Rigging hangback style produces fish-friendly placement of the hook, resulting in non-mortal wounds and a safely released fish.
By Francis Estalilla
For me, there’s no escaping the “hangback”, a fishing term coined back in 2004 when I first set out to challenge the conventional wisdom of single-hook placement in rigging a variety of our favorite presentations for salmon and steelhead, and how it ultimately affects the site of the final hookup. For better or for worse, “hangback” is synonymous with my internet moniker eyeFISH. If one were to Google an image search for “hangback rigging”, nine of the top ten hits are mine. And even then, the single outlier was posted in response to a thread I had previously authored on the ifish.net discussion forum. I may as well have a scarlet “H” branded across the chest of every fishing garment I own, or have it permanently tattooed there.
While some have unapologetically branded me a clueless lawless heretic, others consider me a visionary of conservation. Others still are left wondering, “Hangback schmangback. What’s the point? And why should I care? I already catch fish the way I rig.”
If your mind is already made up, I can’t help you. However, if you are curiously open-minded, I might just make another convert by the time you get through this piece. But first, a bit of historical context.
The Hangback Amputee: The conceptual origins of the hangback go way back to the year 2000. That’s when the Kenai River king salmon fishery went to one single point hook by regulation, eliminating the “gold standard” tandem single hooks used by just about everyone. Out of convenience (or was it laziness?), I simply decided to amputate the point from the top hook of several of my pre-tied Kenai bait rigs. Thus, the Kenai Amputee was born. I must admit there was nothing noble about this rig. It was strictly an attempt to better expose the hook point to nab those exasperating short biters when presenting that giant glob of bait. Even when two hooks were legal, the top hook was, well, rather pointless anyway. The huge baits we used basically shielded the “bite” of the hook. Functionally, the top hook was only there to hold the bait and the rear hook virtually always caught the fish. In the end, it didn’t matter that the top hook point was removed. The rigging worked just fine without it, and more importantly, the hangback amputee was completely Kenai legal.
The Hangback Herring: I was aboard a charter vessel out of Westport, Wash., targeting hatchery coho in the banner coho year of 2001. The fishing was phenomenal, and the certainty of limiting the 20-man crew was virtually assured; if we could just get past all those “pesky” coho sporting one too many fins. By the time the holds were filled with our legal limit of 40 clipped coho, we had already released half again as many wild fish. But oh, what a bloodbath! Easily half of the fish coming to the boat were pumping billowy clouds of bright red with each stroke of the gill plates as each struggled against the tension of bent rods.
I couldn’t get over how many fish suffered deep mortal hooking wounds. As an avid participant in selective salmon fisheries, I knew there had to be a better way to avoid the obscene hooking mortality. It was by sheer serendipity that my discovery would eventually come to light.
It all resulted from a quest to improve my strike-to-hookup ratio. Having watched many underwater videos of salmon striking a trolled herring, I’ve been impressed by several observations. First, the bait will attract a lot of curious “lookers” that would otherwise go undetected without the aid of the underwater camera. Secondly, while only a fraction of the “looks” may result in willful strikes, the bait tempts many more fish to bite than the rod-tip would belie. Lastly, many salmon have terrible aim even when they have committed to a willful assault on the bait. A slashing fish may just graze the bait or completely miss it altogether, only to pounce on it repeatedly until the frustrated salmon either tires of the pursuit or the hook finally finds home. Once a fish has committed to the bait, the slashing assault is almost always initiated from either side rather than directly from behind.
My conclusion is that the typical closely-spaced two-hook herring rig doesn’t leave the trailing hook adequately exposed to hang the timid short-strikers nor the aggressive biters with lousy aim. When the trailing hook is placed inside/alongside the bait, the hook is basically shielded by the bait through half its revolution. To solve this problem, I lengthened my trailer hook considerably, allowing the hook to “hang back” well behind the tail of the bait. Yes, my herring hooks are routinely tied about 7 or 8 inches apart!
