Have you ever considered using circle hooks for catching tope? Well, a recent trip out of Langstone harbour provided conclusive proof that using circle hooks WILL improve your catch rate!

Recent Government legislation has put severe controls on the catching of tope. Don’t panic, you’re still allowed to fish for them, but you’re not allowed to bring one ashore. From the 6th April last year, the new legislation states that sea anglers are only allowed to fish for tope on a catch and release basis – which is fine by us. So, bearing this in mind, doesn’t it make sense to fish for this glorious species by doing as little harm as possible to them so they can be returned fighting fit?

This is just one more of a long list of reasons why circle hooks are becoming increasingly popular when targeting them. BFM editor Dave Barham explains…

I was first introduced to circle hooks some ten years ago during a trip to the Bahamas. We were with a guide that was trying to put us on some tarpon, and the hooks he had rigged us up with were circles. It took me another five years to even attempt using them here in the UK, but as soon as I started playing with them I realised the potential.

If I’m honest, I’ve been fishing for tope exclusively with circle hooks for the past three years, and I can tell you that there’s absolutely no turning back for me – they’re far more efficient than J hooks for certain species, and with a 99 per cent ration of the circle doing its job and hooking the fish in the corner of the mouth, I can’t see any reason to go back to ‘traditional’ methods – especially for tope.

The problem with tope fishing, is that the species tends to hit a bait, then run off with it. I’ve seen countless tope runs missed or aborted because anglers have been using huge baits – namely whole mackerel. In reality, there’s absolutely no reason to use such a big bait when targeting tope, the key is to get plenty of baits in the water to create a suitable scent trail.
The problem with using big baits is that you need to give the tope plenty of time to get it down, and that often results in a deeply hooked fish – no good if you’re trying to return it alive. Then of course there’s the flip side – if you use a small bait, it’s often the case that a tope will swallow it right down, again resulting in a gut hooking. So it looks like a catch 22 situation all round doesn’t it? Wrong! By using a combination of circle hooks and small baits, you can ensure that pretty much every single tope run you get results in a cleanly hooked fish that can be released at the side of the boat with a T-bar.

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_a.jpgHOW CIRCLE HOOKS WORK
The very nature of the way circle hooks are designed to work lends them perfectly to the hard-fighting tope (and any other shark for that matter).

You see, the whole point o a circle hook is that the fish you are targeting needs to swallow the bait and hook deep into its throat or even its stomach, for the hook to work. The fact that these hooks have an in-turned point means that they can be swallowed into the stomach and dragged out all day long with the most minimal chance of the point ever connecting with any flesh.

The theory is that the fish swallows the baited hook, then moves off to find another meal. As the fish swims away, the pressure on your line drags the hook out of the fishes throat or stomach, and the angle in the line drags the point bang into the corner of the fishes mouth. This is the key – the fish has to move off and there has to be a slight angle as the line exits the fishes mouth for the hook to find its hold. This is why using circles for tope is so effective. The only time that they might not work so effectively is when the tope runs towards you. However, even this scenario can be overcome by using a heavy grip lead to create the angle as the tope runs towards you.

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_b.jpgRIGGING UP
Tying a tope rig with a circle is one of the easiest things you can do – so don’t be scared of it. All you need is about a 6ft length of 200lb mono, a decent swivel and of course your circle hook. I’m a big fan of the VMC Needle Point Tournament 7385BN pattern in size 9/0. You can buy them online from most American outfits for around $20 for a box of 50. I have experimented with other patterns and brands, but I have found these to be the most effective, and as a result I’m super confident when using them.

The knot used for connecting both the swivel and hook is a two-turn grinner knot. It’s exactly the same as the normal grinner knot, except it only has two turns instead of the normal four. You can tie this knot easily in heavy mono up to 400lb, and it never comes undone.

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_c.jpgThat’s it as far as your rig is concerned, apart from the rod and reel end. I always like to use a shockleader when I’m tope fishing, simply because I have had tope roll on the trace and main line in the past, and if you’re running straight through from braid or light mono then you stand a real chance of snapping off and leaving a tope wrapped up to die. So, I tend to use around 10ft of 50lb mono to act as a rubbing leader should this happen. The only problem with using a shockleader is that it creates a rather bulky knot, which is a problem when tope fishing.

You see, the idea is that you cast your bait out or drop it down by means of a lead attached to a running boom. When the tope picks up the bait it runs off, taking line from a very loosely set clutch – basically, the less resistance the tope feels, the more chance you’ve got of it swallowing the bait. Of course, having a bulky knot means that the tope can only run 10ft until the knot jams up hard against the boom and then, more often than not, the tope will drop the bait. So, to combat this in the past I have used booms with large diameter holes that a leader knot can pass through easily. However, more recently I have been using the new wind-on leaders from Sufix, which are excellent and give a really small knot that easily passes through most booms – so that old problem has now been eradicated.

