Dehooking or Untangling a Turtle

Though avoiding sea turtles is preferable—of course you want to save your bait for tuna and your time for fishing!—you will inevitably encounter some hooked or tangled turtles. With a few tools, quick action, and some helpful techniques, you can ensure that the turtle has its best chance at survival.

As soon as you see a hooked or entangled turtle, bring the boat to a stop (if you are not stopped already) while releasing tension on the mainline. Using constant pressure, pull the branchline in gently to bring the turtle alongside the vessel. Never use a gaff or other sharp object to handle a turtle.

You must make a decision about whether to bring the turtle on board, which will be influenced by the size of the turtle and the conditions at sea. Gear removal is easier if a turtle can be brought on board, but if for size or safety reasons it is not practical to bring the turtle on board, assess the placement of the hook and remove the gear using the appropriate long-handled dehooking device. Do not pull on the line of a deeply hooked turtle; this will only cause further injury. Often, help from a crew member is needed to maneuver the turtle and operate the dehooker.

For an Entangled Turtle Still in the Water:

  • Secure the loose hook with a long-handled device, such as a dehooker or gaff (but never gaff the animal itself)
  • Cut the line with line cutters

Dehooker in use

For an Entangled and Hooked Turtle in the Water:

  • Use a long-handled dehooker or gaff to pull on the portion of line as close to the hook as possible
  • Pull the line into an inverted V-shape
  • Remove the hook using a long-handled dehooker
  • Cut away excess line to free the turtle

If you are able bring a turtle on board, assess its general health and determine whether it is deeply or lightly hooked. When handling, do not lift the turtle by its flippers or use sharp objects (e.g., gaffs) to bring it aboard. An active turtle can be placed on a tire or similar platform to immobilize it.

For a lightly hooked turtle, use a dehooker and/or other hand tools like long-nosed pliers. You might also want to use a mouth gag or opener to prop the turtle’s mouth open and allow room to remove the hook. If you are holding the line in your left hand and the dehooker in your right, use the following procedures:

  • Lay the dehooker on the line with the open end of the pigtail facing up
  • Pull the dehooker toward you to engage the line, and then turn the dehooker a quarter turn clockwise
  • Slide the dehooker down the leader until it engages the shank of the hook
  • Bring your hands together; make sure the line is tight and parallel with the dehooker
  • Give a slight thrust downward
  • Pull the dehooker out with the hook

Movie 2.1: Dehooking Demonstration

A video of a dehooking demonstration. Also available at

In the following “deep-hooked” situations, do not remove the hook, as doing so could cause more damage to the turtle than allowing the hook to remain in place:

  • The hook’s barb is not clearly visible.
  • The hook is in the glottis (the opening at the back of the tongue that leads into the windpipe)
  • The hook could be in the braincase or roof of the mouth

In these situations, use line cutters to cut the line as close to the hook as possible. If you can, use bolt cutters to cut the hook near the barb or the eye and then pull it out.

Remember—disentanglement at the earliest possible stage maximizes a turtle’s chance at survival!