With the hangback rig, the trailing hook is completely exposed not only to nab those pesky short biters, but also the committed biters with crappy aim, regardless from which side they mount their attack.
The more I fished the hangback herring, not only did my hookups climb, but I noticed something peculiar about how the fish were being hooked. Deep-hooking a mortal bleeder is an exceedingly rare event while fishing herring rigged in this manner. Well over 90 percent of the fish are caught on the trailing hook, with the overwhelming majority of them hooked from the outside-in. While the outside-in hookups might seem reminiscent of “flossing” salmon in a river setting, rest assured that each of these fish willfully “took” the trolled herring immediately prior to being hooked.
Pause for a moment to mentally visualize the mechanics of the take. An interested salmon follows from behind, swims up close to better examine the bait from alongside, above, and/or below, then suddenly lunges at the bait, slashing at it from one side or the other. Once he’s got a hold of it, Mr. Salmon’s goal is to chew on your bait and get it turned around so he can swallow it head first.
At the very moment a salmon bites a hangback herring, the trailing hook is positioned well outside the salmon’s mouth. It clamps down and continues to chew on the bait as it turns to swim away. Meanwhile, the boat continues to troll forward, effectively “flossing” the unsuspecting biter with the additional length of leader between the two hooks. The trailing hook pins the fish from the outside in (usually in or around the maxillary plate), and the rod promptly folds over as line begins to peel madly from the reel. Fish On! With this ridiculously simple hangback modification, I can responsibly fish herring with the confidence that only a tiny fraction (< 1%) of the fish hooked will be mortally wounded. The outside-in hookup also greatly facilitates hook removal for an effortless fish-friendly release.
The Hangback Amputee revisited — Slingin’ bait for wild trout: The summer of 2006 found me and my four young daughters on the Kenai River targeting three of her more diminutive salmon species. In between sorties from camp to tidewater salmon action, we idled away shore-bound time to catch Dolly Varden and rainbow trout from the bank. As an enthusiastic fishing Dad eager to put my younglings on fast and furious action, I opted for drift gear and fresh uncured sockeye eggs as our weapons of choice.
Wild trout and bait? “Blasphemy!” you say?
Rest assured, I had something unconventional in mind to keep from mortally wounding our wild quarry. While drifting fresh bait is typically a certain recipe for gut/gill-hooking gluttonous trout eager to pack on fat stores for the long winter, I was prepared to explore the next chapter of my expanding hangback applications. My signature hangback amputee for Kenai kings was about to get a miniature makeover. The hooks were downsized to size 6 and 8 and the hangback was extended to 3 inches behind the baited amputee. The results were nothing short of phenomenal!
Armed with the bait-slinger’s version of the pegged bead popularized in Bristol Bay’s trophy trout fishery, we kicked some serious ass over the next week. Upwards of 240 wild trout and char would be brought to hand without a single mortal hooking wound.
Again, mentally visualize the mechanics of the take. As the eggs drift downriver, a trout picks them up with the hook well outside its mouth. The river’s current forces the leader into the corner of the mouth on both sides. Even when the trout shakes its head, it’s unable to free itself from the monofilament Fu Man Chu dangling downriver from each maxillary plate. Meanwhile, the angler feels the fish chewing and shaking its head. The fish spooks, turns sideways, and flees toward the main current. As its body turns broadside to the streamflow, it’s instantly pushed downriver, and the rod loads up with the weight of the fish. A quick hookset, and it’s fish on! Virtually every trout hooked in non-mortal fashion from the outside in.
Other hangback applications explored: Hardware would be the next genre added to the hangback arsenal for Team eyeFISH. In 2008, I started trolling the Columbia River estuary with hangback hoochie spinners, rigged both with and without bait. Same mechanism of action during the takedown, same predictable result for success, ultimately filling the box with quality chrome while selectively and responsibly sorting through scads of ESA-listed tules and wild coho.
