Catch and release: how to unhook an angler – A tried and true method for removing hooks buried in your own body

A tried and true method for removing hooks buried in your own body

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Buried! One of the hook points on a crankbait treble hook caught author Jeff Little. Photo Jeff Little

By Jeff Little

Sometimes both fisherman and fish feel the bite of a barb. Here’s how to unhook an angler with details from hookup to hook out:

12:43 p.m.: A smallmouth bass repositions into an eddy at the base of a class 2 rapid after eating a hellgrammite. A kayak’s hull crunches into a gravel bar 32 feet downstream, and an angler hops out into ankle deep water. Despite the angler’s proximity to the bass, the 18.25-inch, 3-pound, 6-ounce bass does not spook because of the ambient noise of the whitewater.

Step One: Remove the hook from the lure. Photo Jeff Little
Step One: Remove the fish from the lure. Photo Jeff Little

12:45 p.m.: A brown and blue crawfish patterned crankbait enters the frothy bubbles kicking upward from a hydraulic current beneath a 2 foot ledge drop. The line attached to the hard bait draws tight and it wobbles downward through the cyclical current reaching the river’s rocky bottom.

12:46 p.m.: The brown bass and brown crankbait collide on a current seam, sending both skyward at the end of the angler’s tight line and bent rod. A drag peeling fight ensues with the big fish ending up slouched and twitching in the bottom of the angler’s net.

12:47 p.m.: The angler reaches down into the net, reaching for the fish’s bottom jaw. The fish thrashes before he can fully grasp the bottom lip and gain control. The treble hook sinks past the barb into the angler’s index finger just below the inside of the second joint. He gains control, knowing that he is attached to the thrashing fish by the crankbait and calls downstream to his buddy, “NEED SOME HELP!”

Step Two: Remove the hook from the lure. Photo Jeff Little
Step Two: Remove the hook from the lure. Photo Jeff Little

I was that angler, and it had been over three decades since I had let that happen to me. In that gap, I have helped others remove hooks from their own bodies using a simple and effective trick that if done properly causes almost no pain. Because the point of the hook was still inside my flesh, I chose this method over simply pushing it the rest of the way through, then cutting the barbed section of the hook off to remove it.

Step One: Remove the fish from the bait. This may not always be an issue, depending on how the hook became impaled. I held the fish underwater so it could breathe while my buddy Dave paddled over. I knew that I couldn’t both control the fish’s thrashing and remove the hook from the fish at the same time while still attached to the powerful smallmouth. I waited for Dave to assist, using pliers to free the bass.

Step Two: Remove the hook from the lure. Again, having Dave there to help made this possible. I probably would have got it eventually, but having another person to get a pair of pliers on a split ring to open it up made it go smoothly. If you are alone, consider cutting the split ring with pliers that have a cutter. Also, the safest approach is to snip off any exposed hook points to avoid further injury. Do not cut the shank of the hook. That portion will be needed to apply a specific leverage pressure that prevents the barb of the hook from ripping flesh on the way out. It also gives a medical technician something to grab ahold of if you are unable to complete this field hook removal procedure. But have faith, this works.

Step Three: Take a doubled length of line and wrap around bend of buried hook. Photo Jeff Little
Step Three: Take a doubled length of line and wrap around bend of buried hook. Photo Jeff Little

Step Three: Make a loop of doubled fishing line and place it around the bend of the hook where it enters your body. I used what was available: 20 lb test fluorocarbon. This will provide the force applied to move the hook in the opposite direction in which it entered your flesh. If you fear that there are tendons or other delicate parts of your anatomy in the area of the hook, you might want to just follow the first two steps then get to an emergency room and allow a professional to do this procedure. But chances are, they will do the same thing that I am about to tell you to do.

Step Four: Apply a stable downward force on the hook shank in the direction opposite of where the barb is pointing. The purpose is to have the leading edge of the hook coming out of your skin be the smooth side, not the barbed side, which travels through the initial wound channel. Ask someone to quickly and forcefully snap the doubled over line in the direction opposite the direction it entered your skin. You really want someone to do this with force, and preferably on the count of three, except that they do it on one. Your own squirming at the thought may make the downward pressure on the hook wobble and become uncentered. Doing this correctly and quickly leads to a relatively pain free move in which you don’t fully believe that the hook is out until you see it.

Step Four: Press down on the hook shank to raise and align the barb with the entry channel. Photo Jeff Little
Step Four: Press down on the hook shank to raise and align the barb with the entry channel. Photo Jeff Little

Step Five: In my case, step five was to reassemble the crankbait and go back to fishing. But let’s just say you want to prioritize infection prevention before that. Puncture wounds are notoriously difficult to cleanse. When the hook entered your skin, it was covered with a full palate of bacteria, some of which could be resistant to medication. Simple skin abrasions exposed to the waters we fish have caused infection leading to amputation or death. You want to get it clean.
I cleaned my puncture wound by making it bleed. Sucking on the spot where the hook went in, I drew as much blood as I could out of the new, unwanted orifice. You can also do this by grasping the area near the puncture firmly to pump blood out of the wound. The rush of blood exiting the wound is flooding bacteria out with it. Think of it as cleaning the wound from inside out.

Iodine, alcohol pads or hydrogen peroxide following a thorough hand washing also helps to remove or kill bacteria in the area of the wound. I also chose to soak my hand in an Epsom salts bath once I was home. Watch the wound for a few days, as incubation of bacteria in your wound may take several days to occur. If the area swells abnormally or discharges pus, you’ll want to see a doctor as soon as possible so that you can take antibiotics to kill the infection.

Step Five: Attend to the wound and the lure and get back to fishing. Photo Jeff Little
Step Five: Attend to the wound and the lure and get back to fishing. Photo Jeff Little

I was fortunate and didn’t have an infection take hold. Years prior, I did experience a bad infection from stepping on a board with a nail in the river. It required a tetanus shot booster and antibiotic therapy. Tetanus shots need to be taken within 24 hours to be effective in preventing that type of infection if your tetanus shot is out of date. Do it as soon as possible if you are not sure when your last shot was. That infection could have led to the loss of my foot if I didn’t treat it aggressively. Err on the side of caution and see a doctor.

Angler and smallmouth are both set free! Photo Jeff Little
Angler and smallmouth are both set free! Photo Jeff Little