Barbless Hooks for Healthier Pike
April 15, 2018
No one wants to travel to a big-pike nirvana and have to worry about catching fish. What if rules at the fishery require single-hook lures? And what if the single hook also has to be barbless?
After years of experimenting with this type of rigging, capped by staff trips to shoot TV at the best pike fisheries in North America, where such rigging is required, it's easy to testify that one need not worry about keeping fish on once they're hooked.
Single-hook lures chosen correctly for the situations you face catch pike as well as multi-hook lures in most situations, and make pike easy to handle and release. Making the single hook barbless takes things a step further. You hook fish and, so long as you have balanced tackle and play them well, you don't lose them. The hook slips out easily with less damage. Fish swim away unharmed to continue growing older and bigger.
We've been covered scientific studies examining hooking mortality for years. There's a modest consensus on the subject when it comes to pike. One of the most important studies was reported in 1975, when Falk and Gilman captured pike by hook and line and determined that mortality was mainly a matter of where fish were hooked. Pike hooked in the gullet and gills, with bleeding associated with the wounds, had less chance of survival than fish hooked in other mouth areas.
Subsequent studies with pike suggested that it didn't matter if the hook was barbed or not, although many other studies, mostly on trout and salmon, showed increased mortality with barbed hooks. Others have argued that barbless hooks sink in easier and therefore at times deeper, potentially increasing bleeding and mortality; but no study with pike has shown this to be the case.
Also, pike hooking mortality increases when water temperatures elevate. In most Far North fisheries this isn't a factor. But at Trout Rock Lodge on Great Slave, where I fished last July, pike spend most of the open-water season in extensive shallow embayments that get warm by July. At Trout Rock, they stop fishing in mid-July and don't resume until September. Kesagami, a single-barbless-hook, fly-in water in northeastern Ontario, is another famous fishery where they stop fishing in mid-July as a matter of conservation.
> Flies fashioned from synthetic and natural materials that shed water are easy to cast, while those tied with rabbit strips trigger more strikes on slow retrieves. A small assortment of flies meet almost any fishing situation anglers are likely to encounter.
Fly-fishing is a paramount single-hook system for pike. Streamers and large leech-pattern flies of various sizes and styles are hard for pike to resist as they glide past and suspend temptingly in front of them. At times, a well-presented fly catches pike when little else will. But there also are times when conventional tackle does a better job.
Former In-Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman and his son Christian have flown into to world-class pike fisheries in Canada to shoot television for In-Fisherman for the past six years. He fishes almost exclusively with a fly rod, while Christian usually uses conventional tackle. Fishing from the same boat together, at times one does better than the other.
Johnson Silver Minnow
In recent years, the venerable Johnson Silver Minnow has enjoyed resurgent productivity and popularity. Christian Hoffman used it effectively on the Yukon, catching some of his biggest pike with it. Several fish measured 48 to 49 inches. Meanwhile, while I fished with other single-hook systems on my trip to Trout Rock Lodge, other anglers in camp fished the Minnow and did as well and at times better than I did. The Silver Minnow has long been among the most productive pike lures. Fishing it is easy. The 1.125-ounce model (4 inches), which is the largest and most popular size for pike, casts like a bullet on 30-, 50-, and even 65-pound braided line, which are the best options for the systems discussed here. The best retrieve often is a slow, steady grind, which gets the lure running 3 to 4 feet down.
Looking at the hook fixed in position on the belly of the spoon, instead of dangling in back, one might think that it wouldn't hook fish well. But the hook in the middle of the concave portion of the spoon, along with a wire hook guard to keep the lure from fouling in vegetation, serves as a reverse keel to keep the lure wobbling in about a 260-degree arc, without spinning all the way around.
> Doug Stange uses Eagle Claw Trokar TK440 single replacement hooks, his favorite the 7/0 hook for big Dardevles. He considers the 7/0 perfect coupled with the Husky Devle Jr., but a tad small for the Husky Devle. He makes the 7/0 workable on the Husky Devle by adding an additional split ring to the ring on that lure, to get the hook a bit farther from the body of the lure, making it easier for it to slip into a pike's mouth. You can order Williams Whitefish with single barbless replacements, a Mustad 4/0 siwash for both the C90 and the C80.
The hook always rides up or slightly to one side or the other. This makes the lure even more weedless and the hook is always in position for solid hookups. With braid, which doesn't stretch, the angler only has to firmly lift the rod tip to set the hook. Setting too hard tears a bigger hole, causing more hook damage and increases the chance the hook can slip free during the battle.
