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September 21, 2007

Prowling For Leopards

Don't let the light taps fool you. Once a leopard shark decides that it's time to eat, he'll fight you for all he's worth and then bring along some buddies to finish you off.
Leopard sharks may not have a reputation for ferocity but once hooked, they'll pull drag in hard bulldogging runs.

We were definitely in the fast lane. Just 15 minutes after dropping anchor, one of the stern rods signaled a sneaky tap. My nephew Gabe anxiously took the stick, but since he's new to the game I felt it necessary to give some advice.

"Gabe, don't set on the little bounces," I told him. "Wait until the rod tip goes down. Once it happens let them have it." The words barely left my mouth when Gabe slammed the hook home.

After the first leopard strike, it didn't take long for another to follow. Gabe's brother Taylor hooked up, and a minute later my brother-in-law Gerry was in the same happy predicament.

The adrenaline flowed as did the coaching advice. All three of my family members were in the apprentice stage, and indeed, this gamefish put them through the test. Hard bulldogging punctuated with darting runs kept the outcome uncertain, and in between I stayed on my toes directing everyone to follow their lines. Fortunately, they all managed to hang on, and eventually I saw a gray flash as the first leopard shark broke the surface.

High fives cemented this first encounter, and it was only the beginning. Within a few hours we released 25 leopard sharks averaging 35 to 55 inches in length. The biggest was just under 30 pounds.

Habits and Habitat
Our group was fishing in San Francisco Bay within the shadows of SBC Park. Although at the urban doorstep of the bustling and densely populated city of San Francisco, we had huge swaths of water to ourselves, which fortunately always seems to be the case when we're sharking.

There are several species of sharks that migrate through this huge estuary, including the brown smoothhound, the spiny dogfish, the soupfin and the unusual seven- and six-gill sharks. The last three are the largest and not quite as common. It's the leopards that are the most abundant and also the most aggressive biters. Even if you screw up there's usually no need to fret because there will quickly be others to follow.

Aptly named for their mottled skin, leopard sharks feature a silver-gray coat highlighted with striking black blotches. Along with its flashy suit, leopards know how to fight when cornered, and many newcomers have been surprised by their staying power and speed. They definitely provide an angling challenge.

Leopards travel in packs, so when that first hookup takes place it's best to keep the other lines down whenever possible. Once they know there's a steady chow line, they'll come fast and hungry so it's not uncommon to get multiple hookups.

Natural Baits
Leopards feed on a wide range of baits, but they do have favorites. Of special note is the midshipman, also known as the toadfish. During the spring this miniature troll-like fish becomes quite abundant. Measuring from five inches to a foot, it has a flattened head with sharp teeth, is bronze in color and has strange light-producing organs on the underside of its body. Midshipmen spawn along the shoreline among the rocks, but as the water recedes, they duck under any hard cover that provides a hiding cavity and remain amid these moist pockets. It's then a simple matter of turning over the rocks at low tide to find these critters. Take only what you need because there's a ten-fish limit on midshipmen. Fresh or frozen for later use, they are a great leopard shark bait.

Leopards roam in competitive packs often resulting in simultaneous hookups.

Although many anglers like to rig the entire midshipman, runt leopard sharks often grab the bait in the middle and then run off. You miss a fair number of strikes as a result. To minimize this problem, shark specialist Barry Canavero will cut his midshipmen into bite-size chunks and then rig them to a circle hook. His hookup ratio has increased as a result. Leopards will also readily take squid, surfperch, herring and anchovies, but they also have a sweet tooth for larger, oily baits. This can include any members of the tuna family and salmon. I've also had excellent results cutting American shad into two-inch chunks with the skin intact, and then impaling a couple of pieces onto a single hook. Leopards can easily chow down on these smaller tidbits, and once I see the rod tip dipping toward the water, I strike without showing mercy.

One of my favorite striking sticks is Penn's GLS 700. It's a seven-foot graphite trigger stick, which I match up with Penn's 975 baitcasting reel. The outfit is light, and its one-handed heft gives me a quick response when setting the hook. For line, I prefer using Izorline Spectra braided line in 50-pound-test. Due to its virtually non-stretch properties, you feel every little tap, and you're on the second you pull the trigger.

Bottom rigs for leopards are simple. I use a three-foot leader of 60-pound-test, plastic-coated wire and, at their respective ends via loop formed and secured with a A-5 sleeve, I'll attach a 1/0 barrel swivel and a single 7/0 to 8/0 Owner SSW hook. This hook easily digs into the tough skin and cartilage that makes up a shark's jaw since its point is designed with a triple-cutting edge. Before you tie on the leader, add a plastic sliding-sinker sleeve to the line. Attach the sinker with a snap on the sleeve. When a shark takes the bait it feels no resistance as the line moves through the sleeve. Make sure you use enough weight to hold bottom so bring cannonball or pyramid sinkers weighing four to 12 ounces.

Search and Find
You can hunt leopards year round, but the spring through fall are usually the most productive times. Fishermen are permitted to take three fish per day, 36 inches or larger. Although leopards will roam over a vast area, generally the larger fish will congregate along channel edges or slopes that have a sandy or firm shell-and-mud bottom. They can also be found near bridge abutments, located beneath four major spans that intersect the bay.

When scouting a potential spot I'll scan the bottom with the fishfinder, focusing on gradual drops or the edge of a channel. Leopards will utilize these places as feeding lanes. Leopard sharks will appear as one or more large arches on the screen. Usually, most of these targets will be on or just off the bottom. Best depths are 25 to 50 feet.

When I find an active feeding lane, I'll drop anchor right where the fish are moving. (Never anchor in the center of a busy shipping channel.) Once I determine the proper amount of weight to hold bottom, I encourage my fishermen to fan-cast the baits over a wide area to maximize coverage (one rod per angler). For example, place a couple of lines close, while remaining lines can be cast further out.

Both incoming and outgoing tides will generate action. When the emphasis is on working deeper water from 25 to more than 50 feet, the weaker tides can be very productive simply because the currents are traveling at a slow to moderate pace.

As the tide slows dramatically, particularly near the top of high water, leopards will suspend well off the bottom. When this happens I'll take the sinker off and then lob the bait out. Additional line is stripped off so that the bait can slowly settle. A chunk of midshipman is good for this since it sinks fairly well. The reel is then placed in free spool with the click on. The excitement of course takes place when the alarm goes off as a hot shark streaks off with the goodies. Lock the reel into gear and strike.

If your fishing career has been lacking a spark lately, and your kids or your buddies are yearning for something new, give bay sharking a try. I guarantee you'll be left with some sore arms when you're done.