California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Marine Sportfish Identification: Sharks

Last Updated October 17, 2013

Note: Please consult current fishing regulations for species presented in this booklet. To view information on safe fishing eating guidelines, please visit the OEHHA website.

Blue | Bonito | Brown Smoothhound | Common Thresher | Gray Smoothhound | Leopard | Shortfin Mako | Shovelnose Guitarfish | Spiny Dogfish

Spiny Dogfish


Spiny Dogfish
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Spiny Dogfish

 

Family: Squalidae (Dogfish sharks)

Genus and Species: Squalus acanthias

Description: The body of the spiny dogfish is elongate and slender. The head is pointed. The color is slate gray to brownish on top, sometimes with white spots, becoming white below. This species and the horn shark are the only sharks along the California coast with spines at the beginning of both dorsal fins. These spines may be mildly poisonous and provide a defense for the spiny dogfish.

Range: Spiny dogfish occur in temperate to subarctic waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the eastern Pacific Ocean they are found off Chile, and from central Baja California to Alaska and to Japan. This species is common in nearshore waters along most of the coast. It is generally found in waters up to 1,200 feet deep though spiny dogfish have been taken to depths of 2,400 feet.

Natural History: The spiny dogfish feeds upon practically all smaller fishes such as herring, sardines, anchovies, smelts and even small spiny dogfish as well as crabs. The females are larger than the males, and produce from 3 to 14 young at a time and in alternate years. Most adults are 2 to 4 feet long. Spiny dogfish are long lived and non-migratory; as a result, heavy fishing pressure in a given area will lower the population level of this slow growing, low reproductive species quite rapidly.

Fishing Information: You are most likely to catch a spiny dogfish with anchovies or invertebrates on a rock cod jig.

Other Common Names: dog shark, grayfish, Pacific grayfish, spinarola, California dogfish.

Largest Recorded: 5.25 feet; no weight recorded; however, a large fat female about 4 feet long will weigh 15 pounds.

Habitat: Shallow Sandy Environment

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Common Thresher Shark


Common Thresher Shark
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Common Thresher Shark

 

Family: Alopiidae (Thresher sharks)

Genus and Species: Alopias vulpinus

Description: The body of the common thresher shark is moderately elongate. The snout is rather short, and the mouth crescent shaped. The first dorsal fin is large, and located midway between the pectoral and ventral fins. The second dorsal and anal fins are very small. The tail is distinctive since it is very long, almost as long as the rest of the body. The coloration may vary from brownish gray, bluish or blackish above to silvery, bluish or golden below. The dorsal, pectoral and ventral fins are blackish and sometimes the pectoral and ventral fins have a white dot in the lip. The bigeye thresher also occurs off the California coast. It can be distinguished by its large eye; however, if you can count the teeth in the upper jaw, the common thresher has 21 - 22 on each side while the bigeye thresher has 10 - 11 on each side.

Range: The common thresher shark occurs worldwide in warmer seas. In the eastern North Pacific, it is found from central Baja California, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, British Columbia. The common thresher is an inhabitant of the upper layers of deep offshore waters and is most abundant in areas of steep bottom contour along the edges of the continental shelf. During the spring and summer months smaller threshers may occur near shore where they are often seen leaping completely out of the water.

Natural History: The food habits of the thresher are not well known, but on the California coast they feed mostly upon small fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and squid. They are said to use their long tail as a flail to frighten or stun their prey. The common thresher shark bears live young and appears to become sexually mature in 6 or 7 years. Four pups are produced annually. A 18 foot female contained four young that weighed 13.5 pounds each and were 4 to 4.5 feet long.

Fishing Information: Most thresher sharks caught off California have been taken on live sardines, anchovies, or mackerel. Best localities have been the San Francisco Bay area, the inshore coastal water between Point Conception and Port Hueneme, and Santa Monica Bay, especially around Malibu and Paradise Cove. They are most abundant during the summer months. Considered a fine game species on light or medium tackle, they often put on an aerial demonstration. At other times the battle is entirely beneath the surface and consists of brute strength and shift-towing tactics. An angler would do well to bait a live mackerel on a 9/0 hook attached to 10 or so feet of heavy wire leader.

Other Common Names: thresher, blue thresher, green thresher, longtail shark, swiveltail, fox shark, sea fox.

Largest Recorded: 20 feet; 1,000 pounds. Largest taken off California by a recreational angler: 575 pounds.