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_d.jpgSIMPLE TACTICS
When it comes to baits for tope there really only one that I use (apart from the trusty eel section in the Thames Estuary), and that is the head and guts of a mackerel. If we’re running low on bait then I’ll use a tail cone, but the head is by far my first choice. For a start there’s the scent trail that the head gives out – there’s a lot of blood and mush in a head and guts bait, which is perfect for a hungry tope to home in on.

Then of course there is the hooking potential of the bait. Simply pass the point of the circle hook through the lower jaw and out through the top of the head – it’s as simple as that.

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_e.jpgI prefer to use as small a weight as I can get away with when downtiding, which allows me to ‘bounce’ my baited rig way behind the boat. Doing this gets my bait away from the boat, but more importantly it gets it way down in the scent rail. So, if there aren’t many tope around, the first bait that a big tope finds as it works its way up the scent trail has my circle hook in it! It sounds good as a theory, but it certainly works well in practise!

Once the bait has settled, I back the drag right off and turn the ratchet on. When a tope picks up the bait, I immediately pick up the rod, turn off the ratchet alarm and point the rod tip at the fish. Doing this minimises the amount of resistance on the line and allows the tope to swim off freely thinking nothing is wrong.


After between five and ten seconds it’s simply a case of tightening up the drag and lifting into the fish – there’s no need to strike, the power of the fish running against a heavy drag is more than enough to set the hook. Lifting into the fish just makes sure that the hook is rammed home. Then it’s a case of hanging on as the hooked tope tears yard upon yard of line from your reel – then the battle to bring it to the boat begins!

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_h.jpgPROOF IN PICTURES!
Before writing this piece I thought it would be a good idea to show just how effective they are, first hand. I had an e-mail from Alan Belcher who had just boated a 76lb tope on board my old mate Barry Meech’s new boat ‘Nab-Cat’ out of Hayling Island. I wasn’t aware that Barry had come back into chartering, so a quick call to renew old acquaintances soon had me booked on for a day of tope fishing a week later.

Barry had four of his pals on board and I travelled down with ace photographer Jim Midgley, so that meant there would be seven of us fishing on the day. I knew this meant I would have a really good chance to prove that circle hooks work because there would be plenty of scent in the water from seven baits – which is perfect.

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_j.jpgTo cut a long story short (I won’t bore you with the details) we ended up catching and releasing 14 tope between us. I caught seven of them, topped of by a 42lb male - all on circle hooks. Barry and the lads on board were all sold on circle hooks at the end of the day, and I had proved that at least a three to one hookup ratio was possible by using circle hooks compared to traditional J hooks. The guys had loads of aborted runs, but I hooked every run I had bar one at bang on slack water – what better proof could you have that circles will catch you more tope?

I’ve known Barry Meech for about ten years now, and have fished with him on dozens of occasions. I first met him when he just started chartering, on his boat ‘Nala’. Before he decided to go into chartering he was a private boat owner, and before that he used to go on regular charter trips with his mates. Barry is an out and out angler – he loves his fishing, and as a result he knows what makes a good day out for his crew.

Barry was the man that introduced me to extreme light tackle fishing for smoothhounds when I joined him on a trip on his second charter boat ‘Cobra’, and ever since that day I have never looked back. He showed me that it was possible to play and land smoothhounds into upper double figures on a 13ft coarse float fishing rod and fixed spool reel at slack water! Awesome!

I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that he is back ‘on the scene’ as a charter skipper. He’s been away from it for a couple of years, but as this trip proved he’s got straight back into the swing of things!

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_w.jpgHis latest boat, ‘Nab-Cat’ is a 33ft Blyth with a walkaround island wheelhouse. The boat has a massive 16ft beam, so it’s very easy to have five or six anglers fishing across the stern – very handy when fishing for tope. The boat is powered by two Iveco NES 280hp engines, which push her along nicely at a cruising speed of around 18-knots. As far as prices go, Barry says that his trips start at around £250 per day for the boat, and that a tope trip of the nature of ours would cost around £320 – which is damn good value for money in my opinion, because he has only just returned to chartering, he has loads of space available for bookings, so I suggest you give him a call sharpish!

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_y.jpgWHERE TO STAY
I just thought I’d mention the digs we stayed at on Hayling Island. The Cockle Warren consists of a couple of fantastic, angler-friendly cottages that are thirty seconds from The Lifeboat pub, and surrounding shops. The owner, Kate is full of beans, and she cooks a wicked breakfast too. For more information, visit: www.cocklewarren.co.uk

/images/how_to/tope_circle_hooks/circle_hook_tope_z.jpgWORD OF WARNING
While I was holding the 42lb male tope for a picture I was, as always, keeping my eyes firmly on the ‘pointy end’. The last thing you want to do is get your fingers anywhere near those teeth – they’ll have your fingers off in a nanosecond! However, I was only wearing a T-shirt at the time, and while I struggled to control the tope it swiped me with its tail – resulting in a rather nasty ‘scrape’ on my wrist. It still hasn’t healed up properly, a week after it happened! So make sure you’re wearing a jacket or a long-sleeved top when handling tope for pictures!