Have you ever been fishing and caught a big one, only to notice the fish swallowed the hook? I’ve been there, and it was a bit stressful at first, wondering what to do with the fish and whether our favorite hook was a lost cause. Luckily, I’ve since discovered what to do when the hook disappears inside the fish after a strong bite.
What to Do if you Gut Hooked Fish
We all want smooth and successful fishing adventures, but sometimes we have to work a little harder to reel in a big one, especially if the fish swallows the hook. As silly as it may sound, the first thing to do is stay calm.
Getting the hook back and saving the fish is much easier when with steady hands and needle-nose pliers. You have to open up the throat and gills before reaching carefully to free the hook from inside the fish.
How Do You Remove Hook From Fish Throat
Your favorite hook isn’t necessarily a lost cause just because a fish swallowed it. Follow these key steps to successfully remove a hook from the fish throat, even if it’s stuck deep down in the gullet.
- Wet your hands and keep fish wet
- Open the fish mouth and see what side the hook shank is turned toward. If you can’t see it, gently tug on the line until you do.
- Use a finger or two and reach through the last gill arch on the left or right side.
- Push and pull the hook eye down to turn the hook.
- The hook should roll out below the gill toward the side as the barb pops free from the fish’s gullet.
- Open the mouth to lift the hook bend up and out of the fish with your hands or needle-nose pliers.
The technique works on both freshwater and saltwater fish but is easier on the smaller, salmon-style hooks commonly used for walleyes and smallmouth.
A few other helpful hints for removing swallowed hooks include carrying a de-hooker tool and flashlight while fishing, so it’s easier to find and remove the missing hook.
Also, sometimes with smaller fish, it’s possible to unlodge a shallow swallowed hook with pliers straight down the fish’s open jaw, but it should be simple and quick. When that doesn’t work right away, it’s best to try your luck with the side gill removal method.
Can a Fish Survive With a Hook in Its Throat
Surprisingly, many fish do survive with a hook in their throat. It’s not ideal, but some fish may last for up to a year despite a rusting hook inside their body. The deeper the hook, the lower the chance of survival due to the potential for bleeding and organ damage.
The rusting process can take a while with plated or thick metal hooks, and the tough fish stomach can often handle the hook short-term, although it will eventually impact their internal organs.
Any metal will rust and weaken over time in the water, so fishing hooks tend to break free from the fish’s gullet after a while. The hook’s coating, thickness, and overall water salt content influence how long it takes for the hook to detach from the fish. The more they eat and swim, the more likely the hook is to come off.
Keep in mind that trying to remove the hook multiple times usually does more harm than good. If it doesn’t come out with a solid pull through the mouth or the side gill after a few minutes, continuing to poke and prod can end up hurting the fish more. The sooner the fish is released back into the water, the better protected they are against serious bleeding.
How Long Does It Take for a Fish to Heal From a Hook
It depends on the fish and how deep the hook was, but generally, most small holes heal within 8-10 days. Fish have impressive healing abilities and also may expel the hook on their own after the line is cut.
There have been numerous studies over the years about fish and how they respond to hooks. One Canadian fisheries research study looked at whether cutting the line or removing the hook was more lethal for deeply hooked bluegill.
Researchers looked at the injury level, swimming ability, physiological conditions, feeding, and overall mortality in both fish that had the hook removed and fish that were released with the hook still intact.
The study found there were no noticeable differences in the fishes’ swimming or feeding abilities whether they were with or without the hook. However, the mortality rate went up in fish that had a swallowed hook removed with some difficulty, compared to those with a shallow, easily removed hook or the hook left in place.
The study also found that 45.4% of fish with the line cut expelled the swallowed hook within 45 hours, and by 10 days, the figure was up to 71.4%.
Tips for Avoiding Swallowed Hooks
It’s relatively rare for a fish to fully swallow the hook, but it has happened to many anglers at one time or another. There are a few helpful hints to avoid swallowed hooks, keeping fish safe and taking home all your favorite hooks at the end of the day.
- Set the hook quickly right after the first feel of a bite. This helps keep the hook in a safe, shallow spot instead of deep down in the gullet.
- Tungsten weights and braided or fluorocarbon lines provide a greater feel, and so do higher-quality rods with more sensitivity.
- Keep your eyes on the line to hook a fish bite right away.
- Crush the barb and opt for a big hook that’s harder to swallow, or barbless hooks altogether.
- Consider drifting rather than anchoring.
- Switch out treble hooks that can cause significant damage to the fish and make it harder to unhook.
- Consider jigheads and circle hooks that fish are less likely to swallow. J-hooks are another good option to minimize damage to the fish’s mouth.
- If you have to cut the line, cut it as short as possible to give the fish the best chance of survival.