Forgiving hooks take circular route

Outdoors

September 22, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

Fishing on the bay with Rudy Lukacovic is different.

Not bad. Or unpleasant. Just unusual.

He makes you write down stuff on a clipboard and switch rods every half-hour with your fellow anglers and keep track of each piece of bait you use.

But Lukacovic is no Felix Unger, the fussy half of The Odd Couple. He's a man on a mission, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources who's trying to prove that we'd be better off using circle hooks.

This year is the third and, perhaps, final year of his study that compares the traditional J hook with the circle hook when used to chum for rockfish.

Studies show that the vast majority of rockfish caught in the bay and on the East Coast by recreational anglers are released. But that practice is useless if what gets tossed back is mortally wounded.

Maryland is taking the lead in this study because the bay is the best spawning ground and day-care center for rockfish on the Eastern seaboard. So there are a lot of little fish out there to be returned to the water unharmed - fingers crossed - except for a small puncture wound in their lips.

The old-fashioned J hook is a wonderfully efficient device for snagging and holding onto fish, but not particularly discriminating about how it accomplishes that.

"The point of the hook is exposed. The organs are punctured and the fish bleed to death rather quickly," Lukacovic says.

Even if swallowed, the circle hook is designed to catch on the corner of the mouth or jaw, not vital organs. I saw a demonstration at a fishing club where an angler closed his hand around a circle hook while someone else pulled it through his fist. No snag, no blood, no screaming.

As a TV announcer might say, "Try doing that with a J hook."

The down side is that circle hooks seem to be less efficient. Lukacovic says his studies indicate that for every three fish you catch on a J hook, you'll catch two on a circle hook.

Still, many anglers have seen the mortality numbers and embraced the new hook. Manufacturers have responded with a growing inventory of designs and sizes. And this year, the Miami Billfish Tournament required anglers to use them.

"The tradeoff in catching is worth it to a lot of anglers," Lukacovic says.

But a lot of charter captains - who have clients to keep happy - aren't ready to cuddle up yet.

"They've joked with me that if I want to leave some hooks on the boat, they'll be glad to make them into an artificial reef for me," he says.

On Tuesday, Lukacovic had a half-dozen anglers out at Love Point for the 11th of 12 experiments this season to see if there is any difference between circle hooks, offset circle hooks and wide-gap Kahle hooks, which look like a circle hook, but act like a J hook.

Capt. Perry Davidson motored from Kentmoor to above the Bay Bridge as the sun came up, and had us on the fish just a little past 7 a.m. We fished for 30 minutes with one style of hook, then switched rods and fished for another 30 minutes, then switched again. To anglers on other boats the "Rudy shuffle" must have looked like some bizarre ritual.

We jotted down the number of strikes, number of hook-ups, number of landed fish and how many times we had to rebait.

On the incoming tide, we could feel the bite and then had to work hard at doing nothing. With circle hooks, you don't set the hook - the fish does that for you as it takes the bait.

But when the tide went slack, we couldn't feel the bite. All of us got picked clean by roving bands of small stripers and blues like country rubes in Times Square.

We caught 108 stripers, four blues and two hickory shad in six hours. Of the rockfish, three were legal size and three fish were deep-hooked on the Kahles.

Our results were in line with the 10 groups that preceded us, says Lukacovic.

Last month, the American Fisheries Society held its annual convention in Baltimore and published a book full of studies on catch and release, including Lukacovic's work.

Armed with all this information, it will be interesting to see what actions regulators and the industry will take.

There may come a day when circle hooks are required for striper fishing. The Recreational Fishing Alliance, an influential lobbying group, is urging coastal states to do just that. New Jersey has taken the first step, proposing regulations to make the hooks mandatory for all fishing in the Delaware River and its tributaries when the striped bass spawning area is closed.

Lukacovic is a disciple of the "educate, don't mandate," philosophy espoused by former DNR fisheries chief Bob Bachman.

With that in mind, why not buy a pack of Mustad or Eagle Claw circle hooks and give them a try?

This and that

DNR has scheduled two public meetings to discuss Amendment 6 to the striped bass management plan that will be enacted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, possibly as early as November.

Since the rockfish moratorium was eliminated in 1990, the commission has revised the plan five times, fiddling with the quotas, size limits and seasons.

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