Habitat: Pelagic Environment

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Shortfin Mako Shark (formerly Bonito Shark)


Shortfin Mako or Bonito Shark
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Shortfin Mako or Bonito Shark

 

Family: Lamnidae (Mackerel shark)

Genus and Species: Isurus oxyrinchus

Description: The body of the shortfin mako shark is elongate but rather stout. The snout is long and pointed. The first dorsal and the pectoral fins are large, but the second dorsal and anal fins are very small. This species is a deep blue or dark gray above and white below. There is a black spot at the base of the pectorals.

Range: This shark is found worldwide in warm and temperate seas; in the eastern Pacific from Chile to the Columbia River, Washington, including the Gulf of California, but not in the tropics.

Natural History: The diet of the shortfin mako shark includes fishes and squid, often large ones. Whenever possible, the bonito shark takes its food in one gulp. With its tremendous speed, it is unquestionably a dangerous shark. Shortfin mako sharks bear live young.

Fishing Information: The shortfin mako (bonito) shark is one of the larger sharks to inhabit California waters. By all accounts, it is as dangerous as any shark, and it probably swims faster than most. The best way to hook a shortfin mako shark is by trolling with a whole tuna, squid or mackerel using a steel leader. You can also use lures, and chumming does help. Watch out, when you catch one, because this is a dangerous fish that will not hesitate to attack you or your boat.

Other Common Names: bonito, mako, mackerel shark, spriglio, paloma.

Largest Recorded: 13 feet; 1,250 pounds. Largest taken off California by a recreational angler: 1098 pounds.

Habitat: Pelagic Environment

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Gray Smoothhound


Gray Smoothhound
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Gray Smoothhound

 

Family: Carcharhinidae (Requiem sharks)

Genus and Species: Mustelus californicus

Description: The body of the gray smoothhound is elongate, slender, tapering from behind the dorsal fin to a long slender tail. The snout is comparatively long and flattened. The color is brown to dark gray above and whitish below. The gray smoothhound can be distinguished from other smoothhounds by scales present on the posterior one-fifth of the dorsal fin and the teeth are blunt.

Range: This species occurs from Mazatlan, Mexico, to Cape Mendocino, California; and is found in shallow waters to depths of 150 feet.

Natural History: The diet of the gray smoothhound includes crabs, shrimp and small fishes. The female bears the young alive.

Fishing Information: Although the gray smoothhound is of relatively minor importance to sport anglers, it is commonly taken in the surf. It is edible, but not as tasty as the brown smoothhound. If you're fishing in southern California, you are most likely to catch a gray, and in central California, you are most likely to catch a brown smoothhound.

Other Common Names: shark, dogfish, paloma, sand shark, gray shark.

Largest Recorded: 5 feet 4.25 inches; no weight recorded.

Habitat: Shallow Sandy Environment

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Brown Smoothhound


Brown Smoothhound
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Brown Smoothhound

 

Family: Carcharhinidae (Requiem sharks)

Genus and Species: Mustelus henlei

Description: The body of the brown smoothhound is elongate, slender, tapering from behind the dorsal fin to the long slender tail. The snout is comparatively long and flattened. The color is brown or bronze above and silvery below. The back one-fifth of the dorsal fin is without scales. The teeth are sharp. The brown and other smoothhounds can be distinguished from the soupfin shark since their second dorsal fins originate well in advance of the beginning of the anal fin; while in the soupfin, the second dorsal begins behind the origin of the anal fin.

Range: The brown smoothhound occurs from the Gulf of California to Humboldt Bay, California. It is found at depths from shallow water to 360 feet.

Natural History: The diet of the brown smoothhound includes crabs, shrimp, and small fishes. Females bear their young live, as do most other sharks.

Fishing Information: The brown smoothhound is a relatively small shark, and is one of the most abundant sharks in the central California sport fishery. This is a good sport species on light tackle, and can be taken in bays from San Francisco to Point Conception. Good baits to use include crabs, shrimp and small fishes. The brown smoothhound is considered a very good table fish.

Other Common Names: mud shark, dogfish, paloma, sand shark, Henle's shark.

Largest Recorded: 3 feet 1 inch; no weight recorded.

