Fish coddling

Let me preface this by stating that I am all for conservation-minded fishing. I pinch my barbs (unless I’m targeting hatchery fish that are intended to be removed from the gene pool and consumed). I play fish as quickly as possible so as not to stress the the fish unduly, and I do my best to #keepemwet. I’m also happy to find something else to do with my time other than fish when conditions demand it, such as when the waters are too warm, or fish counts too low.

But what about fishing with a 100% chance of not hooking a fish?

Fishing without the hope of hooking a fish is called casting practice, and I’ve done it before (most notably when the intended quarry is steelhead). And there have been a few times when I wanted to practice my Spey casting, out of season, so I tied a chunk of yarn to the end of my leader and plied the waters with zero chance of hooking and harming either the fish, myself, or anyone else.

But what about intentionally fishing a fly without a hook?  No, really. Apparently it’s a reel real thing, sort of. And while it’s not a new concept (there are articles dating back as far as 1999, according to a quick search), a recent article has brought the issue to the surface again.

A Seattle Times article by Brian J. Cantwell, Is hook-free fly-fishing the next big thing? talks about just that: fly fishing without a hope and a prayer of ever catching a fish. The article states:


“Hooking and reeling in the fish is material only if you plan on eating it, which most anglers don’t these days.

 So why not fish with hookless flies?”
Um, because it’s pointless. But I digress. The article does bring up a good point: if you’re not going to eat what you catch, why put the fish through the ordeal, only to release it?
“Turns out, it’s far from a new idea. In a 1999 New York Times piece, fly-fisher Jim Emery cogitated, “The only real challenge in trout fishing is getting the fish to rise and take your fly. The rest may be exciting and fun, but just for the angler. The fish goes through a lot of abuse and stress.””
 (First, I had to look up the meaning of “cogitated”, which means to think deeply about something; meditate or reflect.)


I disagree with the assertion that the thrill ends when the fish is hooked. I’ve lost a few lot of fish in my time on the water. Sometimes I set the hook too soon, other times too late. I’ve lost fish soon after hooking them, and some I’ve lost at the net (which can nearly always be blamed on the net man). The take, or initial hookup, is satisfying for sure, but I view the challenge as only beginning when the fish is hooked. It takes certain skill and finesse to play the fish to the net, especially when using light tippet needed to fool wary fish. And isn’t that a big part of fishing—to challenge one’s skills as an angler? You know, to seal the deal?

The article goes on to ask if, when fishing without a hook, the angler is still harassing the fish?

Well, of course they are.  Any time you interrupt the natural behavior of the fish you are harassing them. Let’s say you make a cast, with your hookless fly, to a trout that is rising to real bugs. The fish takes the time out of its day to take a swipe at your offering, quickly realizing it’s not what was expected. The fish shakes their head, spits the hookless fly, and after a period of self examination and shameful sulking, returns to feeding on real bugs. The fish has burned unnecessary calories in doing so, lost time out of their feeding schedule, and perhaps most importantly, suffered an emotional blow.

How would a hookless angler suggest dealing with the latter?  Perhaps calling out, “Sorry, fishy!” (Don’t laugh—I’m sure some anglers—many from Seattle— already do this).

If we start fishing without hooks, we are no longer fishing—we are fish coddling. Coddling (not to be confused with codling or lingcod) only serves to ensure weak-minded fish that are incapable of making it in the cruel world in which we all live (Darwin would undoubtedly agree). If you want to do the fish a favor, don’t bother using hookless flies.

Just stay home.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to do as I have always done: use barbless hooks and not catch many fish.

This should make for a good discussion so please take a couple minutes to leave your thoughts in the comments section. If you subscribe to the UA via email, don’t reply via email because nobody but me and you sees that.


22 thoughts on “Fish coddling”

  1. Good read, and thanks for the opportunity to practice my cogitation skills. I went deep!

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      Going deep brings up another matter: will people starting nymphing with hookless flies, or will that be reserved only for shallow, dry fly, hookless anglers?

  2. Jeff Holberg says:

    I think I recall an article back in the late 80’s promoting ‘fish codling’. I also know a well respected guide who now counts strikes in addition to the number brought to hand…I’m not sure that counts as codling but rather an ego inflating device.

  3. Jeff Holberg says:

    I think I recall an article back in the late 80’s promoting ‘fish codling’. I also know a well respected guide who now counts strikes in addition to the number brought to hand…I’m not sure that counts as codling but rather an ego inflating device.

