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.