I’ve always been an advocate of fly fishing with a barbless hook. While some fly patterns (like the Stimulators tied by Umpqua Feather Merchants) are tied on barbless hooks to begin with, they are in the vast minority. Fly tyers also have the option of tying on barbless hooks, but again, this is not the norm. The majority of hooks used by fly tyers are not offered in barbless versions.
The bottom line is that most of the time the angler will have to remove the barb him/herself. This is most easily accomplished by simply flattening the barb to the hook with pliers or hemostats. There is no need to actually remove the barb. Just get it as flat to the hook point as possible.
The type of hook the fly is tied on determines how easy this is to do. Japanese hooks which are lazer or chemically sharpened and possessing small barbs are the easiest to deal with. Barbs are easily flattened and there is no danger of breaking off the hook point. Such is not the case with other hook manufacturers, such as the very popular (with many fly manufacturers) Mustad line of hooks. Mustad barbs are large and do not easily flatten to the hook. They also have a tendency to break the hook point if you are not careful, and sometimes even if you are.
The best way to flatten a Mustad barb is to work slowly, starting at the rear of the barb and working your way forward. Most of the time you will not be able get the barb perfectly flat, but as long as you get the point of the barb down to the hook proper, you should be OK.
The simplest way to tell Japanese hooks from Mustad hooks is by examining the size of the barb itself. Small or micro-barbed hooks with very sharp points are usually Japanese while large barbs with not-as-sharp hook points could very well be Mustads.
Why fish barbless in the first place? For starters, it’s easier on the fish. Assuming you’re practicing catch and release, backing a barbless hook out of a trout’s mouth is far less harmful than tearing mouth and jaw tissue, which commonly occurs when using barbed hooks. This is the real meaning of the term “ripping lips.”
Furthermore, since hook removal is so much easier with barbless hooks, it requires much less handling of the fish and can often be accomplished without removing the fish from the water. The cumulative effect is better survival rates for trout and other species of fish.
There is another, frequently overlooked, reason to fish barbless which has nothing to do with protecting fish and everything to do with increasing your strike to hook-up ratio. Simply put, it is easier to achieve a solid hook set when using barbless flies because you are freed from having to overcome the resistance of the barb. Admittedly, a barbed hook will hang on to a fish better than a barbless hook, but you have to bury the barb in the tissue of the lip or mouth first.
Have you ever set the hook, doubling the rod over for the briefest of moments, only to have the hook “pull” and rod subsequently straighten. The barb actually inhibits hook penetration and a certain percentage of “missed strikes” with barbed hooks can be attributed to this fact.
Fishing barbless is a particularly good idea when using small flies and light tippets. The improved hook penetration helps save fine tippets from undue stress and tiny, hard to remove hooks back out much easier.
Some anglers will rightly point out that numerous studies show no difference in mortality rates for barbed or barbless fishing. But personal experience in the field (in other words, on stream) over many years and thousands of fish make this very hard to swallow.
Many anglers feel they will lose too many fish by going barbless, and this may well be true. But look at it this way…you’re doing the fish a big favor. If you need to harm a fish in order to catch it, maybe you need to work on your hooking and playing skills. And that is exactly what will happen if you stick with the barbless approach. It will teach you to play a fish properly by forcing you to keep tension on the line while playing the fish. A properly set barbless hook followed by solid fish playing skills will land far more fish than a barbed hook, questionable hook set, and clumsy fish playing skills. Gut it out, take your whoopin’, learn the proper skills and in the long run you will be richly rewarded…and the fish will thank you.