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      Well, now…that brings up a whole ‘nother matter of “things that make you go Hmmm…”

  4. Patrick says:

    Without hooks there’d be no bend in that bleeding-edge graphite or retro fiberglass or historic bamboo stick, it’d only have to cast well enough. No need for forceps. No flies would be lost to the grabby hands of vegetation, one or two flies would suffice, so no fly box or vest or sling pack. Think of all the money that could be saved when not catching.

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      I have a hunch the gear manufacturers are not going to support this concept of fish coddling. And while they wouldn’t be out of business completely, hook manufacturers would have to retool all their machinery.

  5. Joe Saselli says:

    What’s an angler to do in that impressive moment of a fish striking your hookless fly? How will they ever get the infamous photo that tells all that they too are a member of the club of fly fishermen and fisherwomen (can’t forget them) who can catch a fish. Is not that a vast part of your bragging rights. Without the infamous photo everyone will be telling each other of what a great day they had on the waters and all the fish they nearly caught. Oh how I fear the day I will inevitably be forced to always be wearing my hip boots due to the amass of bullsh!t “the one that got away stories” that will come from this. No I must insist on continuing my tradition of single barbless hooks and when opportunity strikes the photo of fish in hand. Ensuring my place in the hall of fly fishermen (and women) who catch fish, not just cast to fish.

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      Every angler wanting a photo of their “catch” will have to have a GoPro clipped to their head, or have a dedicated photographer along to capture that special moment (split second, actually) when the fish takes a crack at their hookless fly.

  6. Sandy Chin says:

    I am an outstanding fish coddler!@

  7. Davy Wotton says:

    Interesting concept. I was at one time a technical director for the UK Partridge hook co. We did back in the early 90s produce a hook called touch and go which was the concept of John Betts, a well know fly fisher from Colorado. More or less you could not hook the fish on the hook, no point or barb.
    Davy Wotton.

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      So, is it safe to assume that the “Touch and Go” is no longer in production?

  8. Kevin Breen says:

    I loved the article..but tend to agree with Patrick…think of all the money you could save..but then after a great deal of thought, I figure that since I’ve already spent umpteen thousands on Fly Fishing gear over the years, I’ll just wait until all of my flies have been lost, have broken my G Loomis, Sage, Orvis and Scott Rods, and I’m down to my old Fenwick Glass 7wt Rod, Dad bought me 40 years ago and have lost all feeling in my casting arm …. but until that day..the fishes will have to suffer the consequences of my luck..

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      I’m with you, although I am unwilling to admit publicly how many rods I have. Despite that Mrs. UA gave up reading this blog years ago, there’s a chance she may get wind of my collection. She doesn’t need to know that.

  9. Davy Wotton says:

    After Partridge was sold to Mustad many of the hook ranges were discontinued that hook one of them.

  10. Well, I fish with barbless flies and still consider myself a fish codler. The upshot is, every once in a while a fish will in turn coddle me and let allow itself to be caught. It’s win/win when you do it right.

    1. Mark says:

      My Dear,
      the world around us is getting more and more crazy. The fish in the river is to be caught and eaten, and all deviants can take their hike :). I protect my river, just to take a fish or two, from time to time :)
      Regards even the best

      1. Kirk Werner says:

        The world is getting crazier as we lose touch with the natural world. Most places I fish mandate catch and release and I’m 100% OK with that. Hunters and fishermen/women (catch and release and catch and kill) tend to be the biggest proponents of conservation and give back more time and money to the natural resources than our critics.

    2. Kirk Werner says:

      I agree. And despite that even C&R has a slight impact on fish, what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. Or at least smarter. And clearly, most of the fish I seek are smarter than me.

  11. Carol says:

    I definately cogitate coddling. I hate the taste of fish, so it’s only C&R for me. When I happen to catch a fish, i realize I’m doing so for my own recreational enjoyment and at the expense of a living creature that is just trying to survive. No matter how quickly I bring it in or how well I handle its release, I’ve compromised it’s survival chances. It’s pure selfishness. On the other hand, I’m not ready to be a Tibetan Buddhist and sit at the riverside and meditate about how the fish might be a reincarnated relative.

    1. Kirk Werner says:

      I so seldom have the opportunity to keep fish that when I do bring home a cooler full, my wife is impressed. She’s very seldom impressed. And you bring up a valid point: the very act of fishing is sel-fish. I’m OK with that because we are, after all, an apex predator with forward facing eyes, an opposable thumb (sometimes two of them), and highly developed brain (in most cases). We also have the ability to reason (sometimes), and that is what’s important in exercising good judgment. Ohm…

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