Surf zone shark fishing

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  • My friends and I have been kayak fishing southern California now for well over a decade. We have taken our kayaks everywhere there is water enough to float them. And in all that time on the water, nowhere has been so special as the hours spent paddle fishing in the surf zone.

    Maybe it’s because of my newly acquired passion for light tackle surf fishing that I find myself spending an ever increasing amount of time each summer in the surf just barely off the sand. Like bull riders we straddle our yaks as angry waves toss us around. On some days huge wave rolls thru before slamming onto the beach with a loud roar. The surf zone is full of energy and fish and we are there getting our share of both.

    Surf sharks

    There are (3) sharks commonly found in the surf. Pictured at the top is the Grey Smoothhound. The hound is the rarest of the three and I can only remember catching (2) from the surf. They grow to be five-feet long. Coincidentally we caught both our hounds on separate trips and during times of very low disability. If memory serves me right they were both caught after storms when the normally clear water was very dirty.

    surf-zone-shark-speciesCommon San Diego surf zone shark speciesPictured in the middle is the Shovelnose. It is the second most commonly caught shark of the surf and is the tastiest of the three. Our local Shovelnose can, and often do, grow to five-feet in length.

    At the bottom of the picture is the Leopard Shark. It is by far the most common of the surf sharks. They grow to be seven-feet long. Either because they migrate to the surf to spawn as adults or because they are rarely harvest but the typical shark you can expect to catch will be from 30-50 pounds.


    Our favorite time of the year to fish for these sharks is in the summer when they are here in great numbers. Our summer routine is to first make live bait and troll out past the kelp beds in search of yellowtail. When no yellowtail are found, plan B is to paddle over to the surf and get our bend on. While fresh dead squid is a great bait, we prefer to use the live stuff left over from the morning because of the other fish like bass, halibut and yellow tail that also hunt in the surf.

    Each summer the local News airs helicopter footage of the spawning Leopards packed tightly along the beach in La Jolla Shores. La Jolla is a marine reserve and while these sharks are protected they do spill over into nearby shallow sandy bays like the one pictured below.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the first publishing of this article, the Marine Life Protection Act of 2010 (MLPA) established a new designated Marine Protected Area called the “San Diego-Scripps Coastal State Marine Conservation Area” directly north of the existing State Marine Reserve. Thus, the area the author refers to here is no longer available for fishing (except for the “recreational take of coastal pelagic species” (northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel). The article is left intact as an example of what to look for, but can no longer be used as a location to fish. For more information, visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s page on Southern California’s Marine Protected Areas.

    blacks-beachBlack’s Beach, La Jolla, CAThis is the first bay north of the reserve. Narrowing it down even farther, the red arrow points to a small strip of shallow water at the tip of the north fork of the La Jolla undersea canyon. Many fish that would prefer not to expose their selves to attack from below will funnel through here when traveling up and down the coast line. On my best day here I have caught as many as (5) Leopards and (3) Shovelnose before running out of bait.

    Our approach is to get in as close to the back of the breakers as possible and make a lob cast towards shore. Leaving your reel in free-spool, back paddle out into deeper water where you are less likely to be caught by a rogue breaking wave. The currents here are usually running good and in no time your bait and your yak will be drifting along parallel the shoreline. When the shark picks up the bait you will know it right away because they always seem to take it on the run – probably from other sharks. Let them get going away from you and put the reel in gear. Hold on tight because the initial run will be spectacular and fortunately I’ve only had one shark that didn’t instinctively run for deep water.


    The same medium heavy action rod and round reel you are currently using for throwing big swimbaits or surface irons to bass will be perfect for the surf zone sharks. Any less of a combo will take too long to land and you will have a hard time trying to lift a big tired shark up off the bottom – too big and some of the fun will be lost. My choice of reels is either the Okuma Indron IDX 150 round baitcaster or the Okuma Catalina CT-15L. The Indron has good casting distance, adequate drags and strong enough gears for the surf sharks. The littlest Catalina may be a little overkill for the job but if a shark is to be released you will be able to work him in greener and release it faster and with less stress to the animal. The best rod for the surf is the Okuma Baidarka floating fishing rod. This rod has great action, a shortened butt and when you get caught by a rogue wave, you won’t loose your favorite reel.

    As far as kayaks go, an out of towner can rent a suitable sit-on-top right at the La Jolla Shores. I’ve talked to a few vacationing fishermen out in the kelp who brought their own gear and had done just that. Another option would be to rent a kayak from one of our local paddle shops – they will set you up with a fully rigged yak perfect for the application. My personal choice of kayaks for fishing the surf is the Cobra Marauder. The Marauder pictured above sits high, has good rocker and is surprisingly stable for a narrow fast paddling hull design. Other desirable features are big hatches, flat uncomplicated deck and large tankwell.

    The Harvest

    leopard-hound-sharksMain: Leopard Shark, Inset: SmoothhoundI subscribe to the belief that fish and animals were created for us to eat but equally important is a belief that we are expected to be good stewards of the land and sea. I translate that to mean, harvest what you can eat fresh and release the rest. When we release fish, it is great PR for the sport of fishing and if we show a little class in the way we publically picture our dead catches that too, will win us favor from those members of the voting public who have no strong opinions against fishing and hunting.

    Our family favorite are the Shovelnose backs. When harvesting a shovel I first remove the large head and then gut – sending all unused parts back to where they came. The fresh meat is then stored in the tankwell where it will remain wet and cool until we get back to the truck.

    Preferring the taste of Soupfin and Thresher over Leopard Shark I have only harvested one Leo. The method used was to tail rope the tired shark. Then the gills were cut and the shark was allowed to bleed out and die. Next we gutted the shark and thoroughly cleaned out the body cavity. If there is to be no later photo opportunity, I also recommend removing the head and tail.

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