Leopard Sharks

Cartilaginous Fishes—Class Chondrichthyes — (A skeleton of cartilage that is not true bone)

 Subclass Elasmobranchi—Sharks and Rays

Order Carcharhiniformes

Hound Sharks—Family Triakididae

Leopard Shark caught by “thunder” at the Paradise Park Pier

Species: Triakis semifasciata (Girard, 1855); from the Greek word tria  (number three, triad) and Latin words cis (on the side) and fasciata  (bundled, referring to the stripes).

Alternate Names: Cat shark or (mistakenly) tiger shark. Called tiburón leopardo in Mexico.

A small leopard shark from the Dumbarton Pier  

Identification: Leopard sharks have a dark gray body (some are almost bronze or golden brown) with black bars (saddles) and spots, and are one of the prettiest sharks. Their first dorsal fin is in advance of the pelvic fins; the base of the second dorsal is in advance of the base of the anal fin. They have a long, pointed snout with oval eyes and nictitating membranes. The mouth is equipped with a fine array of small but sharp pointed teeth.

Robert Gardner (Redfish) and a leopard shark from the Elephant Rock Pier

Size: Length to 7 feet and nearly 70 pounds; most caught off piers are less than four feet. The California record fish weighed 47 lb 1 oz and was taken off Palos Verdes, Los Angeles Co. in 2007.

Brian Linbarger (Illcatchanything) and a leopard shark from the Greenwood Cove Pier

Range: From Mazatlan, Mexico, and the Gulf of California to Oregon.

Aaron Coons and a leopard shark from the Morro Bay North T-Pier

Habitat: Most leopards are caught in bays but many are also caught in shallow, sandy-shore areas; they make an annual migration from the bays to the outer coast. Large schools mixed with smoothhound sharks are common in shallow water. Typical foods include large crustaceans and small fish.

Piers: Caught throughout California but a major pier species only in San Francisco Bay and Humboldt Bay. Best bets: Malibu Pier, Avila Pier, Morro Bay T-Piers, Fort Baker Pier, Elephant Rock Pier, Angel Island Pier, Marin Rod and Gun Club Pier, Port View Park Pier, and all of the piers along the San Francisco waterfront. Most piers in Humboldt Bay offer excellent fishing for leopard sharks (especially at night).

Leopard shark caught at the Marin Rod & Gun Club’s “Kids Day on the Pier Derby” in 2015

Shoreline:The favorite shark for shore-bound anglers throughout California due to their size, fighting ability, and good taste as food.

Rock Hopper and a leopard shark taken at Tides Wharf in Bodega Bay in 2004

Boats: Most boat-caught fish are landed in the various California bays—Morro Bay, San Francisco Bay, Tomales Bay and Humboldt Bay.

Two leopards from the Oceanside Pier

Bait and Tackle: Will take almost any bait but prefers squid, an oily fish like mackerel, sardine or anchovy, and live baits such as ghost shrimp and small fish. If specifically fishing for leopard sharks use medium tackle, a size 2 to 4/0 hook, and fairly heavy line. Be sure to bring along a net to bring the fish up onto the pier. Late summer and fall finds best fishing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A nice leopard from Crystal Pier in San Diego

Food Value: An excellent, mild flavored flesh that can be fried, broiled or baked. Like all sharks, it should be bled and cleaned as soon as possible. It should also be kept cool and an overnight bath in the refrigerator (with just a couple of squirts of lemon juice) helps assure the good flavor.

A leopard shark from the Malibu Pier

Comments: This is one of the favorite sharks for most pier fishermen; it is attractive, reaches a good size, puts up a good fight, and is good eating. They also make great aquarium fish—until they begin to grow too big.

Perhaps one of the strangest stories concerning the fish had to do with the Unification Church (the Moonies) and how one of its pastors became the largest poacher of baby leopard sharks in history. Reverend Kevin Thompson of San Leandro’s “Bay Area Family Church”—and his “Ocean Church” fishing ministry—were accused of poaching roughly six thousand baby leopard sharks between 1991 and 2004. Thompson would pay fishermen  $2 to $3 per pup then sell them to dealers for $20-$35. The dealers in turn were able to sell the pups for as much as $450 to customers throughout the U.S., Great Britain and the Netherlands. The estimated street value of the pups was $1.2 million dollars and a half dozen people were eventually indicted by a Grand Jury in Oakland. Thompson faced eight years in prison if convicted of the charges. Sounds a little light to me.

Thomas Orozco and a small leopard shark from the Dumbarton Pier in 2006

Of note is a study conducted on surf species by the Fish and Game Department between 2007-2009 in the Bolsa Chica to Hermosa Beach area (SoCal). The study showed an increase in the number of leopard sharks from the 1990s and that leopard sharks were “much more abundant in the current study than in the 1950s.”

 Lisa (Dolphin Rider) and a large leopard shark caught at Emeryville

Leopard shark caught at the Elephant Rock Pier

Thomas Orozco and a leopard shark taken during the Marin Rod & Gun Club’s “Kids Day on the Pier” in 2013

A youngster’s first leopard shark. Taken at the Marin Rod & Gun Club’s “Kids Day on the Pier” in 2012


Leopard shark taken at the Redwood City Pier in 2003

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