Thinking of switching from J hooks to circle hooks for sailfish this winter?

There are good reasons to do so, and with a few changes in rigging and strategy, you’re likely to see your catches go up, not down.

If you’re fishing in one of the many sailfish tournaments taking place from Fort Pierce to Islamorada, it’s a requirement that you use circle hooks. The National Marine Fisheries Service has mandated the use of non-offset circle hooks when using natural bait in billfish tournaments.

Of course, many Florida anglers independently choose circle hooks for a perceived benefit to the fish. Circle hooks generally lodge in the corner of the jaw, avoiding internal injuries sometimes associated with deeply embedded J hooks.

For livebait fishing using kites, outriggers or drifting flatlines, it’s mostly a matter of tying on the right hook (typically sized 6/0 to 8/0) and bridling baits for maximum hook exposure.

Trolling, however, is a bit more involved—but not much.

Captain Patrick Price, of Stuart, has been trolling with circle hooks for years as mate or captain on private boats, charterboats and tournament boats. Working for Capt. V.J. Bell on the Boneshaker and Capt. Glen Cameron on the Floridian, Patrick acquired the skill and experience necessary to run his own successful tournament campaign on the Hotty Toddy. Patrick’s mate, Eric Fawcett, has also worked for top captains and boats including Scott Fawcett on the Boneshaker. I joined the two last spring, while they were working for Mike Cioffi, owner of the 2007 41-foot Luhrs Play Time chartering out of Stuart, Florida, the Abacos and Rum Cay via direct air flights from Lantana. Mike was kind enough to supply his boat and crew for the day to promote the use of circle hooks.

The real secret behind trolling circle hooks for sails—it’s easy!

Price and the Play Time crew were quickly sold on circle hooks. Even when charter fishing with inexperienced anglers, hookup ratios went up about 20 percent and fewer fish were lost after the hookup. Sailfish are more acrobatic when hooked in the corner of the mouth as opposed to possibly gut-hooked on a J hook, and they are in much better condition when released—showing vibrant colors and energy. The mate simply cuts the leader at the hook, minimizing stress to the fish. The thin wire circle hooks are much lighter than the J hooks commonly used sailfishing and seem to corrode faster.

Properly rigged baits may be pulled at the same speeds you’d use with J hooks. About 5 knots is typical for sailfish. The trolling pattern needn’t change. Play Time pulls a dredge teaser from one outrigger and a squid daisy chain from the other ’rigger, two long ’rigger baits, two short ’rigger baits and two flatlines. They prefer naked ballyhoo, but may add a skirt or two for color. Some fishermen like skirted baits for no other reason than to make them easier for the crew to see. If toothy fish are in the area and of interest, such as wahoo, a wire leader and different bait is deployed.

Left flatline bait, a ballyhoo rigged with circle hook, is positioned near a daisy chain teaser. This is a good tactic for dolphin and sailfish.

Out of necessity, the setup on my center console is much simpler. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m fishing with just one other person. We pull one dredge from a downrigger, a squid chain on the outrigger on the opposite side, two ’rigger baits and two flatline baits. An autopilot is a big help when one person is fighting a fish and the other is clearing rods or releasing the fish. For sailfish I prefer naked ballyhoo fished on 20-pound-class leverdrag reels.

So what’s the difference?

First, Patrick suggests you lighten up a little on the drag to 3.5 to 4 pounds. The fish are more active with lighter drag and you will pull off fewer fish.

Second, the hookset is a little different. Don’t get too hung up on this because it is not that different. You still feed the fish, which is the most exciting and rewarding part of the encounter, but you don’t wind like crazy and raise the rodtip abruptly to try to embed the hook. Instead, release line to allow the fish to get a good hold on the bait, and when you would ordinarily strike with a J hook, resist the temptation and simply increase the drag slowly while keeping the rodtip low and slowly moving the tip from aft to the side. Patrick recommends a five-count on the dropback but, as you know, every fish is different. If you don’t come tight, drop back again as the fish will very often pick up the bait on the second or third drop.

