Just a Pinch – Pinching your Barbs

Chris Opfer


My earliest memory, aside from falling down the stairs in a walking trainer is fishing. I remember we were in a small tributary of some kind. My father handed me a fishing pole after casting it out into the river. He told me that under no circumstances was I to let go. He walked away. A short time later I remember the line tightening. I remember falling to the ground and then being dragged to the river.

Just before I got to the bank, I remember my father standing me back up. I’m sure my 3-year-old brain exaggerated this somewhat, but I was fishing nonetheless. Actually, I was salmon snagging with a giant weighted treble hook with barbs on each of the three prongs. These hooks were vicious, but they caught fish. When the salmon swam upstream, it raked its belly across one of the three prongs and that prong stayed in there because of its barb.

I grew up spin fishing. I remember when I was about 9 or 10 my friend tried to cast this new dough called PowerBait on a treble hook. He missed and caught the back of his leg. My father pulled it out with pliers when we got home. Why couldn’t we pull the hook out at the lake? Well, two of the three prongs were firmly lodged in my friend’s leg and the barbs on those prongs allow them to go in real easily, but they’re a little tougher coming back out.

This article isn’t about spin lures or treble hooks, though. Instead, we’re talking about why you might want to pinch or crush the barbs on your flies. The two stories above may not be about fly fishing, but they give some insight into why pinching your barbs is a good thing. In no particular order, let’s dive right into pinching barbs.

Crushing your barbs or barbless hooks?

I don’t know that there is much of a difference here. When you crush your barbs, you take your forceps and pinch the barb of the hook (that little upright sliver of metal towards the hook point). You’re left with a little bump there, but no barb. Barbless hooks are just that, they don’t have barbs at all. Many euro flies use barbless hooks as these are required in competition.

A barb, in theory, means that if you lose tension on the fish, you are less likely to lose the fish as the hook is stuck in there. The logic checks out. A crushed barb also doesn’t slide out as easily as a barbless hook, but I’ve noticed that it seems to penetrate deeper, likely due to their being less resistance. So, there are pros and cons to both. Either is better than not at all in my opinion, except for when it’s not. More to come.

It’s better for the fish.

Mainly, we’re talking about trout fishing here and if you’ve caught a trout or two, you know their mouths aren’t huge and they have some relatively soft parts to their mouth. If you’ve been fishing long, you’ve likely even caught a mangled trout that looks like it’s smiling. Trust me, it’s not. The trout was likely caught before and lost its premaxilla in the fight; probably to a lure or a barbed hook of some kind.

When you use a barbless hook or even a hook with crushed barbs, it is much, much easier to remove that hook. This means it’s less likely that part of the fish stays on the hook when you pull it out, thereby resulting in “cleaner” fish. Some natural areas even require it.

It’s better for your skin.

Just like the fish, when you inevitably hook yourself, you have to pull the hook out without going to the hospital; let’s be honest, copays suck. There’s a great way and a painful way to get a hook out on your own, but I’ll save that for another article. But when you do hook yourself with a barbless hook, the hook slides right back out.

Ask our Senior Advisor Neil Corvino how easily a barbless hook comes out when he’s in the front of a drift boat and an author, who will remain nameless, hooks him in the back of the hand on an errant cast. What’s a little blood between friends? I’ll tell you what it wasn’t, a trip to the hospital.

It’s better for your clothes.

Like most anglers, you’re probably wearing clothes when you go fly fishing, although you may see the unclothed on the riverbank (you know the Denver area I’m talking about). When you send your fly through your new Orvis pack, Simms waders, or Patagonia shirt, you’re pretty much screwed if it has a barb on it. If the barb is crushed or you have a barbless hook, it will come out with much less damage and maybe just a dot of Loon UV glue for your waders.

You’re less likely to lose your forceps and destroy flies.

Aside from pinching the barbs themselves, what the heck does losing your forceps have to do with pinching barbs? Well, when you’ve netted your fish and you go to pull the hook out of the fish and it stuck in there because of the barb, what do you reach for? Your forceps.

When the hook is barbless or the barb is crushed, you can usually just roll the hook out in the same path it went in. When it’s stuck, and the fly is too small, you’re left reaching for your forceps. If you don’t have those forceps attached to one of your forty zingers that make you so cool on the water, they often fall in the river during all the commotion. Sometimes you get them back and sometimes you don’t.

Where does destroying flies come in? When you have to overcome the gripping power of the barb and you’ve elected to use your forceps, those forceps are pinching whatever fly-tying materials between its jaws which are metal, and the hook which is also metal. Often, those materials, especially if they’re natural like feathers, don’t survive. Oh, and a side note, when shops or fly tiers advertise “hand-tied flies,” fun fact, all flies are hand-tied.

When pinching your barbs or going barbless may not be the best.

If you’re a brand new angler and you know nothing of keeping tension on a fish, the barbs may be helpful as they give you greater room to mess up when wrangling that colored-up rainbow. If you’re struggling that much, you need to come take one of our Fly Fishing Schools. Or, even if you’re not, those schools are great for everyone.

I also have a tendency not to pinch the barbs on hooks sized 20 or smaller. The barbs are so small that they don’t grab much anyway and if I’m fishing a size 22 dry trico, I may need that barb to help that itty bitty fly stay in. In all fairness, I tie some barbless flies in that size too, but I recognize that I’m going to have to be extra conscious of the pressure on that fish.

Other thoughts

I’ve noticed that many of the barbless hooks now are no longer modeled after the old-style euro competition hooks. Instead, the hooks more resemble that of a circle hook for bait where the point of the hook is angled back towards the shank. The old-style euro hooks have points that run parallel to the shank and I don’t think they hold very well.

Just this simple design change may change the way you think about barbless hooks. I even run clients new to angling on barbless hooks for the flies that I tie. Not only is it required on some of our private waters, but they still catch plenty of fish and I have noticed that the hooks are pretty deep and even come completely through the fish’s lip. Different guides will have different opinions on this, though.

This is a bit of a side note but relates to hooks not coming out of fish easily. If, on the off chance, a fish completely swallows a fly or it’s otherwise in a really precarious place and it cannot be easily removed, cut off your fly and put the fish back. You will often do more damage to the fish by ripping the hook out with its stomach still attached or by keeping it out of the water and handling it for 5 minutes than just letting the hook rust out. This doesn’t happen much, but it does happen.

The $3 that it will cost you to replace that fly isn’t worth you never catching that fish again. Plus, the fish and river Gods will thank you.

The Last Cast

That about sums up why you might want to pinch or crush your barbs. Remember, the one rule in fly fishing is that there are no rules (except don’t have poor etiquette on the water). If you’re brand new to fly fishing, you might be wondering if you should pinch your barbs. Even though you might lose a few more fish, I would. I don’t think you lose that many more fish and you’re more likely to hook your pack, your shirt, your waders, your hat, and your skin.

Public service announcement: Hooks and eyes do not mix, wear good sunglasses while fishing . . . hopefully polarized. If you’re an expert angler or somewhere in between, consider pinching your barbs because it allows more people to enjoy more fish.

That’s it. The choice is yours. Crush on.

Check out our website for some awesome fies and hooks – both barbed and barbless. Or, come into the shop and we’ll help you stock your flybox!


It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

About the Author

Chris Opfer

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