Introduction of the Circle Hook in BC

~ Interview between Adam Pearl and his father Gene Pearl, Commercial Fisherman

My dad was fishing the flats up in Hecate Straits, the body of water between mainland BC and Haida Gwaii, what was once called the Queen Charlotte Islands. He recalled a big storm that year, he couldn’t remember how much it was blowing but mentioned he possibly shouldn’t have been out there fishing. If that’s the case, I know it was really bad weather and dangerous, he didn’t shy away from the weather. When it is windy, along with being wet and dangerous from the seas, it also poses other problems, like visibility and the ability to troubleshoot problems and simply stay in a straight line to pick up your gear.

They were on a halibut trip using conventional stuck longline gear. This means you run out a long line, sometimes miles in length, with a hook fastened to the rope every 13-21 feet. Well like I said, visibility was poor and he couldn’t see the markers (scotchmen) from another boat, got too close to their gear and when they hauled back his own gear, he pulled up their gear too. Apparently an old-timer from Norway on a boat that I forgot to write down.

When dad finally got his hooks and used them, he estimated that the circle hooks fished 2.2 times better than the J-hooks.

Now, trips that had once lasted up to 20 days were happening in 8 or 9 days.

This happens now and then, it’s usually by mistake and is a pain in the butt. When it’s windy, it’s extra stressful. The lines are taught, the boat is rising and falling on the waves in ridiculous increments. Hooks snarled up with other hooks. Big balls of tangled rope. All this while trying to not fall overboard.

While they were untangling the gear, they noticed that the other boat’s hooks were filled with fish. A halibut every hook as my dad told the story. As they were taking the fish off both sets of gear, yes that was something you did, he noticed that the hooks were different. They were shaped in a tight circle and quite different from the J-hooks they had been using for decades.

When he got home he investigated and found a company from Norway, Mustad, was offering them. Some fishermen had already started using them in BC but they were hard to come by at this point and time. Some of the local fishing supply companies were playing favourites and rationing them to certain outfits. When dad finally got his hooks and used them, he estimated that the circle hooks fished 2.2 times better than the J-hooks.

For him, and others, this was groundbreaking. It had many rippling effects. The catch limits were still the same, it didn’t mean that 2.2 times the halibut came out of the water, they just caught them faster. Now, trips that had once lasted up to 20 days were happening in 8 or 9 days. The halibut brought to markets, at the time predominantly in the eastern US, was a much higher quality fish. This increased demand and therefore fishermen were offered higher prices for them. Gear expenses went down. They used their hooks and gearless than half the time they used to. Hooks, ganions, rope, scotchman and many other tools of the trade had far less ware and tare.

Showing the difference between a circle hook and a J hook
Adam Pearl holding a circle hook in Fisherman’s Market Nelson store.

Another large benefit from the introduction of the circle hook was it significantly lowered the amount of liced fish which was brought up. Sea lice will attack a wounded fish after it is caught and stuck to a hook. They infiltrate the flesh and eat it till there is just skin and bones. Up to 20% of the fish caught on a J-hook were liced up and had to be discarded. J hooks would often hit the flesh of the fish whereas circle hooks were much more effective to just snag the jaw. The number my dad used when asked what the percentage went to with circle hooks was 2%. I concur.

Another effect that the circle hook had, for my dad in particular, was the black cod fishery. His boat was not big enough for traps and J-hooks were poor at catching black cod because they often spun off the hook. With a circle hook, the black cod would stay on the hook allowing him to fish the emerging black cod fishery. This proved a very important step in his career as black cod turned into a very profitable resource in British Columbia and still is to this day.

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