After your first hookup and you see for yourself how it works, the rest will come naturally. Eric has a set of more simplified directions: Just don’t wind. You will miss few sails and also have an excellent hookup ratio on other fish.

The biggest change is rigging baits. The routine is basically the same in that hooks and leaders are made up ahead of time, ballyhoo are prepped by removal of the eyes, poop and pec fins and the back broken prior to deploying the bait. The first circle hook rig Eric demonstrated was the most similar to a J hook rig.

Split-Bill, Copper Wire

Start with a 6/0 Mustad Ultra Point circle hook or similar and tie on your leader as you would a J hook. Add a copper rigging wire and proceed as if rigging a J hook by running the wire up through the soft tissue of the lower jaw and through the hinge of the mouth. Hide the hook shank under the head centered in the throat area, wrap the wire around the mouth then through the eyes three times just like you would a J hook. Split the bill, pull the leader up through the split and finish the bait by wrapping the wire down the bill. Cut off the excess bill square and it is ready to go.

Swivel Rigs

Snell your 40- or 50-pound-test leader to a 6/0 circle hook; the main line of the leader should be on the same side of the hook as the hook point. Wrap a copper rigging wire to one eye of a No. 10 Sea Striker swivel and place the other eye of the swivel over the hook point and up to the bend of the hook. (Omit the swivel and wrap the rigging wire onto the hook bend for a wire-only version.) Take the loose end of the rigging wire and go through the hinge of the ballyhoo’s mouth from the top (opposite direction from rigging a J hook) and out of the bottom of the head through the throat area. Slide a 1⁄8- or 1⁄4-ounce egg sinker onto the rigging wire and tuck it up under the head in the throat area. Run the copper wire behind one gill, over the head, behind the other gill, through the eye, and then wrap down the bill. Cut the bill off square.

Patrick feels the swivel is better since the hook can swivel and the hook placement forces the bait to dig a little deeper and swim better. Adding a skirt, if desired, is accomplished by cutting the head of a small squid-style skirt off and sliding it down the leader, over the hook and onto the bait’s head to just over the weight.
One of the reasons Eric prefers the swivel rig is that he can rig a lot of baits quickly and he has a lot to do before each charter. He feels that rigging with floss is too time-consuming but for the past two years or so, I have been using floss-rigged ballyhoo for circle hooks with good success. Once you have tied a couple of them, they are pretty easy to rig and you can store the baits in the cooler without the hooks and leaders attached. (You can store the wire and swivel rigged baits without the hook and leader, also, but many mates rig with hooks attached for quick deployment.)

Rigging Floss Method

Cut a 2-foot piece of flat waxed rigging floss (35-pound test), double it over and slide a 1⁄8- or 1⁄4-ounce egg sinker over the doubled end. Pull enough floss through the lead to make a loop large enough to go over the ballyhoo’s head. Slide the loop over the bait’s head, behind the gill plates and snug up the weight under the head in the center of the throat area. Take the tag ends around each side of the head in front of the eyes and tie a square knot on top over the hinge of the mouth to keep the mouth closed. Make sure the knot is centered and move it a little if necessary. Run the floss ends through the eyes from opposite directions and tie a knot under the head at the back side of the sinker. Finish the bait wrapping over the gills and over the head in opposite directions and tying off with a square knot under the head. Store the bait in the cooler without the hook attached to avoid tangling leaders.

Add the hook when needed by sliding the hook point from one side to the other under the floss X on top of the bait’s mouth.

Once your hook rigs are together, consider pulling a dredge, if you are not already. The bites coming off the dredge are very impressive and a dredge can be engineered to be less trouble than you might think. The dredge on the Play Time was a combination of natural baits and artificials with two 6-arm dredges, artificials in the middle and a mullet and dropper mullet at the end of each arm. All-natural dredges are used during tournaments, but the combination dredge is very effective for day-to-day fishing.

To save time and expense, the dredge on my center console is all artificials. There are no droppers, as they tangle too much on a little boat when you can’t hang the dredge from an outrigger. I use three 6-arm dredges loaded with single shad-style black-and-white plastics. It is easy to use with an electric downrigger.

This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine.

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