Another productive retrieve has the rod tip working from 10 to 11 o'clock, at which point the angler stops retrieving and allows the spoon to flutter back as the angler drops the rod tip back to 10 o'clock. At times, even bigger dropbacks work. And at other times one need only hesitate the spoon during a slow grind to get fish to respond.
Traditional spoons like the Eppinger Dardevle and Williams Whitefish are famous for producing big pike. I often replace the treble hook with a single hook. The best replacement I've used is the Eagle Claw Trokar TK440, a siwash design, exceptionally sharp, available in sizes from #1 to 7/0. Barbless TK440s are available. Otherwise, as is true with all the singe-hook systems covered here, anglers flatten the barb with pliers.
The 7/0 TK440 couples perfectly with the Husky Devle Jr., which measures 4.5 inches and weighs 2 ounces. You could go with a 6/0, too, and perhaps a 5/0. The larger Husky Devle at 5.5 inches and 3.25 ounces requires an 8/0 or 9/0, not available in this model.
I make do by adding a smaller split ring to the split ring already on the hook, placing a 7/0 Trokar TK440 on that. A #3 Fastach clip also works to get the hook slightly farther away from the body of the spoon. This modification makes the hook easier for pike to get into their mouth when they strike.
The Williams Whitefish C90 measures 6 inches and weighs 1.5 ounces. The C80 is 5.25 inches and weighs an ounce. Thinner and lighter than the Dardevles, they produce different vibration patterns, which is vital at times. They also produce different flash patterns because of their design and their plated finish in brilliant silver and 24 karat gold.
Two other veteran anglers offered advice on spoons. Few have fished more big-pike waters more often than Jack Penny, a frequent contributor to our magazines. He's well known for fishing spoons. To get the sizing right for single-hook replacements, he lays the hook across the width of the spoon measured at the widest point on the concave side. The hook length should be about the same as the width of the spoon. This usually results in a hook slightly smaller than I recommend.
Long-time In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer may be second only to Penny in his field experience with single replacement hooks. He's partial to the Williams Whitefish C90 with a 5/0 siwash from Gamakatsu. He says a smaller hook works so long as it's tipped with a 3- or 4-inch curlytail grub. That tactic is common when fishing for pike with most spoons. The C90 Whitefish is narrower than Dardevles, so, using Penny's rule, one could expect to get by with a slightly smaller replacement hook.
Penny also recommends that the shank and point of the hook should lie perpendicular to the concave part of the spoon in order to hook fish best. That works for many but not all spoons. The Whitefish come rigged with the hook the opposite way.
The Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft is an articulated soft-plastic swimbait available in 6.25 and 8 inches. It's sold in packages of three, with one of the prerigged with a 7/0 or a 10/0 weighted wide-gap hook. That hook works, but I replace it with a weighted Eagle Claw Trokar Swimbait hook, the TK170, in 7/0 or 9/0. They have a cylindrical keeper that screws into the nose of the swimbait to hold it more securely and make them last longer. The 7/0 hook weighs 3/8 ounce and the 9/0 weighs 1/2 ounce, efficient weights for working the swimbaits.
For early-season fishing or fishing far northern waters when the water is cold and fish remain shallow into late June and July, the 6.25-inch bait works well. For my trip to Trout Rock in July and for the Hoffmans on the Yukon in late August, the 8-inch lure was the best. Big pike are by that time usually chowing on big prey.
At Trout Rock, pike were holding in vegetation in the basins of bays (4 to 7 feet of water) closer to open water in the main lake. The best retrieve was a slow and steady, with the rod tip at 10 o'clock. As with spoons, pike overtake the lure and eat it, jerking your rod tip down. With braided line, just lift the rod tip firmly. The hook, rigged texposed in the lure so it works through weeds, slips free and finds sold purchase.
Make a cast past the fish so the retrieve passes the fish's line of vision 3 to 10 feet off to the side or in front. Let the lure settle to the bottom and pop it a couple times. Move it along 10 feet as you constantly barely pop the rod tip (rod tip held high). The lure darts, flashes, and falls.
Many pike respond by swimming to the lure and getting close, not quite ready to respond. You're trying to change the fish's attitude by making the lure look so terribly wounded that pike can't pass the meal up. As the lure pops another time or two, the fish becomes even more intent, swimming a bit closer. On the next pop, it rushes and inhales the lure. These maneuvers work best with the lure rigged flat. Rigged like that you also have more hook gap because the hook point isn't pushed through so much plastic, so you get good hookups.
