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Swallowed Hook Removal: A Comprehensive Guide

Catch and release fishing is a great way to blow off steam and also provide a boost to native fish populations. But what does one do when a fish swallows a deep set hook? 

It is important to remove the hook while causing the least possible harm to the fish. 

The following are swallowed hook removal methods that you can try:

Is It Okay to Leave the Hook?

Before getting into how you can remove a swallowed hook safely, let’s clarify whether it is okay to leave the hook in the fish. 

At times, even experienced anglers may think that leaving the hook in may be better than humanely killing a fish that has swallowed a hook. They are often of the belief that the hook will eventually rust in the fish’s body and they will be able to pass it out naturally.

Author Note: Unfortunately, that is not true. Even if old school hooks are able to rust in the water, there is no guarantee that the fish will be able to pass it without any internal damage. 

Besides, most new hooks are rust-proof, so they will simply stay lodged in the fish’s throat or esophagus, causing further damage. 

In short, despite your best intentions, it is not okay to leave the hook in the fish. The only way out is to remove the hook so you can safely release the fish back into the water unharmed.

How to Remove a Swallowed Hook

Hooked Trout

The following are ways to remove a swallowed hook from a fish’s throat:

Gill Technique

One of the techniques that are useful for removing a swallowed hook is to get leverage to remove the hook from the gill side. That is, instead of trying to remove the hook through the mouth of the fish, try to remove the hook through the gills. The last gill flap should typically give you the best access. First, snap the line as close to the hook as possible. Then, remove any bait so you have a clear view of the hook that has been lodged in. 

With that out of the way, prepare to get leverage from underneath by using the gill method. If it is a large fish, you can simply use your fingers to dislodge the hook through the gills.

If it is a smaller fish that needs greater maneuvering, you can use a good pair of needle nose fishing pliers. It is important to get a good grip without causing more damage. 

Do not try to tug at the hook as you will cause the fish to bleed. Instead, take it slow and easy, gently dislodging the hook.

Once the hook has been dislodged, you can either pull it out through the gills or the mouth, whichever is easier. 

Author Note: This is not necessarily an easy swallowed hook removal method, but when done correctly, it offers great results. You no longer have to release the poor fish back into the water with a hook stuck inside its organs.

It takes some practice and you need to keep yourself calm while doing it so you do not make any mistakes. Simply work slowly but carefully and the swallowed hook removal should be smooth. 

Use a Disgorger

caught a fish and hooked

If the gill technique does not work for swallowed hook removal, consider using a disgorger. This is a useful tool for smaller fish where you cannot get access to the hook through the gills. It is typically made of metal or plastic.  

You need to slip the end of the tool over a tight line, bringing it all the way down near where the hook bends. Once the tool has made its way near the hook, push down on it to remove the hook.

Since the line is tight, the pressure from it will cause the hook to tighten against the disgorger’s end. After a few minutes, it should dislodge and you should be able to remove the hook through the fish’s mouth.

Use Pliers

You can also use pliers to get the hook out, though you will require some patience and a very steady hand to do this, especially if it is a smaller fish.

Clasp the sharp end of the hook with the pliers. You must ensure that there is slack on the line as the hook needs to be able to move. Follow the curve of the hook and gently try to pull it outwards. Once the hook is out, tug on the line to pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth. When the hook is safely out, you can cut the line and release the fish. 

Safety Tips

If the fish has swallowed the hook, it means that the hook has lodged deep in its throat, esophagus or stomach. It goes without saying that one needs to be careful while removing the hook as you may cause tears and grievous injury to the fish.

It is important to take your time in removing the hook, but you also cannot keep the fish out of water for too long if you want to release it back alive. Keep putting the fish back in the water at regular intervals. For example, if the fish has been out of the water for a minute, lower it into the water for another minute so it can catch its breath.

Of course, one needs to be slow and careful while removing the hook. But you also cannot keep the fish out of water for extended periods of time, so be as swift as possible without making any mistakes.

Author Note: You should also avoid holding the fish in a vertical position as that may displace internal organs. This is not a natural position for the fish to be in, so if you have gut hooked a fish by mistake, try as far as possible to not exacerbate the trauma and stress. 

How to Avoid Swallowed Hooks

Removing Hook From Trout

The best is to do everything possible to avoid gut hooking your fish. The process of removing the hook from the throat is also traumatic for the fish, although they may continue to live a healthy life if they are released relatively unhurt. Having said that, it can also be very easy to cause damage when you are removing a swallowed hook.

Avoid leaving too much slack in the line, as that is when there is a maximum chance for the fish to get gut hooked. If the fish comes for the bait and the line is slack, there is a greater chance the fish will swallow the hook, as it cannot tell that the hook is immobile. If you are casting very long distances, that also increases the chances of your fish getting gut hooked.

Additionally, as soon as you feel the bite, you need to set the hook immediately. This allows you to hook the fish in the mouth instead of allowing them to snag the line and by the time you drop the hook, the fish has swallowed it along with the lure.

You should also use the right size and type of hook. Small hooks are extremely easy for the fish to swallow. You should also avoid using barbed hooks as those become difficult to remove in case the fish does swallow them. Also, use circle hooks instead of J-hooks as they cause less injury.


Q. Do Fish Remember Being Caught?

Research suggests that fish do have a memory and can remember being caught even a few months after the event. With some species, you may find that they do not fall for the same bait twice and learn how to avoid hooks.

Q. Do Fish Actually Feel Pain?

Yes, fish can feel pain and unpleasant physical sensations such as pressure, high temperatures, etc. They also produce the same opioids that mammals do in order to control the sensation of pain. 

Q. Are Plastic Worms Bad for Fish?

If the fish ends up swallowing the plastic lure, it can potentially cause some damage. The plastic lure can swell up in the fish’s stomach and can cause problems with digestion. There are ways to use soft plastic lures while still being careful that the fish does not end up swallowing it. Using an O-ring is one such method.

Q. Do Fish Heal after Being Hooked?

Any fish that is regarded as a ‘bony fish’ has the ability to heal quickly from wounds. So yes, a fish that has been hooked in the mouth and then released should make a full recovery. If the fish has been gut hooked, the recovery will depend on how cleanly you were able to remove the swallowed hook without causing injury.

Parting Thoughts

Whether you are catching and releasing the fish, or whether you intend to catch the fish for eating, it is important to remove a swallowed hook. A hook that remains in the fish’s body will cause it to slowly die, whereas if you cook a fish that has a hook in it, anyone who eats it runs the risk of lead poisoning. 

We hope you found this explainer on swallowed hook removal useful and have greater clarity on how to avoid hooks, and what to do in case you gut hook a fish by mistake.

Happy Hunting!


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