Painless Hook Removal

It was just before dark, and the small but feisty native cutthroats were finally starting to feed. They were in a run near the far bank, underneath alders that grew almost horizontally out from the riverside. The required sidearm cast and overhanging branches had cost me all but one of the only fly patterns the cutts would take, a #16 Adams.

As the rod went forward on a cast, I felt a stinging in my casting arm. Looking down to swat the beast that was biting me, I discovered the last working fly stuck in my forearm. The light was fading; I had to do something quickly. I considered cutting the fly off and tying on something else, but the cutthroats had taught me it would be futile. In my not quite three years as a doctor, I had used a quick and painless hook-removal technique on patients many times on hooks as large as the trebles on Rooster Tail spinners and Rapalas but the bend of the hook in my arm was oriented toward my elbow and I couldn't get it out myself.

I called to my wife, who was along for the scenery that day, and she waddled adorably up with her seven-months-pregnant belly nearly filling her waders. Standing there in midstream I anxiously told her how to remove the hook, as I had done with each angler from whom I'd detached hardware myself. Being about as tough as an overripe morel and not truly believing she could do this from my hasty instructions, I closed my eyes and prepared myself for excruciating pain. SNAP! went the string. No pain! Just a momentary little sting. I opened my eyes, beaming at my magnificent and capable bride standing there holding the little Adams.

If she can learn to skillfully remove a crucial fly on her first attempt while standing thigh-deep in a rushing stream, so can you.

The Theory
When a fishhook penetrates the skin, the height of the barb causes the hook to make a tunnel larger than the diameter of the hook wire.

Once settled, the backward-angled barb engages the flesh and keeps the hook from sliding back out.

If we disengage the caught barb, and keep the diameter of the tunnel the same or larger than when the hook went in, the hook can come back out without damaging the tissue.

(Mythology says that this hook removal technique originated with native fishermen in New Zealand who used it on hooks large enough for sharks. Since the hook always makes a big enough tunnel, its size is irrelevant.)

The Technique
Wrap a stout string twice around the bend of the hook. You have leader material or extra line in your vest or tackle box, so use 2-3 feet of the largest diameter. (Tying the ends of the string together with a solid knot helps.)

Wrap the loose or knotted ends of the string around a couple of fingers or grasp firmly in your hand, and hold the string
out from the bend of the hook, parallel with the direction the hook went in. Make sure the part of the person bearing the hook is solidly held still.
Press straight down on top of the hook shank, disengaging the barb. The hooked person will feel a little prick when you do this, as the point of the hook advances a little.

While maintaining pressure on the top of the hook, snap the hook firmly and quickly out.

The most common failure is being afraid to snap the line. If you timidly tug, you will surely hurt your patient. Be bold to be kind!

There are a few situations where this technique should not be used. If the hook is impaled in a place that cannot be held reliably still (earlobe) or where the skin is loose (eyelid), the procedure is likely to fail. Also, older people can have thin, loose skin in many places and this method may not be suitable for them.

Once the hook is out, the former hook-wearer needs to wash the wound with soap and water as soon as possible, watch for signs of infection, and get a tetanus booster if it has been more than 10 years since the last one.

Dean Center, M.D., is a physician at Family Doctors Urgent Care in Bozeman.