The Big Three…No Longer Just Trash Fish!

The fish, a gigantic tuna easily going 200 pounds, seemed to be tiring after the twenty-five minute struggle and was headed in. Now the fun would really begin because it isn’t easy to land a large fish on a pier. You have to keep it away from the pilings, net it or snag it with the pier gaff, and then pull it up the twenty feet or more to the pier’s surface. No, big game is never easy, nor would it be for the angler who was daydreaming at the pier just before his pole made a strong dip. He had indeed hooked a big one from the pier but it wasn’t anything as glamorous as a yellowfin tuna. Instead, he had hooked a bat ray, one of the trifecta of species that today represents the majority of “big” fish taken at California’s piers—shovelnose guitarfish, leopard shark, and bat ray. Each of the three was once considered trash fish but today they are given a little more respect, and it’s appropriate given the fact that they are good fighting and good eating fish.

Shovelnose guitarfish (Rhinobatos producus), shovelnose sharks to most, are probably the most common of the three in southern California and have rescued many a fishing trip. They’re common, they’re usually good size, and they will bite both during the day and night, a trait less common with the related duo. The shovelnose is one of two guitarfish in California, the other being the banded guitarfish, Zapteryx Exasperata, which is rarely seen unless you’re fishing in San Diego Bay. The banded guitarfish is much wider and has black transverse bands on the top. The shovelnose is somewhat narrow and is brownish gray above. It reminds me of a sawfish without the saw. Once seen, you will not mistake it for any other fish. Although most common from Mexico to Point Conception, shovels are rarely a targeted species. Instead they are the incidental catch, even though they are often the largest fish of the day. Most of the fish will go between 5 and 15 pounds with an occasional fish approaching 30 pounds or even greater size. The listed record is 61.5 inches and 40 pounds although I personally have seen several that approached or may have exceeded that size.

They are caught on virtually every southern California pier, in the surf and in bays. A limited number are caught on private boats, usually in bays. Bait and tackle can be kept simple. Line should be on the heavy side, at least twenty pound test; even better is forty pound test. A surf leader with two dropper lines is standard and sufficient. Hooks should be at least 2/0. On a pier, or in a boat, have a friend help you gaff or net the fish. On shore, in the surf or bay, simply work the fish to water’s edge and then grab the tail and hang on.

Shovelnose will bite virtually any bait. On piers I have had best luck with squid and small baitfish such as baby macs, sardines, or anchovies. In the surf, I have caught shovelnose on squid, anchovies, mackerel, sardines and sand crabs. In bays, I’ve found smelt to be good bait; they are easy to catch with a small trap, they’re hardy, and croakers and small bass don’t seem to bother them. However, in the bays, anchovies, ghost shrimp, bloodworms and innkeeper worms will also work. Surprisingly, I have seen few shovelnose caught on clams even though they would seem to be a natural food and bait. You do not have to hook shovelnose; they will hook themselves. Once hooked simply hang on and be patient, the hook will not tear out of their tough mouth.

As mentioned, shovelnose are good to eat with the meat being located in the long, thick, broad-based tail. Although Pier Fishing In California, 2nd Edition has line drawings showing how to fillet the fish, the following steps are the basics.

1. Lay the guitarfish on a flat surface.

2. Make two cuts down the back from the disk to the end of the tail (as though you were cutting on either side of a normal backbone).

3. Make a cut from the top of each previous cut out to the sides of the disk.

4. Open the skin up along the cuts.

5. You will see two fillets, one on either side, running the length of the tail.

6. Reach in and simply work the meat loose with your fingers, then remove the two fillets from the body cavity.

7. Trim off any red meat.

The meat is tasty fried but one PFIC regular mentions using it like a shrimp cocktail. So experiment, you will not be disappointed

Leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata) have become one of the favorite sharks caught from piers throughout California. Although most common to central California bays such as San Francisco Bay, Morro Bay and Moss Landing, they are commonly caught at oceanfront and bay piers as well as in the surf. They reach a good size, up to about 7 feet in length, are good eating, and are an attractive fish. They also put up a strong and pugnacious fight.

Although most common at night, they, like guitarfish, also show up in pretty good numbers during the day and are not amiss to hanging out with their close relatives the smoothhounds (both brown and gray) and dogfish. So catch one species and you may catch more although typically the leopards will be the largest fish. They don’t put on a spectacular fight but are strong and will test your reserve. Like the other members of this trio, they will be taken year around but larger numbers are taken from the spring to the fall.

At oceanfront piers they often like to hang out just past the surfline so start your quest for leopards mid-pier, not out at the end. Live bait is excellent if you can get some. Small mackerel, smelt, sardines, queenfish, and white croakers are excellent baitfish, while live sand crabs are sometimes excellent in surf areas. Live ghost shrimp and grass shrimp (in the north) also attract the beasts. Cut bait typically includes mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and squid and sliding leaders seem to be the preferred terminal tackle. Twenty-pound test with size 2 to 2/0 hooks is usually sufficient but the type of bait you’re using will help determine hook size

Leopards are also very good eating. However, as with most sharks and rays, they need to be handled differently than fin fish. These species contains urea in their blood, flesh, and skin to help them maintain the proper salt balance in their bodies. Unless bled quickly the urea will cause the carcass to have an ammonia smell to it and cause the flesh to have an off taste. This urea-induced taste can be neutralized by soaking the fillets in acidulated water (mild vinegar and water or lemon juice and water) for a few hours. It can be virtually prevented by simply bleeding the fish as soon as it is landed or, even better, by cleaning the fish and icing it down upon capture. They are also cleaned differently because of their sandpaper-like skin and cartilaginous skeleton.

