In this month’s News Briefs you will see an item on the announcement concerning the regulation requiring the use of non-offset, inline circle hooks any time an angler uses live or dead natural bait for striped bass effective January 1, 2021. We all knew this was coming—well, you should have known about it if you’d been following along with the changing striped bass regulations for the past two years or so—but it wasn’t until this past October that we got the full scope of exactly how the regulations would pan out.
Before I go any further, I want it to be known that I am in full support of the use of circle hooks when appropriate. I was slow to accept their benefits, but since changing over 100% to circle hooks when bait fishing for striped bass in 2019 (I had been fishing circles with chunks for several years but it wasn’t until I knew the new regulations were coming that I finally accepted their use for live eels) I have been singing their praises to anyone who would listen.
Aside from the fact the use of an inline circle hook is better for the fish in that it almost always hooks the fish in the corner of its mouth, I have found that I land nearly 100% of the fish I hook when using an inline circle hook. I also lose fewer rigs to bluefish—on the rather rare instances these days when I encounter them—since the hook being in the corner of the mouth means their teeth no longer bite down on the leader.
I have also found that I hook more fish when chunking with a circle hook. When chunking with a j-hook, when a fish takes the bait the angler must sharply strike back to set the hook. If the fish didn’t have the bait far enough into its mouth so that the hook point connected with flesh, the bait and hook would be unnaturally ripped from the fish’s mouth. Quite often this spooked the fish and it wouldn’t come back for a second strike. Additionally, there were plenty of times where the fish held the chunk just hard enough so that the act of setting the hook would tear the hook from the bait but not come in contact with the fish’s mouth, therefore losing the bait and missing the fish.
When fishing an inline circle hook and chunk there is no hookset as traditionally imagined—you literally just lift the rod and reel slowly—so if a bait is pulled from the fish’s mouth without getting hooked, I find that more often than not I would get a follow-up hit within a matter of seconds. Again, more fish hooked and landed as a result of the use of the circles. The same scenarios were observed when fishing live eels as well as whole, live fish baits such as bunker or shad.
So, as you can see, I am a bigtime proponent of the use of circle hooks when they make sense. However, at the October 21, 2020 meeting of the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Board) of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), mandatory use of circle hooks in scenarios both where their use make sense and where they do not were enacted.
The final ruling states that no exemptions for user group would be allowed. This means, for example, that the request by Massachusetts of anglers onboard for-hire boats to be exempt from the ruling was denied. For the record, I was and remain 100% opposed to this exemption as there is no good reason why an angler onboard a for-hire boat shouldn’t be required to fish under the same gear restrictions and rules as their recreational angler counterparts fishing on a private boat or from shore. (I did find it odd that no exemption was requested of a for-hire angler fishing from shore as the ruling seemed to be purely self-serving of those for-hire captains who fish by boat, but I digress.) The reasoning here—as it was relayed to me—was that for-hire anglers are better anglers and therefore do not need to use a circle hook to reduce mortality as they do just fine with j-hooks. I can’t even begin to comment on how absurd this argument is, so I am just going to leave it alone for today.
The final ruling also stated that no exemptions for gear types would be allowed. This means that any time a natural live or dead bait is added to an artificial lure, a circle hook is required. This includes but is not limited to such angling methods as a tube and worm; eelskin rig; rigged eel; the addition of pork rind, squid, etc. to a bucktail jig; trolling of traditional Niantic Spinners with a sandworm and any and all other scenarios where a natural bait is added to an artificial lure when targeting striped bass. Here is where the Board has made a mistake and as a whole has missed the true intent of the use of circle hooks as well as shown a general lack of understanding of the striped bass fishery.
Any angler who has trolled a tube and worm with sandworm attached, fished a rigged eel, or cast or trolled a bucktail jig with pork rind trailer will tell you that the occurrences of a gut-hooked fish are almost null. While purely based on anecdotal evidence, I’d be willing to say that there may even be more occurrences of gut-hooked fish on circle hooks than on these methods. This reduction of gut-hooking fish is at the core of the ruling, yet the board prohibited exemptions in which there is essentially zero likelihood of the occurrence in the first place. Only an individual who does not understand the fishery would make such a blind, blanket ruling, and for 15 out of 16 Board members to vote in this way (the only Board member who voted against the final ruling was Connecticut’s Justin Davis—good on you, Justin!) proves what many have been saying for some time, and that is that perhaps we as anglers should have little faith in the ability of the Board to properly manage striped bass.
So where do we go from here?
Well, for starters, we are basically stuck where we are for the 2021 season. While there will likely be public hearings taking place in every ASMFC member state this spring, the circle hook/bait/striped bass rule is official as of January 1 and there is no wiggle room and tis is essentially a matter of formality. States such as Connecticut well enact the rule without public hearing based on emergency measure authority with public comments accepted after the fact, but any states who do not take similar action will be out of compliance. But this doesn’t mean that things can’t be changed (corrected) going forward.
It is STRONGLY urged of you to voice your opinion if you do not agree with how the Board enacted the regulation through the public comment process. This means that if for-hire captains and patrons feel they should be exempt from the ruling, then they need to speak up. If boat and kayak anglers who troll a tube and worm with a real sandworm attached do not feel that they can achieve adequate hook-up success with a circle hook, then they must speak up. If surf fishermen feel that tying and fishing a rigged eel with circle hooks is not only unnecessary, but impractical, then YOU TOO MUST SPEAK UP! If you can’t be bothered to take the time to write you state representative, or attend a public hearing and go on the record with your comments, then you really have no right to complain.
Stay tuned to TheFisherman.com, our weekly video fishing forecasts on and of course right here in print as we will be the first to notify you of any striped bass public hearings as they are scheduled.