Gut Hook – What Should You Do?

Bass gut hooked

Occasionally you will gut hook a fish when using shiners or any live bait for that matter. All of the fish you see on this site were released alive. Some were hooked deep and the line had to be cut as not to injure the fish while trying to remove the hook. The theory is that the hook over time will decay from stomach acids and the fish will eventually pass it. I remember having a conversation with Doug Hannon “The Bass Professor” about the subject of a gut hooked fish and what happens to the hook and how long it takes to dissolve in his system. His comment was that fish have a slower metabolism than humans since fish are cold blooded. He believes it’s a theory that is not supported by enough studies and it just keeps getting past on as fact. I also remember watching a documentary where these divers were trying to catch this large grouper that had a hook in its lip. All around the hook was a red infected area. Their goal was to catch the grouper and remove the hook. Well, you guessed it, it never happened.

After hearing Doug’s opinion and watching these guys on T.V., who thought it was important enough to attempt bulldogging a grouper, I set my goals to try and remove every hook I possibly could, especially when it’s a gut hook. I came up with a procedure I call the “Carterectomy”. No I’m not a doctor, far from it, just a little humor from a “red neck” fishing guide.

My theory is, “if you can see any part of the hook it can be removed 90% of the time and the fish released alive”. After all the point is, if you gut hook a fish, it’s not about saving the $.50 hook or the aggravation of retying but to release the fish back with a better chance of survival than if you leave the hook in.

Bass gut hooked To perform this procedure, you almost have to have three hands. I don’t so I have someone else hold the line taught, to expose the hook, while I hold the fish by the jaw and operate the pliers with the other. Pull the fish’s jaw back like you would if you were holding him up for a photo. With the line pulled taught exposing the hook’s eye and shank, reach in behind the gill plate with a pair of needlenose pliers.

Extracting hook from a gut hooked fish It’s important that you do not go between any of the gills. Make sure you go behind the last gill furthest from the mouth opening or in front of the first one. You do this while looking in through the mouth of the fish. Tell your nurse to get out of the way. His or her only job is to keep the line taught (and maybe mop your brow) until you can get a grip on the hook.

Removing hook Now with the needlenose pliers, grip the hook as far down the hook as you can. Ideally, you want to get to the bend of the hook if possible. Now with a firm grip on the hook, roll it over until the point of the hook is aiming towards the fish’s stomach. Now, with a quick short snap of the wrist, jerk the hook up towards the fish’s mouth. I say short because a long follow through motion will damage the gill which is almost certain death. The hook should pop free with this short wrist snap. Have your nurse remove the hook, now dangling free on the end of the line, so no one including the fish gets stuck with it.

Hook removal

Hook removed

Tip: You can do the “Carterectomy” with two hands. Just pull the line taught and place it under the thumb that’s pulling the fish’s jaw back.

Important Note Use good strong needlenose pliers. If the jaws of the pliers have any flex to them, you’ll have a hard time holding onto the hook when you try to roll it over. I’ve tried forceps for this method but they’re too flimsy and they’ll twist when you roll the hook over, loosing their grip.

Story Time

I was on a trip with a father and son when one of them caught a small sickly looking fish. The fish was so thin it had a sharp ridge down its back and stomach. It looked more like a thread fin shad in bass clothing. When I went to remove the hook I could see my hook and another previous gut hook lodged in his throat. So I got the pliers and prepared to do my “Carterectomy” when I discovered there was two previously cut off hooks and now mine. This poor little guy had been gut hooked now for the third time and no one tried to remove the first two making it impossible for him to swallow food. I had to perform a triple “Carterectomy”. He was released alive. In this case leaving all those hooks in him probably would have meant certain death. It was obvious that the previous two hooks left in him were starving him to death. On a larger fish this may not have been a problem. Remember, if you can’t remove the hook without doing harm to the fish, it’s best to cut the line and not chance injuring him.

One more story before I bring this to an end. I used to buy my shiners off of a guy that raised 10 pound bass and over in his ponds. If a customer brought him a fish over ten pounds, he would trade them free shiners for it. One customer brought him a monster 15 pounder to add to his big bass population. The customer told him they had to cut the line because the fish was gut hooked. Since he didn’t have the line to pull up and grab the hook with pliers, he reached his hand into the fish’s gullet to find the hook. With his index finger pressed into the bend of the hook he pushed down on the hook, popped it free and retrieved it. He left the fish in one of his shiner tanks for a couple of weeks just to make sure it was healthy and feeding before releasing it into the pond. Of course you wouldn’t be able to do this on a small fish. Again by removing a gut hook the fish has a better chance of survival.

Unfortunately you can’t save them all. When you gut hook a fish, the point of the hook will, on occasion, exit the stomach and puncture a vital organ. At this point there is nothing you can do. This is when they move down the food chain and become the eaten and not the eater. Also, besides a fatal gut hook, you can hook them in the tongue. The tongue is where all the gills meet bringing all the blood to this one central intersection. The heart of a bass sits just behind his tongue. If you poke them too deep or rip the tongue, they’ll bleed out and again there’s not much you can do to save them. Either leave the hook in or remove it if it’s not too deep. The important thing is to get them back in the water as quickly as you can. Cool water will help slow the bleeding. If the bleeding stops or is minimal and the gills remain bright red, release them. If you damage one of the gills he can survive. I have caught fish and you probably have too that had a torn gill and they appear to be perfectly healthy.


When you gut hook a fish there is a high probability you can remove the hook and successfully release him alive and healthy. By releasing these fish, especially the big ones, it preserves the gene pool. I’m a firm believer that the genes from big fish produce more big fish. By cutting off one of the branches of the family tree, it leaves a void in the reproduction cycle, reducing the over all big fish population of a lake.

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