Shark’s Eye Tournament, Montauk: Making the Case for Circle Hooks

The all catch-and-release Shark’s Eye tournament and festival is coming to Montauk Marine Basin this weekend, July 11-13. The event will feature a shark-themed festival to go along with the tournament action, but one thing you won’t see is dead sharks hanging at the docks.

As an all-release event, Shark’s Eye is focused not on who can hang the heaviest fish, but rather on which team can catch, tag and release the most fish to win the competition, while also promoting shark conservation and research. That doesn’t mean plenty of big sharks won’t be caught because the competition is drawing a number of highly talented anglers, who will earn points for each fish released, based on species, regardless of size.

Shark’s Eye rules require heavy tackle, safe handling practices and the mandatory use of circle hooks. These hooks are designed to reduce internal hooking, which minimizes injury and stress to sharks and also greatly increases post-release survival rates—at least, that’s the claim. Though some fishermen embrace circle hooks, others say they are less effective at hooking fish, which lowers the strike to hookup ratio.

Shark’s Eye format creators and co-directors, Sean and Brooks Paxton (aka “The Shark Brothers”), and the tournament host Cal Darenberg recently responded to some common questions about why they are proponents of circle hooks, and how they feel about proposed legislation demanding they be used.

Q: Why does Shark’s Eye require anglers to use circle hooks? Don’t they just make it harder to catch fish?

A: Sean Paxton, Brooks Paxton, Carl Darenberg:
For anglers that haven’t used circle hooks before, learning how isn’t nearly as difficult as difficult as some people think—a little practice and you’re good to go. Our mission with this format is to effectively combine the goals of sport, science and conservation. Circle hooks were an obvious fit for the conservation part of that puzzle. By maintaining a high level of respect for the sport and its anglers, we were confident that innovative protocols designed to also support the post-release welfare of sharks captured during competition would be well-received.

Carl Darenberg:
I’m so impressed with the performance of circle hooks that I’m mandating them for all my future shark tournaments. I feel confident in doing this because of the angler participation I’ve seen in other all-release tournaments around the country in recent years, and especially the response we got from the anglers competing in the inaugural Shark’s Eye Tournament in 2013.

Brooks Paxton:
It doesn’t make it harder to catch fish if you know how to use them. In other words, don’t set the hook as you would with a J-hook. Just come tight on the line once a fish takes the bait and they pretty much hook themselves, most times right in the corner of the mouth without gullet or gut hooking the fish.

Tiger shark caught using pelagic long line techniques during a 2010 research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico

Tiger shark caught using pelagic long line techniques during a 2010 research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. It was sampled, tagged and then released. Photo: Think Out Loud Productions

Q: How long have you been using circle hooks for your own shark fishing? What differences did you notice when you switched from J-hooks to circle hooks?

Sean Paxton:
I’ve been using them for about 20 years. They were introduced to me as a more effective way to catch fish; simple as that. I’m more interested in being practically correct than politically correct, so my attitude was pretty much, what the hell? Japanese longliners are notoriously effective at catching sharks along with pretty much everything else that swims, and even birds like albatross with circle hooks, so why not give it a go? Releasing fish, especially sharks, isn’t in a longliner’s business plan, but economics, low overhead and high catch rates are. I’m not a fan of longlining, but as a practical matter, circle hooks don’t have to be replaced on factory ships at nearly the rate J-hooks are because they aren’t swallowed and lodged internally like the J’s. And again, longliners tend to catch a lot of sharks on unmanned lines. Nobody’s even there to work a rod and reel. It’s important to keep this in perspective, though. Not every J-hook ends up gut-hooking a fish, and not every single circle hook hits its mark either. Personally, I’ve been involved in the capture and release of countless sharks for sport and research over the last 20 years, and no matter the objective, the catching part is always a top priority. In my personal experience, circle hooks far outperform J-hooks.

Brooks Paxton:

I started using them full time in the early 2000s. Simply put: fewer gut-hooked fish. I’ve lost fish on J-hooks and on circle hooks. That’s why it’s called fishing and not catching. We fished and filmed with legendary shark fisherman, Frank Mundus, every summer in Montauk, New York, over the last three years of his life using circle hooks and we landed a lot more then we lost. The same can be said for anywhere I’ve fished using circle hooks. Frank had been using them since the ‘70s, and some of his largest fish were caught using fairly small circle hooks.

Sean Paxton:
I fondly remember executing those acrobatic hook sets as a kid using J-hooks, but all that wasted effort became a thing of the past for me once I began using circle hooks.

After a fish takes the bait and starts eating, your job is to come tight and then start working. Shark-release fishing came naturally for me way before it was fashionable, so the confidence level with post release survival was important to me. That confidence is like night and day compared to fishing with J-hooks. If you’re not meat fishing, which I respect and do myself from time to time, and sport is the bigger goal, then circle hooks are a practical choice. I’ve done it and feel that catching a fish that’s internally hooked is more like catching one that’s foul-hooked. I’d rather have a fish that’s lit up and able to give you a fair go at it than one that’s pretty much dying on the line, but that’s just me.

Q: Do you believe circle hooks should be legally required for catching sharks? Why or why not? What about other species of fish?

Brooks Paxton:
No. I would be using them anyway and so are a lot of other people. We’ve seen a huge increase in their use, especially over the past 10 years. Legislating their use reminds me a little bit of seatbelt and helmet laws. Education would have to play a key role. No one likes being forced or told what to do, but with the right education on how to use them and what the benefits are, I think their voluntary and accepted use will only continue to increase. Take the billfish industry, for example. It took a decade or more, but look how that eventually caught on.

Sean Paxton:
That’s a loaded question. As a lifelong sportsman and an advocate for sporting rights, I don’t like more laws than are necessary for maintaining our basic Constitutional integrity. That said, as someone who is also an opponent of wasteful practices, I’d like to see a bigger push for education in, and possibly creative incentives for, the use of circle hooks in our recreational shark fisheries first. We’ve been doing that with events like the Shark’s Eye Tournament for over a decade now. I’m getting a strong sense when talking with anglers that legally requiring their use could quite possibly be the biggest obstacle to their genuine acceptance. Putting something into law is one step. Enforcing it, another thing altogether. Let’s put more pressure on our lawmakers to aggressively enforce current regulations like bag limits, species and fin bans before we just toss a new laws on the books. This should go for sharks, as well as other marine species of fish threatened with declining populations.

For more info about the Shark’s Eye All-Release Tournament & Festival, visit sharkseyetournament.com. 

Shortfin mako shark

Shortfin mako shark, Photo: Andy Murch

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