To Barb, Or Not To Barb?

Everyone I know who has been fishing for a while or is new to fishing at some time or another asks me my opinion on barbed versus barbless hooks. Most people know that I seldom have a strong opinion about most things in fishing because so much of it is subjective (it is just fishing, it is not life and death) however, I do have an opinion about this particular subject. It is one of the very few soap boxes I will get up on in my tying classes.
Good Hooks Set on an Eagle Creek SamllieOff the bat I will tell you I am a big advocate for barbless hooks. There are a number of reasons for this view which taken together make me someone who debarbs my hooks and if I am guiding insist clients fish debarbed hooks. But before I get into the specific reasons let me you enlighten you on a few things about me. First, I love fresh cooked fish. Not quite as much as fresh sizzling T-bone but almost.  I practice catch and release about 98% of the time but in certain circumstances I will harvest a fish or two. Having grown up fishing in the early 70's, just as catch and release was gaining ground I can tell you the pickings on some of my fishing holes were slim due to over harvesting. By the mid-eighties it was amazing how great the fishing had become as more and more people left behind what they caught. However, I was not opposed to taking home a stringer full of big bluegill or crappie from a healthy body of water every once in a while. So, I am not an advocate of barbless hooks because ALL fish should be released. Nor am I concerned about "hurting" the fish. Hurting in the sense of inflicting pain on them. I am concerned about doing undo damage to fish in the process of catching them. If I were concerned about "hurting" the fish then I would not be fishing at all. 
There are other reasons for going barbless which I will elaborate on shortly. There is one particular reason that most people do not consider which I think is the biggest reason to go barbless. The reason is that you get better hook sets. I am certain this can and will be argued. I know I have read more than a few papers on the pros and cons of this subject in terms of catch rates. This not a scientific article and I will not make it into one. What I will do is relate my own experiences.
First off, barbs on hooks are a hold over to live bait days. If you head over to the O. Mustad web site you will find a interesting page concerning the history of hooks. It seems the earliest hooks had no barbs on them. The predominant thought is that the barbs were added later to facilitate keeping live bait on the hook. So, since we are not using live bait we don't need the barb; right?
Barbed vs Debarbed Hooks, Illustration 1
Illustration #1
It is a common misunderstanding that the barb is needed to keep the fish from "spitting out" the hook while fighting. While this might be a nice side effect of the barb the reality is that in more cases the fish spits out the hook because of a bad hook set. The bad hook set can actually be the result of the barb on the hook. Illustration #1 shows the inside of the fishes mouth and a typical hook in the mouth. The particulars of the mouth are not important for this because whether you are setting the hook into soft flesh or bone the issue is the effect the barb has on the overall hook set. Lets assume the diameter of the wire of the hook we are using is about .5mm. Depending on the fish you are trying to catch and the tippet you are using, a little or a lot of force will be needed to set the hook. For argument lets say it is about 2 pounds.

Barbed vs Debarbed Hooks, Illustration 2So, when the fish bites you pull back on the fly using two pounds of pressure. The hook point encounters the mouth and pushed the flesh/bone out of the way so the wire can be inserted into the mouth. The idea being that you want the wire to slid into the mouth all the way back as far in the throat of the hook as possible.
In this example let us assume the two pounds of pressure is enough to open up the flesh/bone for the wire to move into the fishes mouth. Now the hook slides in fine until it hits the barb. At the spot where the barb is elevated the most lets say we have now doubled the diameter (1mm) of the required hole in the mouth of the fish needed to get this hook in all the way past the barb. It is a simple matter of physics, the wire went from a small diameter, requiring less pressure to open up the mouth, to a large diameter because of the barb and hence will need more pressure to achieve the same quality hook set. For argument sake, since our wire diameter doubled we will say we need double the pressure; four pounds. What happens if we do not apply enough pressure? The hook does not get embedded into the fishes Barbed vs Debarbed Hooks, Illustration 3mouth as far as it needs to and can more easily become dislodged. One could even argue that if the hook is not embedded past the barb then the barb itself will apply pressure in the opposite direction and possibly aide in the the hook coming out of the mouth.
In my years of fishing I have found two things that mostly effect my hook sets while fishing. The first is whether or not I am applying enough pressure on the hook set. Face it, not every tap, bump, nudge, or strike is a definitive "hit" and sometimes you half heartedly setting the hook because you suspect a fish but don't really know. In these cases I have often had the fish spit out the fly and I know it is because of a weak hook set. However, the other culprit is a dull hook. Weak or strong power in the hook set can and will be effected by a dull hook. Many times I have been fishing smallies and had them spitting out my fly. After two or three in a row I either change the fly to a fresh hook or sharpen the hook and no more spat flies. This is why it is always a good idea to have more than one of a particular pattern and a hook sharpener with you while fishing. Even though you may not loose your Clouser Minnow in the rocks or your popper on that log it is quite possible the hook is now not as sharp as it was when you first tied it on.
Never Know what you are going to hook when throwing flies.As I mentioned earlier, I have read many reports of the effects of barbed vs debarbed hooks. I can and do see the pluses and minuses, but for me just the simple fact that I can, and do, get better hook sets is enough for me. But I won't stop there. If nothing else, a debarbed hook is easier to get out of your cloths, your fishing buddies cloths, the net and even your own skin. I know too many people that lost a day of fishing, at home and abroad, because of a hook lodged in their person that had to get medical attention to be removed. That alone is worth debarbing. Whether I catch that next fish is not as important as enjoying the day out fishing. There will always be more fish.
I welcome feedback and thoughts on this subject; both positive and negative. If you know of an papers or study done to support or refute this please let me know. I am certain it will be an ongoing debate, probably long after I am no longer fishing in this world, but knowledge is power and I always want to  know more. You can email me at ian [AT] warmwaterchronicles [DOT] com.
– Ian Anderson