The Magic Swimmer Soft was recently retooled. The new lures are reinforced with mesh to make them hold together longer. The older version was expensive and might last for a fish or two — or at times you were lucky and caught six.
Weighted Spinner Rigs
This one requires deconstructing spinners, removing the treble hook in favor of a weighted swimbait hook like the Trokar TK170. The good news is that it's easy to do; the rigging works well in smaller sizes for early season, and in larger sizes for later on; and the resulting lures work as well in open water as they do grinding through heavier vegetation. It's easy to fish because all you do is cast and retrieve, experimenting with speed and depth — and it's deadly — one of those must-haves in your arsenal.
Once you get the hang of making these rigs, options are wide open. To construct a smaller rig, start with a classic Blue Fox Musky Buck with a #5 Indiana blade. Remove the treble hook from the split ring and slide on a 5/0 Trokar TK170 weighted swimbait hook. Deconstructing a Mepps Musky Killer, you end up with a heavier body on the spinner, another option.
To make a bigger rig, remove the treble hook from a Musky Buck with a 6/0 blade, adding a 7/0 Trokar TK170 to the split ring. A favorite trailer is the 6-inch Berkley Slim Shad, again rigged flat on the weighted swimbait hook. This bigger rig produced several 45- and 46-inch fish for me last summer at Trout Rock.
The lures already covered are solid choices, but there are others. Seven-inch flukes like the Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad on an 8/0 or 9/0 wide-gap hook work well at times. The Jerk Shad also works rigged with a weighted swimbait hook.
Paddletail swimbaits like the 5-inch Berkley Ripple Shad, the 5-inch Berkley Havoc Sick Fish, and the 6-inch Berkley Slim Shad can be efficient and effective on a plain jighead like the Kalin's Ultimate Saltwater Bullet heads, in 1/2, 3/4, or 1 ounce. Walleyes love this option, too, as do lake trout, so they're solid choices in situations for multiple species.
A 3/4-ounce or larger spinnerbait can be deadly, especially in waters where both walleyes and pike swim. I've had many spectacular combination pike and walleye encounters by casting a 3/4-ounce Terminator T-1 spinnerbait dressed with a 5-inch Berkley Havoc Grass Pig. The Grass Pig, which is a slim paddletail swimbait, makes this spinnerbait come to life.
Away from cover and with lures weighing up to about the weight of the biggest Silver Minnow, a 7- to 71â„2-foot spinning rod with medium-heavy power and a medium or fast action works well, coupled with a larger reel, like a 40-class Abu Garcia Revo SX or a Pflueger Supreme. I fish Trilene Braid, which is thinner than other comparable braids; so where others might fish 20-pound Sufix 832, I go with 30-pound. That's as heavy as you want to go on a spinning reel.
Lighter casting rods should also measure at least 7 feet long, with a medium or medium-heavy power, and a medium or fast action. Abu those with a high-grade bass reel and 30-pound braid. You need something a bit heavier for casting larger stuff like the 8-inch Sebile Magic Swimmer and heavier spoons like the Husky Devle. Go with a 7-foot-4 inch or 7.5-foot — at least medium-heavy power, coupled with a bigger reel like the 50-class Revo Toro Beast with a 6.2:1 gear ratio. Load it with 50-pound braid, going to 65-pound for big fish around heavy cover.
With 30-pound braid, I use a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader testing 20 or 25 pounds, coupled to a 12-inch section of tieable wire, my favorite being American Fishing Wire Surlon Micro Supreme, in 20- or 26-pound break strength. The braid-to-leader and leader-to-wire connections are back-to-back uni-knots, four wraps. I use a three-wrap Trilene knot to connect wire to lures or snaps. I like the way the thicker fluorocarbon helps in handling fish at boatside. Many anglers prefer to forgo the fluorocarbon in favor of tying direct to the wire.
For 50-pound braid and heavier lures like the 8-inch Sebile Magic Swimmer, I use a 25- or 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and 40-pound Surflon Micro Supreme. Tie the lure directly to the wire — no snap. One key to success with the Magic Swimmer is not using too heavy of a wire leader or a big snap. For heavy spoons I tie the braid directly to a high-grade muskie leader with a heavy snap on one end and a ball-bearing swivel connected via three-wrap uni-knot to the braid.
Whether the pike you seek are giants at a fly-in or drive-to water, or moderate-size fish on waters closer to home, you can use single barbless hooks to produce fish as well as most other presentations. Meanwhile, you are safer when you handle fish, and practical field experience shows that those fish you release are, too. A bit of science in combination with a hefty dose of field experience usually reveals a clear path to fishing success.