Hangback Hoochies: My friend (and Salmon & Steelhead Journal Gear Editor) Eric Martin, would later publish his very successful hangback hoochie experiences with amputated coho rigs in the Summer 2009 issue of Salmon & Steelhead Journal. Following his lead, I too began rigging hoochies and trolling “flies” in hangback fashion, resulting in stellar hook-to-land performance without the risk of inflicting mortal hooking wounds.
Trolling Hangback Spoons: In 2010, trolling spoons would emerge as my next logical hangback application. With hoochie spoons becoming all the rage among secretive ocean salmon trollers, I was already re-rigging spoons with hoochies draped over a barrel swivel. Now it was simply a matter of hanging the hook back from the swivel well behind those tantalizing tentacles. Pay dirt! And without having to mess with bait during a hot bite! Hangback hoochie spoons would soon prove themselves equally effective in the estuary as well as the tidal mainstem of prime salmon-producing arteries. SSJ Tips & Tailouts featured the hangback hoochie spoon in its August-September 2015 issue.
Similarly, hangback spoonin’ holds a prominent place in the arsenal of dedicated Canadian spoon-chucker Daniel Krenz. Three years ago, he also web-published “The Trailing Hook Method” showcasing with stunning imagery the undeniable merits of hangback rigging for swinging weighted spoons from the bank. See sidebar for a link to his website.
“Hangback” pegged beads have been standard operating procedure for trophy Alaska trout for more than two decades. The concept would eventually be extended to other types of flies by Pat Moffitt, inventor of the Moffitt Angling System. After eight years of fly-fishing R&D (roughly paralleling the evolution of my hangback system for gear), it was ready for prime time in 2010. The essential key to his system is intentional separation of the hook from the fly. Moffitt also cleverly employs a barbless circle hook to ensure that hooked fish are NOT body-snagged or mortally wounded along the way. Refer to link for more information.
Trolled herring with hangback circles: Moffitt’s use of the circle hook seriously intrigued me, and would soon spawn my next innovation: trolled herring with hangback circles. It’s rigged identical to the original hangback herring except for the circle-style trailing hook. The singular quest here was a reduction of my already miniscule hooking mortality by yet another order of magnitude. In the rare case where the hangback hook is actually swallowed, the circle would still safely end up in the corner of the mouth.
I personally tried a handful of them in a buddy’s ocean boat in 2011 with success, but the sample size was too small to assess overall hooking efficiency. And because I still had reservations about just how well they would perform, I would initially sneak only a few into a foam roll of pre-tied salmon leaders, unbeknownst to my naïve crew. Chinook of the season in 2013 (a 29-pound upriver bright at Buoy 10) would be taken by my brother with a hangback circle. With jubilation still ripe in the air, I told him, “You know, you just caught that pig with a circle hook.”
“Well damn … Who the hell tied that on there?” he said in shock.
I just smiled at him and said, “Now put another bait on there and do it again.”
By the end of 2014, I’d gained enough confidence that I was routinely tying entire rolls of salmon leaders with hangback circles. By season’s end, they were proportionately outperforming J-hooks in terms of strike-to-land ratios.
I was so impressed that I decided to commit to bouncing and backtrolling hangback circles for Kenai kings in 2017. A limited sample size yielded three fish hooked with two brought to hand out of four strikes on the circle-style hangback amputee. More extensive R&D is planned on the Nushagak River where I’ll have the benefit of a much larger pool of biters. Stay tuned.
As more and more of our salmon fisheries fall under selective regulations to protect weak stocks, it’s up to participants to ensure that the protected fish ultimately survive the hook and release encounter. Hooking thousands of salmon over the past 15 seasons, I’m thoroughly convinced that rigging my gear hangback style produces the highest likelihood for fish-friendly placement of the hook, resulting in a non-mortal wound in 99 percent of encounters. Moreover, in those rare instances where the fish actually swallows the hangback, use of a circle hook will virtually eliminate the risk of a mortal bleeder. Give it a whirl and see for yourself!