Habitat: Shallow Sandy Environment

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Leopard Shark


Leopard Shark
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Leopard Shark

 

Family: Carcharinidae (Requiem sharks)

Genus and Species: Triakis semifasciata

Description: The body of the leopard shark is elongate, and the snout is short and bluntly rounded. This shark is easily identified by the gray coloration over most of its body, and the black spots and crossbars on the back and side. It is white underneath.

Range: Mazatlan, Mexico, to Oregon. This well decorated species is abundant in bays and along sandy beaches of southern and central California in shallow water. During the fall, large numbers may be found in San Francisco and Monterey Bays.

Natural History: The leopard shark eats a variety of fishes and invertebrates like anchovies, squid or crab, all of which make good bait. Females, which bear their young live, usually produce 4 to 29 pups in a litter.

Fishing Information: It is considered a relatively harmless shark and is timid around divers; nevertheless, handle a live leopard shark with care. The leopard shark is very good eating, and has been compared favorably to salmon.

Other Common Names: cat shark.

Largest Recorded: 7 feet; 70 pounds.

Habitat: Bay Environment

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Blue Shark


Blue Shark
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Blue Shark

 

Family: Carcharhinidae (Requiem sharks)

Genus and Species: Prionace glauca

Description: The body of the blue shark is elongate and slender. Its head is slender and the snout is long and pointed. The color is blue or light bluish gray above and white below. This species has up to three rows of functional teeth in each jaw and there are 14 or 15 serrated teeth in each side of each jaw. The pectoral fins are long and sickle shaped.

Range: The blue shark occurs worldwide. In the eastern Pacific, blue sharks are found from Chile to the Gulf of Alaska, but not in the tropics. It is common off southern California most of the year, but during warm water periods occurs much further north.

Natural History: Blue sharks do not mature until they attain a length of 7 or 8 feet. Of several thousand blue sharks taken on longline gear, the smallest female was 7 feet long. A female weighing 95 pounds and 7 feet 7 inches long, contained 26 apparently fully developed young ranging in length from 15.5 to 17.75 inches. As many as 54 young have been counted in a single adult female captured in the Mediterranean Sea.

Fishing Information: Most are taken incidentally by albacore or rockfish anglers. Should you wish to specifically fish for blue sharks, they are easily taken once located. Either casting a bait at a previously located fish or chumming in an area known to be inhabited by blue sharks will usually produce results. Dead fish or squid make excellent bait, and ground up anchovies make good chum. Blue sharks tend to "roll up" on the line, so it is necessary to use a long wire leader to avoid cutting the line on the shark's skin. The fish may be eaten, but it is necessary to bleed it while it is still alive. After it is dead it should be cleaned, skinned and soaked as soon as possible to avoid the taste of urea in the meat.

Other Common Names: blue whaler, great blue shark.

Largest Recorded: 8.3 feet. Largest taken off California by a recreational angler: 258.5 pounds in 2008.

Habitat: Pelagic Environment

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Shovelnose Guitarfish


Shovelnose Guitarfish
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Shovelnose Guitarfish

 

Family: Rhinobatidae (Guitarfishes)

Genus and Species: Rhinobatos productus

Description: The body of the shovelnose guitarfish is depressed and gradually tapers into the tail; the disk is longer than wide. The snout is rather long and rounded at the tip. The color is gray above becoming lighter below. This species is distinguished from the banded guitarfish by the absence of dark crossbars on the back. It can be separated from most others of this flattened and plated group by the presence of a tail fin and two dorsal fins. Its sharp pointed nose distinguishes it from the other guitarfishes.

Range: Gulf of California to San Francisco, California. The shovelnose can be found, sometimes in large numbers, over sand or mud sand bottoms in colder, shallow coastal waters.

Natural History: The guitarfish diet consists of a variety of crustaceans, worms and clams. They have been observed feeding on sand crabs in water less than 3 inches deep. At times they are left stranded on the beach by receding waves and must wiggle their way back into the water much like grunion. Shovelnose guitarfish bear live young, with as many as 28 from a single female. Mating takes place during the summer months and the young, apparently born during the following spring and summer, are 6 inch miniatures of the adults

Fishing Information: Shovelnose guitarfish are caught in the surf, in bays and from piers. They take live or dead bait including clams, mussels, sand crabs and almost any other bait or lure. The flesh, especially the tail and back straps, is considered quite good.

Other Common Names: shovelnose shark, pointed nosed guitarfish, guitarfish.

Largest Recorded: 5 feet 1.5 inches; 40.5 pounds.

Habitat: Shallow Sandy Environment