The Surprising Shovelnose

The scene I had just witnessed was familiar, the fisherman had hooked something big, the fish fought hard and determined, and after several minutes of rod-bending performance the fish was beached. The angler issued an impolite description of the fish’s ancestry then tossed the fish up onto the sand where it could begin its own 3-D process: die, dry and decay.

If the fish had been a halibut, or one of its favored relatives, congratulations would have been passed around and care taken to preserve the quality of the meat. But NO, the fish was a shovelnose shark fit only for the trash heap — such is the prevailing opinion. Unfortunately, it is an ignorant conception. Not only had the angler received a fair fight from a large fish but he had also thrown away some excellent eating fillets. The meat is white and mild, comparable in taste and texture to scallops. I have, over the years, become somewhat resigned to both the debate over sport versus non-sport fish and the lack of knowledge on the part of many anglers. Nevertheless, it still amazes me when I see such a scene.

Shovelnose shark, or more correctly the shovelnose guitarfish, Rhinobatos Producus, is one species that does not deserve the abuse it receives. It is one of the largest fish pier and surf fishermen in California normally catch, it gives a strong if not spectacular fight and, as said, is good eating.

The shovelnose is one of the guitarfish in California, the other being the banded guitarfish, Zapteryx Exasperata, which is rather rare. 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 common from Mexico to Point Conception, shovelnose are virtually ignored by most fishermen. Studies done by the California Fish and Game Department showed, in the early 60s, an annual catch of only 2,230 fish. The figure, perhaps conservative, shows the relative lack of pursuit of the species. Instead, shovelnose are almost always the “incidental” catch made when fishing for more favored species. Perhaps this is why the fish is disliked — the angler is mad at old shovelnose for taking the bait.

However, a few anglers fish specifically for shovelnose. My father is one such angler, seeking the fish in and around Mission Bay and San Diego beaches. When the shovels are running, it is not uncommon to catch three to five during a morning’s fishing. Not only can they be consistently caught, but it’s also possible to get some really good size fish. During July and August of 1982 Dad daily pulled in fish approaching the 5-foot mark. Since the listed record is 61.5 inches and 40 pounds, he may have had a record fish. But he didn’t know, or care, he was having too much fun catching the monsters.

I myself have hooked only one shovelnose that I feel would have exceeded the 5-foot mark. It was back in 1977 during a vacation in San Diego. I was staying on the Crystal Pier, the only pier on the West Coast where an angler can actually stay right over the ocean. It was a warm sultry night in August when I decided to get up early and go shark fishing. Earlier, the previous evening, I had excellent luck on yellowfin croaker and white croaker, perch and small sharks. But I knew there were larger sharks out there and I knew they would bite when it was dark. So, at 3:30 a.m., I got up, slipped on some shorts, and headed out to the end of the pier. I was the only angler on the pier.

I thought I was prepared. I had two medium weight setups loaded with forty-pound line. I had spare leaders, hooks and sinkers. I had a strong flashlight and a weighted treble hook, the kind commonly used to gaff large fish from a pier. On a large 4/0 hook was placed a large strip of squid. I thought I was ready.

Within five minutes I caught my first fish, a small thornback ray. Ten minutes more and I landed a small round stingray. Then I landed a gray smoothhound shark, commonly called a sand shark. But after nearly an hour I had not landed a large shark like I was fishing for. Then the fish hit. I was fishing on the south side of the pier but the fish decided it liked a southwest direction better. The fish took off and I merely hung on hoping for the best. I knew I had something big, perhaps a giant bat ray, or a large white seabass, or even a giant black sea bass; thoughts are not always logical at such times. I knew it was too big to be one of the species I had been catching and I guessed it was a bat ray. After fifteen minutes I had the fish headed back toward the pier. Unfortunately, the fish had a mind of its own and worked around the pier over to the north side. I worked it to the top of the water but now I had a problem. I had inadvertently left the heavy line with the treble hook gaff sitting by my tackle box over toward the south side of the pier.

I didn’t want to work the fish back around the end of the pier since the waves would have washed it into the pilings. What to do? I finally decided to back up to the bench on the opposite side keeping the line somewhat tight. I hoped it would not break as it rubbed against the wooden railing of the pier. I reached the gaff o.k. But on the way back to the edge there was a loud snap and the trophy was gone. It may have been the wrong approach to try. But, as they say, hindsight is always 20/20. In addition, I was not in the most unemotional state of my life. When the fish had reached the top of the water I had looked down with my flashlight. It was a huge shovelnose, by far the largest I had ever seen, and I have seen hundreds. I am sure it was over five feet in length and over forty pounds. From such events memories are made. And from such events a respect for shovelnose is developed,

As said, shovelnose are common to Point Conception. They are caught on virtually every 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 limes 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, grab the tail, and hang on.

Shovelnose will bite virtually any bait. On piers I have had best luck with squid and live or frozen anchovies. In the surf, I have caught shovelnose on squid, anchovies and sand crabs. In fishing Mission Bay I have found live smelt to work best. The smelt 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 bay, anchovies, ghost shrimp and bloodworms will also work. Surprisingly, I have seen few shovelnose caught on clams even though they would seem to be a natural bait.

You do not have to hook shovelnose, they will hook themselves. When hooked, simply hang on and be patient, the hook will not tear out of their tough mouth.

Once landed, care should be taken to keep the meat fresh. The fish are easy to clean. Lay the fish out just like they lay in the sand. Make two cuts down the back from the disk to the end of the tail, one on either side where the backbone would be. Make a cut from the front of each to the two previous cuts out to the edge of the disk. Simply open the skin up. Looking in you will see two fillets, one on either side running the length of the tail. Reach in and simply work the meat loose with your fingers and remove it from the body cavity. Next, cut off any small pieces of red meat. You will be left with two long, bone-free fillets. You can eat the fillets fresh or soak them overnight in some water in your refrigerator before eating. You will wind up with fish as good as any you can buy in the store.

I have told many people that the shovelnose are good to eat but many refuse to listen. My Dad however tells a story which might convince you to try the meat. Last summer he met some tourists down from Seattle. Like most people from that great city they loved seafood. They had been fishing on the boats and were now trying the shoreline areas around Mission Bay. As they caught fish they froze the meat to take it back home in Seattle. They had never seen or eaten a shovelnose. My Dad showed them how to both catch and clean the fish. Shortly after they returned home my Dad received a letter from them. They had let their friends try the various fish they had caught on their trip to southern California. What did the people like best? The winner was shovelnose shark.

Western Saltwater Fisherman

One Response to The Surprising Shovelnose

  1. ChuchinBaez says:

    Tell you what, I caught a few shovel nose guitar fish and I
    made both Ceviche & Beer Batter fish sticks and they where both
    very delicious and everyone loved both dishes!!

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