This Is What Happens When a Fish Breaks Your Line

If you fish even a little bit, you have had it happen to you. You feel the pull on the line. You snap the rod back to set the hook. You feel the fight and see a flash of silver in the water. Then, suddenly, nothing. The line goes slack, and the fish is gone – taking the lure with it. The line broke (or the knot slipped), and the fish, still hooked, swam away. 

What happens when a fish breaks the line and swims off with the lure? Not much, actually. Studies show that fish shed the hooks in a short time – often less than a day. When pike were hooked in different parts of the mouth with radio-transmitting lures, the lures were released back into the water in a short time. The fish were monitored afterwards, and none of the fish suffered lasting harm.  

Think about this – have you ever caught a fish that was carrying around an old hook? Have you ever seen a photo of a fish with an old hook in its mouth, or even heard a story about it? A quick Google image search for “fish with old hook in mouth” brings up more pictures of fishermen hooked in the mouth (yikes!) than fish with old hooks.

Of course, the best way to keep the fish safe from keeping an old lure in its mouth is to land the fish and remove the hook yourself. You can’t always keep the fish from breaking the line, but these tips will help.

Tie a Good Knot

The most common cause of line “breakage” isn’t actually a break, it’s a bad knot. There are dozens of different knots for fishing. Each knot has fans and each one works in some situations. One knot that is easy to tie and works in many situations is the Palomar knot. If you’d like to see photos of how to tie this knot, check it out here.   It’s strong yet easy to tie. Here’s how:

  • Run 8 to 12 inches of  the line through the eye of the hook or lure.
  • Double the line up and run it back through the eye leaving about a 4 inch loop.
  • The lure should now be on a double strand of line. There will be a u-shaped loop on one side of the lure and the reel and the tag end on the other side of the lure.
  • Start to tie an overhand knot with the lure in the middle. You can see pictures of how to tie the overhand knot  here.  An overhand knot is the easiest knot there is.
    • Bring the loop end back over the tag/reel end to form a circle
    • Pass the loop through the circle
    • That’s an overhand knot
  • Pass the lure through the loop end of the line
  • Pull the knot tight around the eye of the lure
  • Trim the tag end short 
  • Go catch a fish!

Take Care of Your Line

The other frequent cause of line breakage is line damage. Inspect your line frequently for nicks and scrapes. This is more common in fast, rocky water than in still or deep water. To check the line, inspect the last few feet between casts. Give it a good, hard look and run your fingers up and down the line to feel for nicks. If you find any, cut the line and re-tie your lure higher up.

A good practice to help stop nicks from breaking your line is to remove the last six feet every time your lure snags. Even if you are able to retrieve the lure, cut the line, and re-tie the lure higher up. This will ensure you always have a strong line attached to the lure.

Set Your Drag

Fishing reels are equipped with a drag feature. The drag protects the line from breaking. It lets the reel release line with less pulling force than the breaking strength of the line. The drag should be set at 25% of the line’s rated breaking strength. That’s 2.5 pounds for the ten-pound test line, 3.75 pounds for fifteen-pound line, and 5 pounds for a twenty-pound line. 

You can use a spring scale or an item with a known weight to check the drag. Attach the line to the item and pull the rod up at 45°. The drag should just start to release line as the weight comes up. To adjust the drag, look for the drag setting device on your reel.

  • Spincast reels have a dial on the top, just ahead of the thumb button
  • Spinning reels have a knob that screws in or out on the front of the line spool
  • Baitcast reels have a star-shaped dial on the shaft of the handle

Setting your drag properly will let the fish pull like off the reel before the line breaks. Make sure to check it at home before your next fishing trip.

When to Leave the Hook

Sometimes it’s better to leave the hook rather than digging it out.  Fish hooked in the mouth or jaw are easy to unhook, but deep-set hooks can be a problem. In fact, a fish is more likely to be harmed by attempts to remove deep-set hooks than leaving the hook alone. 

Catching a fish with old hooks in its mouth is rare. Finding a fish that died because its gills or intestines were damaged by someone trying to remove a hook is not rare. For fish that swallow the hook or take it so deeply that it can’t be removed, cutting the line is the best option.

