Richey: Leopard sharks: good saltwater fun

By: J.D. Richey
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Well, salmon fishing has been closed all year, the tuna never really came close to shore, rockfish season has been cut drastically back and halibut fishing is all but over until next summer. What’s a saltwater aficionado to do? Go chase leopard sharks, that’s what! I know, I know…leopard sharkin’ doesn’t sound all that sexy, but it’s actually a ball. 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? Getting to know leopards 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. Finding sharks 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 — 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. San Francisco Bay is loaded with these guys and you can also find them in Tomales and Bodega bays as well. Baiting up 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. Basic rigs & tackle As I noted earlier, 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. 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. Add a durable rod with a soft tip and plenty of backbone and a reel with a quality drag… you’re in business. Conservation While leopards are known to be good eating, I highly recommend that you let them all go. These fish can take up to 10 years to reach maturity, so they can’t handle a pummeling from anglers. And let’s face it, they may be about all we’ve got for awhile… J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate, and his outdoors pieces have been published nationally. He can be found on the Web at