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Fish Hook Removal

This article was published in the Summer 2015 in the "Editors Creel" column of the Fish Alaska magazine.

Backcountry Safety: Fishhook Removal

Every fisherman, though not likely to admit it, has been humbled while out on the water. Losing a dollar on the first fish, or having to pick up dinner on the way home because of an empty cooler, may offer a dose of humility, but that is minor compared to impaling oneself with a hook.

Unfortunately, I have experienced a few personal encounters with the sharp end of a hook. I blame my wife for the first impalement. I planned to help her release a foul-hooked Red; as I reached out to secure the weight, the fish splashed, making the hook pop loose and fly full-force right into my finger. It happened so quickly, it didn’t even hurt as the chartreuse Gamakatsu hand-tied Russian River Fly decorated my finger. At that point, my knowledge of fishhook removal consisted of pushing the hook all the way through, (creating a larger wound), then clipping off the barbed end. In my situation, I couldn’t do this because the hook was too deep into my finger -- it was pointed straight at the bone. It was so firmly implanted, I actually thought it pierced the bone. So I was left with no option but to cut it out with my Gerber. This painful and barbaric method eventually caused infection, but at least I was able to continue fishing!

A few years later, my second encounter presented itself. I am embarrassed to say that I can’t blame anyone else for this one. I hooked myself with another one of those beautiful Gamakatsu Russian River Flies. This time, it was behind my ear; I certainly couldn’t cut this one out. As I stood there frustrated with myself, a nearby fisherman offered to save the day. I laughed to myself as I recalled my previous experience removing the hook. I asked the gentleman if he had ever taken out a hook before. He admitted that he had not, but explained how he had seen someone remove one. He went on to explain the method of yanking the hook out using a stick and a few feet of fishing string that was found lying on the bank. I reluctantly accepted his offer of help. Out of pity, he offered me a cold beer before quickly and painlessly removing the hook. It happened so fast that my distraught wife missed the removal. (She had walked to the raft to grab the first aid kit, and I was fishing again before she returned!) Ironically, a few months later I learned the same hook removal method in a Wilderness First Responder course.

Although my experience was relatively painless and caused no additional harm to the flesh, I should warn readers that every situation is unique. This method is not always appropriate, and risk of further injury is possible.

The previously-mentioned technique involves a few simple steps. First, the responder wraps the string (20lb test is what we used) around the bend of the hook, close to the spot where the hook penetrated the skin. The loose string ends can be wrapped around a stick (or Gerber, Leatherman, etc.) creating a handle for ease of pulling. Give yourself at least 12 inches of string to pull on. Next, firmly push down on the shank (eye of the hook) with your finger, to disengage the barb. Once the shank is secure, yank on the string that was wrapped around the bend of the hook.1   The hook should fly right out. Remember to wear eye protection and make sure no one is in the new trajectory of the hook. It will come out quickly, and hopefully you can continue fishing!

We practice this same technique in our Wilderness First Aid classes (and basic first aid classes if people request it) by using a pig foot. It is typically a favorite activity among students. After removing the hook, we cut, scrape, and puncture the pig foot in multiple areas, then rub dirt and gravel into the wound before practicing wound irrigation skills.

Important suggestions:

  • Traditional first aid protocols always suggest that you seek definitive medical care for an impaled object.
  • Stabilizing an impaled object in the position found is the standard treatment; more serious injury can result from removing an impaled object.
  • Practice fish hook removal before trying it on random victims desperate to fish a little longer. Only attempt removal of a hook that is in a large muscle. Be careful not to cause further harm to underlying tissue (eye, joint, bone, genitals, cartilage, nails, chest, or abdomen). Stabilize these hooks in the position found. If impaled in or near the eye, stabilize the hook as found and cover both eyes if possible. Seek medical treatment promptly.
  • Clean the site of the injury, including the wound entry point. Puncture wounds are prone to infection.
  • Fishhook removal is not a guaranteed success; risk of further harm is possible. The method described is for a single hook only that is in a large muscle group.
  • All bystanders should wear proper eye protection when removing a hook. Be careful who is behind you.   Let’s not have a second victim!

Happy & Safe Fishing from Frontier Safety and Supply!

  • Referenced: Nicolazzo, Paul, The Art and Technique of Wilderness Medicine, Second Edition. Publisher: The Wilderness Medicine Training Center, 2010. Page 105.