario with j-hooks when pests such as porgies, black sea bass, skate, sharks and other manner of undesirables found the bait before a striped bass.

My process for hooking a fish with a circle is to drop the rod tip when a hit is felt, wait for the line to come tight and then slowly lift the rod tip up to a fighting position. If a fish is there, I reel as the fish turns away, and this ‘sets’ the hook. If the fish didn’t have the bait fully in its mouth, either because it was a small bass or it was one of the aforementioned undesirables, the bait simply falls to the bottom. What I then envision happening is a form of competition ensues and an opportunistic feeding scenario presents itself because I very often find that following this scenario, a bass grabs the chunk. This has become so prevalent that I actually begin counting after missing a fish to see how quickly the follow-up occurs. Usually within 4 to 10 seconds I get a hit. Of course, there are times when no quick turnaround hit occurs, but that is generally the exception to the norm and something that rarely occurred with j-hooks.

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The author very seldom uses weight when fishing chunks in the surf, instead opting for a long leader and an active presentation. “Walking” a bunker head down a rocky drop-off produced this 42-pound striper in a location where adding any additional weight would result in little more than snagging bottom.

Rigging Simplicity

If there is one thing that didn’t change for me when switching to circle hooks it is in my rig leading down to the hook. For both live eels and chunks, the same 60- to 70-inch piece of 50-pound monofilament leader remains from my j-hook days, and yes, that length is correct. I exclusively fish 30-pound Berkley FireLine original on my big surf gear, and although FireLine has undoubtedly the best abrasion resistance that I have found when it comes to fishing braided line in and around rocks, I still find that a monofilament leader is beneficial in protecting from rock cut-offs. I will also note that the 30-pound designation on the FireLine is misleading as it is the same diameter as your standard 50-pound braided line and has similar if not better knot strength than 50 as well.

Again, to keep things simple, both my live eel and chunking rigs are constructed in the same manner with a size 4, 130-pound Spro Power Swivel on one end, and to the terminal end I attach the hook of choice with a power snell.

I very rarely add any weight when fishing a live eel, and really only do so when fishing a couple of select, deep-water outflows and only when the current is running hard. As the current eases up, even in water depths pushing 20-plus feet, I find that a large, lively eel has more than enough power to get itself deep. Fishing the eel is no different on a circle than on a j-hook – cast and retrieve at a speed that produces a strike.

The same weightless approach is used in my chunking rigs as no lead is added. I do not run a fishfinder rig, and there is no 3-way swivel. At all times, I have a direct line from my hand to rod to line to the hook. I cast my chunks out and keep the rod in hand, working the chunk along the bottom, either as it drifts naturally in the current, or by actively but slowly retrieving it. A few years ago I wrote an article on exactly how and why I fish a weightless chunk (Chunking On The Go, May 2014), so I won’t rehash all the details today. However, I will say that at that time I was beginning to experiment with circles and chunks so I made no reference to them at the time. That said, you couldn’t pay me to chunk without a circle hook today, I simply feel they’re that much better!

They Don’t Make It Easy

One last thing to note, one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome when I began experimenting with circle hooks was in hook selection. Unfortunately there is ZERO consistency from manufacturer to manufacturer in regards to circle hook size, and there can even be just as much inconsistency within manufacturers themselves. This was one of the big factors years ago when I first tried circles that turned me off, as I couldn’t just grab a 7/0 circle to replace the 7/0 HD live bait hook I was using to fish live eels. What this then requires is for anglers to do some work and potentially invest a good amount of money to find a hook that works for them. It is not always as simple as just grabbing a likely-looking hook off the shelf and setting out for the surf. I went through a good half-dozen hooks before finding one I truly liked for live eels, and about that many for chunking, and then I had to fine-tune the size to each application. You can reduce a bit of the learning curve (and expense) in failed hook purchases by visiting your local tackle shop, but even then you have to be lucky enough that the shop employee knows enough themselves about circles to make a good recommendation. This may not always be the case, but I can assure you that your odds are 100-percent better in the local shop than in picking some random hooks off the internet, just to save yourself a couple of bucks.

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