How to Catch a California Leopard Shark

Beautifully patterned leopard sharks, like this one taken off Malibu Beach by angler Graham Owen, are avidly targeted by many onshore anglers in California.

Not to be confused with its distant and voracious cousin the tiger shark, the comparatively docile leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata) is found along the Pacific coast from Oregon to Baja, and is most common along the California coastline. Primarily found in the inshore surf zone and within bays, harbors and estuaries, the striking array of dark, random splotches that cover the body of the leopard shark make it easily distinguishable from any other species within the order Selachimorpha.

Despite their stunning appearance, leopard sharks are not generally held in high esteem by anglers who habitually focus on more glamorous fish species; yet there are also segments of the fishing populace that target them specifically. They can put on a valiant battle and, as a matter of fact, leopard sharks are actually quite good eating when properly handled and prepared. As with most other sharks, they should be bled out shortly after they are landed to ensure that urea is prevented from leaching into the flesh and causing an ammoniated flavor to develop.  However, since they have declined in numbers somewhat over the past few decades, many of the anglers who catch leopard sharks ultimately choose to release them.  

Although some fly anglers like to surf cast for leopards in summertime when the waves are down, sophisticated tackle is not generally needed when bait fishing for them in bays, harbors and estuaries; but your gear does need to be sturdy.  Whether using a conventional or spinning reel, it is best to spool up with line in the 30 to 50 pound class.   

The leopard sharks caught by shore anglers are generally between 3 and 5 feet in length, although some can grow to measure over 7 feet. They are generally harmless to humans yet, because they are sharks, they should still be handled with great care.

Their favorite foods are invertebrates like sand worms, ghost shrimp, crabs and squid as well as small baitfish like top smelt and smaller barred surf perch. Surf anglers who catch these juvenile perch on sand crabs will often re-bait them on a larger rig and cast them out just beyond the breakers. Often, the bait will be picked up by a hungry leopard shark cruising the bottom, particularly if it happens to be after dark.

The best terminal configurations to use for catching leopard sharks are dropper loops and fish finder rigs with 5/0 to 7/0 circle or octopus hooks, although Carolina rigs baited with whole squid also perform well. 

Don’t be afraid to use chunks of chopped baitfish or inexpensive canned catfood as chum when fishing the relatively calm waters inside bays and estuaries in order to draw attention to your bait. When possible, always position yourself within casting distance of a channel or trough that helps to accommodate the tidal flow.

There is rarely anything subtle about a strike from a leopard shark; once the bait is determined to be a desirable morsel, it is usually promptly inhaled. Although you may detect an initial unimpressive bump, within 10 seconds or so it is likely that your pole will bend in half as the hooked fish begins its first blistering run.

Just remember that if you happen to be fishing with multiple poles that are held in sand spikes, make sure that they are deeply imbedded in terra firma, or you may end up being in the position of having to replace a rod and reel.