Skinning the shark:

1. Lay the shark on a flat surface with the head to the left.

2. Cut off the head and fins.

3. Make a cut (slice) along the top of the shark from the head to the tail.

4. Loosen the skin near the front end of the shark and then use pliers to pull the skin off down to the tail. Repeat on the opposite side.

Filleting the shark:

1. Cut off the belly flaps (where the fish was originally gutted). These are stronger flavored (they’re more oily) and may or may not be used although they’re good smoked.

2. Since sharks have no bony backbone, simply cut along the cartilaginous backbone from the front of the shark to the tail. Repeat on the opposite side.

3. Cut the fillet into usable size pieces.

Bat rays (Myliobatis californica) are the big guys of the three (although most of the truly large ones are female). They’re big, they’re strong, and you’d better be prepared if you hook one of the “freight train” variety because if you aren’t that train’s going to keep on going and leave you at the depot. They reach 4 feet across and over 200 pounds in weight and every year large fish exceeding 100 pounds are landed from piers up and down California’s coast and bays. Up north, most people simply used to call them stingrays and discard them. Today, people recognize their sportfishing nature and fish specifically for them. In fact, the Pier Fishing In California website has an annual “Mud Marlin Derby” at the Berkeley Pier each May. Last year one hundred and twenty people were in attendance to witness the capture of 14 bat rays along with several sharks and fin fish. All fish, including the 70-lb., 46.5-inch, winning fish, were released to fight another day.

But big batties also are common to southland piers. It seems almost every year Huntington Beach and Seal Beach will see good runs of big mud marlin during the grunion runs and I’ve seen pictures of bat rays approaching 200 pounds from the old Aliso Pier, Newport Pier, Huntington Beach Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier and Manhattan Beach Pier. Regulars tell me the biggest ones of all may inhabit the offshore islands (and I lost a big ‘un two years ago at the PFIC Get Together in Avalon).

As with its brethren, bait and tackle can be kept simple. However, if you are going to specifically fish for bat rays increase your line size to forty-pound test and make sure you have strong hooks. Most people use a sliding leader when fishing for batties although they will also hit a hi/lo rigging. They will take almost any bait but squid is primo and will get the faster bites. The biggest problem with bat rays, at least the larger variety, is getting them up to the pier. Unless you are going to eat them you should never use a pier gaff but instead use a net. However, many of the hoop nets used by anglers are 30 inches in diameter (some are 36”) and the bat bats can be nearly 4 feet wide. Most though will fit into a net, it just takes a little work—and sometimes a little luck.

Batties too are delicious although most of the PFIC regulars find them too cute to kill; catch and release has become the rule of thumb for most. However, if you are still into catch and eat just use the following.

1. Lay the ray on a flat surface, head to the top.

2. Slice off the triangular, wing-like pectoral fins. (For this I use a sharp cleaver) The weight of the cleaver helps cut through the thick skin and the cartilage in the wing.)

3. Skin the wings using a sharp knife.

4. At this point some people simply cook the wings whole or cut them into scallop- like pieces; I prefer to fillet them.

5. Each wing contains two fillets divided by cartilage. To fillet, start at the thick side of the wing and run a sharp knife between the cartilage and the meat (or flesh). Turn the wing over and do the same to the other side. You will get two fillets from each wing and have only the inner cartilage left. This meat has a crab-like texture, which is good pan-fried; it is also excellent in chowders.

As the times have changed so has the mix of fish caught at Southern California piers. The days of giant (black) sea bass being a common pier catch are gone. So too are the infrequent runs of albacore and yellowtail that would sometimes visit the piers in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The white seabass may be coming back but most at the piers are still small. But with a change in species has also come a change in attitude (isn’t there a song about that?) and a recognition that these three fish—shovelnose guitarfish, leopard sharks, and bat rays—deserve some respect. As one who has enjoyed catching them for more than forty years, I can only say it’s about tim

Fish Taco Chronicles

4 Responses to The Big Three…No Longer Just Trash Fish!

  1. Ron Petracek says:

    That was a nice article thanks. I have to give the leopard shark a try. I think the fear is the urine flavor.


  2. cola says:

    Love them leopards! But they have to be 36 inches, a personal pet peeve. I cant tell you the amount of times i’ve seen people(poachers in my opinion) haul off with a shorty. Please be sure it’s the legal size!!

  3. Nick lee says:

    Excellent article!

    I just started as a grad student at UCSB, a 10 minute walk from my office to Goleta Pier. I went for the first time last night with a co-worker, we caught a dozen or so decent size mackerel. Maybe I’ll have to chop up a frozen mackerel and try for one of the Big Three! I have some experience catching Cownose rays in the chesapeake bay, and i can attest to the freight train nature of a big ray. I used to catch them from a fishing kayak and get a nantucket sleigh ride from them before getting them in the boat.

  4. Pete says:

    I have just got back from california and tried shore fishing, used a simple halibut rig with sliced squid as bait. Did not know what to expect, first bite was a 15 lb bat ray and must have taken me 100 yards down the shore, then a good 1 metre 10 shovel nose, best fishing have ever had. Best to go 1 hours before sunrise to 1 hour after, same for sunset but was better than the morning. ..can’t wait to Back next year.. God knows how I would get a big bat ray in.. they were awesome.

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