When you decide to leave the hook, cut the line as close to the hook as possible. Put light tension on the line, slide your scissors or knife down as close to the lure as you can reach, and snip the line. If it’s feasible, you could even cut the hook itself and just leave a tip in place. The fish will remove the hook itself in a much gentler way than you can. 

Safer Hooks

If you are really concerned about hook removal, there are some changes you can make to your hook setup that make removing hooks easier for the fish. Most of the developments in easier hook removal are focused on catch-and-release anglers. Quick, easy hook removal is safer for fish that are destined to return to the water to fight another day. 

Even though they are intended for catch-and-release, these changes make it easier for fish to spit out hooks that come off the line, as well. Easy hook removal works whether the fisherman or the fish is taking out the hook.

Use Circle Hooks Instead of J-Hooks

Standard fishing hooks are called J-hooks because they look just like the letter J. Circle hooks aren’t a perfect circle, but they are much rounder than J-hooks. The sharp point of a circle hook always points in toward the shank instead of up toward the line. 

Because the tip is pointed inside, circle hooks won’t catch on a fish’s intestines or gills. They catch on the fish’s mouth, usually at the corner. Even if the fish gulps down the bait, the lure will be pulled back up into its mouth. The hook will catch the fish’s mouth before the lure comes out.

The shape of circle hooks makes them easier to unhook, since you just rotate the hook to remove it. In contrast, J-hooks require you to push the entire hook deeper into the fish to get the tip out. The combo of only mouth hooks plus easy removal makes circle hooks much less stressful for fish. In the study, mouth-hooked fish released the lures much faster than fish hooked deeper in their bodies.

Single, Not Treble

Anglers favor treble hooks because they are a lot more likely to hook something than a single hook. When fish hit hard and fight hard, the treble hook is more likely to snag the fish in multiple places. It’s obviously going to be more difficult for a fish to spit out a lure that has hooked it in two or three places than in just one. 

Single hooks might not hook quite as effectively as treble hooks, but they do offer other benefits. How much of your fishing time do you spend untangling lures with multiple treble hooks in your tackle box? I know that I would rather fish than untangle lures. Also, for those rare times when you hook yourself, it’s much easier to pull out a single hook than a treble. 

Go Barbless

Most fish hooks have a barb pointing back from the tip that makes the hook harder to remove. Barbless hooks just have a smooth, sharp tip with no barb.  The barbless tip slips back out of a fish’s mouth with much less force than a barbed hook. That is the case whether the angler is unhooking the fish, or the fish is unhooking itself.

Barbed hooks can be hard to find, especially for unusual sizes or specialty lures. You can make your own barbless hooks by using a pair of pliers to squeeze the barb flat. It’s not quite as good as a true barbless hook, but every bit helps. 

Many anglers are concerned that barbless hooks will lead to fewer catches. If you are careful, that’s not the case. Keep your rod tip up and the line tight. As long as the line is tight, the fish won’t be able to spit the hook. Pay attention to the fish when you are fighting it, and barbless hooks won’t be a problem.

Avoid Stainless

Stainless steel is popular for hooks, especially for saltwater anglers. Unlike regular steel, stainless won’t corrode when it comes in contact with saltwater. In the event that a plain steel hook is left inside a fish, it will rust away in a fairly short time. Stainless hooks stand up to the inside of a fish just like they stand up to saltwater, so avoid stainless if you are worried about leaving hooks.

I wrote this guide, which you can read here, for more in depth details about fishing hooks types and sizes and when’s the best time to use each.

Size Up Your Gear

If you are suffering a lot of line breaks, you should consider a bigger reel with heavier line. Ultra-light rods with four-pound test line are great for panfish and small trout, but there’s no way you would use them for giant marlin and sharks. You shouldn’t use an ultra-light line for big lake fish, either. Use a line that has a breaking strength a little heavier than the fish you usually catch and you won’t have a problem leaving lures behind.

The Bottom Line

When the fish break line, you don’t need to be worried about their survival. They will spit out the lure in a little while and be no worse for the wear. You can tie on a new lure and resume your fishing without worrying about the health of the one that got away. And remember the other thing that happens when fish get away – they always get at least 50% bigger.

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