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Outdoors: Leopard sharks take the bait and put up a good fight

By: J.D. Richey
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Leopard sharks don’t get a lot of love from West Coast anglers for some reason. Of course, they’re not in the glamour fraternity with king salmon, yellowtail, albacore and halibut, but they’re actually pretty cool sportfish when you take a closer look.
 
Think about it: Leopard sharks are fairly common in the larger bays and estuaries up and down the coast, they’re easy to catch, they reach nice sizes and fight hard — but not too hard. So, what’s not to like?
 
Leopard sharks can reach lengths up to 7 feet but they usually run 3 to 5 feet long in most areas. They spend most of their time on or near the bottom of bays and tend to cruise the shallows. They occasionally stray out into the open ocean, but since they love to eat invertebrates such as clams, crabs, shrimp, oysters, aquatic worms, small fish and the occasional baby bat ray, they generally stick close to shore.
 
Some of the best places to find sharks along our coast include the sandy and muddy shoals of San Francisco, Humboldt, Monterey and Tomales bays.
One of the greatest things about these fish is that they don’t require any particularly sophisticated tackle or techniques. Leopard shark fishing is glorified catfishing if you will — find a good spot, chunk some bait out and hang on.
 
When seeking leopards, I like to fish channels that run between shallow flats and deeper water. The sharks will flood onto the flats with the incoming tide to feed and then, as the tide starts to drain off, they’ll follow those channels back out to deeper water. 
 
Depending on the area you’re fishing, the channels may be 4 to 25 feet deep. Weed edges are also productive, especially ones that have access to deep water and a moderate flow to them.
 
Once you find a likely-looking travel lane, anchor up and start throwing chum. Chunk bait works best — stuff like squid, mackerel, sardines and/or smelt. Initially, toss out several handfuls and then recharge your slick every 10 minutes or so with a few more pieces. You may also use fish carcasses or guts from a previous outing — the leopards usually aren’t too picky.
 
My all-time favorite bait for leopards is squid because it is extremely durable, has plenty of scent and, well, the sharks love it. I’ll usually cut my squid in half or into thirds and run my hook several times through it so it hangs on. Cut mackerel is also very effective and sardines would be my third choice.
 Another very attractive attribute of leopard sharks is the fact that they have a keen sense of smell — which means it usually doesn’t take too long for them to find your bait. I usually won’t fish a spot much more than about a half hour if I’m not getting bit. Leopards will let you know when they’re in the neighborhood pretty quickly, so keep moving until you find them.
 
There’s absolutely nothing subtle about the way a leopard shark eats a bait. At first, you may get a slight bump and then the rod will double over — violently. Make sure you’ve got a good grip on your stick — or that it’s secure in a holder. I’ve lost more than one outfit over the side to leopard sharks.
 
While the bites are cool, the fights are even better. After feeling the sting of the hook, leopards will streak off downstream at a surprisingly high rate of speed. The initial run is usually the longest and they’ll often burn 60 to 80 yards of line before you can start to turn them. On 15-pound gear, leopards will give you all you can handle for about 10 minutes and then you can work them back to the boat. In reality, the sharks fight just hard enough — you get a great scrap out of them but not so much that you get sick of pulling on them.
 
The rigs used for leopard fishing aren’t much different from catfish setups — just a little heavier. Most of the time, I’ll run 4/0 to 7/0 circle hooks so the sharks don’t swallow the bait. That keeps the line out of the fish’s mouth and rubbing on the teeth — and it makes it easier to release them.  If, for some reason, we’re having trouble hooking fish on the circle hooks, I’ll switch to cheapie bronze baitholder or octopus style hooks in the same size range. If a shark happens to swallow the bait, I can simply cut the leader at the side of the boat and know that the hook will eventually rust away.
 
Speaking of leaders, I use 3 to 4 feet of 60-pound mono and attach it via a barrel swivel to 80-pound braid. Above the swivel, I run a plastic sinker slide and use enough weight to keep my baits down on the sand.
 
Your rods and reels should be durable because they’re going to take a beating. Basically, you need something with a soft enough tip so that the fish won’t immediately drop the bait but also has enough power in the lower end to muscle a fish in. As far as reels go, think: good drag and lots of line capacity.
Lately, I’ve had good luck with Shimano’s Tekota 300 levelwinds.
 
While leopards are known to be good-eating, I highly recommend that you let them all go — especially in the spring when the females are giving birth to live young. These fish can take up to 10 years to reach maturity, so they can’t handle a pummeling from anglers.