A leopard shark averages in length from four to five feet. It is a slender-bodied shark that you can easily identify by its pattern of striking black saddle-like markings and the large spots over their back. This is how they got their name. They have short, round snouts and two large dorsal fins along their backs. The color of the leopard shark is more pronounced in the younger ones and less in the older leopard sharks. Although they are a shark, they are harmless to humans. They are caught for both the aquarium and for food.
A leopard shark grows slowly and can live to 26 years of age. They are considered mature when they are between 7-10 years of age and around three feet long. Although they can put on a good fight when hooked and have a stunning appearance, the leopard shark is not held in very high esteem with some anglers. Some prefer their catch to give them more of a fight to land them while others want more glamorous ones.
Where to Find a Leopard Shark
In bays and estuaries, it is quite common to see large schools of leopard sharks. They enjoy swimming over muddy and sandy flats, or near reef and kelp beds in rock-strewn areas. They are generally found near the coast in water that is less than 13 feet deep. They are active swimming predators so you will often find schools of them following the tide into intertidal mudflats to forage for food.
You can find a leopard shark along the Pacific coast from Oregon’s temperate continental waters to the tropical waters of Mazatlan, Mexico. A leopard shark will usually remain in a particular area rather than moving where there is a long swim involved, although some will leave their coastal habitats in the winter and return in the spring.
A lot of leopard sharks become very active when herring are found near the shipping channels. The water depth there ranges from 30 to more than 40 feet. This generally happens between November to March.
What does a Leopard Shark Eat?
Some of the things that a leopard shark eats include:
- Spoon worms
- Bony fish
- Fish eggs
How to Catch a Leopard Shark
Most leopard sharks are fished in the waters of California. During the day, a leopard shark will stay near the bottom but become very active at night. They also seem to be somewhat active in the morning when the tide is coming in. When you are trying to draw attention to your bait, you can use inexpensive cans of cat food or chopped baitfish as chum. This is good to use if you are inside estuaries and bays, and the water is calm.
When a leopard shark strikes, there is nothing subtle about it. Within 10 seconds of putting the bait into the water, you may feel a bump but when you have a leopard shark hooked, your pole will probably bend in half as they start to fight to get away.
If you are going to use a boat, make sure that you are in the water with depths of 30-40 feet. If you are using a fish finder and see a school of herring on the screen, you should anchor there as that is where you can generally find a lot of leopard sharks. Make sure that you try not to put down an anchor in a busy channel.
Best Bait for Leopard Shark
The best bait to use to catch a leopard shark is squid. You can also use sand crabs and mussels. If you are trying to hook a large leopard shark, you should use a whole squid. To put it on the hook the correct way so the leopard shark cannot just pull it off, find the section of the squid that has two fin-looking things. Put the hook between them and pull it out on the other side, making sure that you pull the hook all the way through the squid. Next go back through the body at an angle that aims down and then come back around, making sure that when you are done, the hook is exposed all the way. Now you are ready to cast your line out. To learn more about hooking a squid, check out our other article, How to Hook a Squid for Bait.
Other bait you can use includes:
Best Lures & Tackle for Leopard Shark
To catch a leopard shark, you should use a rod and reel. You can use a small reel but it is advisable to use a larger one in case something besides a leopard shark takes the bait and hooks themselves. You do not want to catch a big one and then either lose your rod and reel or have it break because of the size. You need to make sure that the reel has enough power to take on a leopard shark. A type of line to use is the 25-pound mono and a rod that is between seven and nine feet long. You can also use a spinning reel as they are easy to cast. You can cast far with that type of reel.
With the rigs to use, they should be an eight or ten-ounce weight. The size to use depends on how strong the current is. You want to make sure that whichever weight you use, it is going to hit and stay on the bottom. You should also have sliding sinkers of different sizes of wire, such as a 135, 60, and 80. All you need to do is crimp the wire to the swivel and hook and you are ready to drop your line after putting on the bait.
The best size hooks to use are a size eight but you can use a size seven. Do not go smaller than a size seven, because it will not be worth it and you probably will not catch a leopard shark if you do. A rule of thumb is to size your line to the target and your hooks to the bait. Also, make sure in your tackle box that you have a pair of heavy-duty wire crimpers or pliers so you can cut the wire for your sliding sinkers. You should also consider having a net to help bring the leopard shark to shore. A large fishing net is preferred.
Tips and Tactics
- If you are looking for a small leopard shark you can just use a simple rig, which includes some braided line and a hook.
- For the larger leopard sharks, you should have a few metal rigs in the tackle box.
- They are good to eat if they are handled properly. Make sure that as soon as they are landed that you bleed them out to make sure that urea does not leach into the flesh. If this happens it can cause an ammoniated flavor to develop.
- Some of the best terminal configurations are fish finder rigs and dropper loops with 5/0 or 7/0 octopus or circle hooks.
Leopard Shark Reproduction
A leopard shark is aplacental viviparous, which means that their young hatch inside the female’s uterus and are nourished by a yolk sac. This is the yellow part of an egg and is the nutrient-bearing part. Its primary function is to supply food to the embryo that is developing. From March to June, the leopard shark will give life to as many as 37 young fish. The gestation period is 10-12 months. The young are slow-growing and can take many years before it is a mature leopard shark.
They generally have their young in estuaries and protected bays, using these as nurseries for the young sharks until they are big enough to defend themselves from predators. The bigger the female is, the more young she will have.
Predators of the Leopard Shark
The predators of the leopard shark are larger sharks, like the broadnose sevengill shark and other marine mammals, which include dolphins. Man is also another predator of theirs because many times, fishermen put out nets and the leopard sharks get caught up in them and die.
Fun Facts about a Leopard Shark
- Since leopard sharks like to stay in particular areas, this has led to genetic divergence between shark populations that live in different regions.
- According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this is a species of Least concern in regards to whether it is an endangered fish or not. The population declined in the 1980s but new fishing regulations were put into place to reduce harvesting to a sustainable level.
- Between San Diego and Humboldt Bay along the California coast, there have been seven discrete gene pools identified for the leopard shark.
- They can rest on the seafloor and pump water through their gills.
- The young leopard sharks are called ‘pups’ and are about seven inches when born.
- When a female has her first litter, she is around 10 years old.
Even though they are good to eat, because of how they have declined in recent years, many fishermen who catch a leopard shark will choose to release them back into the water after they catch them. To these fishermen, it is all about the sport of catching them. If you are up for the challenge, grab the right bait, and tackle and head to the coast of California to try to catch a leopard shark. If you are on vacation there, make this a fishing excursion to experience. Check out Salt Water Sportsman to learn more about fishing for leopard sharks in the San Francisco Bay.
Although they are harmless to humans, you need to remember that they are a shark so they should be handled accordingly. If you are fishing along the shore, most of the leopard sharks here will be between three and five feet in length.
Want to learn more? Check out: How to Catch an Opaleye