Occasionally someone who reads the blog—one of you, or the other—asks me for advice. I don’t what the Hell you’re thinking asking me to help you catch fish, because I’m just as lost as you are. However, I’m willing to give you my (un)qualified opinion on fly fishing in an ongoing series of short articles I’m calling Tippettes. (Get it?)
Recently, at the end of one of our on-the-water fly fishing classes, a student asked my opinion on fishing barbless flies. Do I fish barbless, and what do I recommend for the beginning angler?
First, let me say that I’m happy more people are even aware that barbless flies are a thing. I’ve evolved my own sensibilities on this topic over the past few years, and now I generally favor fishing barbless flies. There are three reasons why:
- Barbless flies do less harm to the fish.
- It is much easier to remove barbless hooks, ensuring the fish is released quickly (and in the best shape imaginable for a hooked fish). If a fly is so deeply-hooked that you cannot safely remove it, there is a chance of the hook working itself out on its own.
- It is much easier to remove barbless hooks from yourself (or your fishing buddy), too.
So, do I fish barbless flies? The answer is yes, for some species. Namely, panfish, trout, and smallmouth. Not so much for steelhead or muskie.
Now, hooks are barbed for a reason. Once the hook penetrates the flesh of the fish, the barb helps ensure it doesn’t come back out. It is one type of “insurance policy” you have against lost fish. The other major insurance policy is keeping a tight line, since any bit of slack in your line can give the fish the leverage it needs to throw a hook. Keeping a tight line helps minimize lost fish, and fishing barbless will encourage you to improve your fish-fighting skills.
And, really, the risk of losing fish on a barbless fly is a bit overblown. I was convinced that my catch rates were going to drop about 75% when I first tried fishing barbless, but the actual loses are considerably lower. Some days it is definitely higher than others, but in many cases lost fish are the result of angler error more than the lack of a barb. I can tell you from experience the rate of snags doesn’t go down. And as you can see from this blog, I’m not lacking in landed fish, either.
For bigger game, such as steelhead, pike, or muskie, usually I fish with those barbaric barbs, because I’m selfish: these are fish that you usually have just a handful of shots at on any given day, and I only spend a handful of days searching for these species. There might come a day when I’m not as self-conscious of an angler and willing to lose The Big One on a barbless fly when I might have landed it with a barb; but I’m not there quite yet.
Since I’m not all the way there yet, I can’t blame you if you aren’t either. I can understand that a novice angler might feel intimidated by the idea of losing fish on a barbless fly. And if you’re fishing for eating, it makes sense to fish with barbs. Every angler has to come to the decision on the use of barbless flies of their own volition, and it takes time to make the conscious decision to lose fish for the sake of the fish. If you’re willing to fish catch-and-release, however, you should at least give barbless flies a shot.
If you do want to go barbless, you’ll find that you’ll need to do most of the barb-crimping yourself. Few commercially-tied flies come barbless (Orvis does carry some as part of their tactical series of flies, but not all shops carry them). In this case you’ll need to smash down the barb using a pair of pliers or a specially-designed set of forceps (you could also file them down, though I find this more tedious). If you tie your own flies, crimp down the barb prior to starting the tie, as every once and a while the hook might break.
And, as always, but especially when fishing barbless, tight lines.