Christmas Menu: Kayak Fishing For Sharks

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Merry Christmas from California Sportsman!

We hope you enjoy the holiday, and check out this story on kayak shark fishing!

By Nancy Rodriguez

The early-morning sun has just started to peek over the horizon and I begin to feel a change in the air. The dense fog that blankets the ocean has slowly begun to lift, revealing the beautiful golden hillsides that Northern California is known for. 

I inhale the moist, salty air and welcome it after spending a dry, hot summer inland. As I stare out over the water’s mercurylike stillness, I hear a distant call of a seagull that echoes across the bay. A flock of cormorants rhythmically flap their wings and appear to glide across the waters of Tomales Bay, 40 miles north of San Francisco. A tiny spotted grey head breaks the surface just off the edge of our kayak. As little drops of water glisten off whiskers, two huge black eyes try to identify us. We stare at each other; I’m sure the seal is trying to figure out if we are friend or foe. He’s not waiting around to find out, so he slowly slips beneath the surface. 

With the morning chill starting to give way in the sunlight and the gentle rocking motion of the ocean under our anchored kayak, I feel as if I am slipping into a trance. I know I should be focusing on the end of my fishing rod, watching for any tap that may indicate a bite, but my eyelids are starting to become heavy. My blinking slows and the end of my rod becomes a blur. Everything about this moment is a perfect recipe for sleep. My eyelids become heavier and heavier with every blink. Closing. Closing. Closing. Tap. Tap. Tap! My eyes spring open and with fuzzy vision, I see it! There is no denying that the end of my rod is tapping … definitely tapping!

I come to as if a drill sergeant has just blown an air horn in my ear. I instinctively want to jerk back on the rod and set the hook like I’m fishing largemouth bass, but I know I have to change my technique. I slowly lift my rod tip and gently lean back until the barbless circle hook has been set. The rod bows as the tension increases, and I feel the unmistakable shaking and tugging on the line. The kayak starts to spin like the arm on a compass and my husband, Joe, clips the float on the anchor line and tosses it in the water as fast as he can. 

I yell “Shark on!” as pure mayhem starts! The kayak is being pulled in all directions and I try to keep tension on the 25-pound test and work to bring this beast to the surface. Zzzzeeeee …

The shark takes run after run, stripping line and continuously trying to shake the hook. I keep steady tension on the line and flip the end of my pole from left to right as my quarry circles the kayak, constantly changing directions. My forearm starts burning as the shark nears the surface. And there it is: The beautiful, unmistakable pattern of a leopard shark flashes a few feet below the surface. I keep the line tight and bring him as close to the side of the kayak as possible. Joe wets his hands and prepares to land the fish. As I lead the shark alongside the kayak, Joe grabs it by the tail and in a blur the shark is spinning and flexing uncontrollably. My husband holds on long enough for the shark to fatigue, and then cradles its head and tail as gently as he can – if that’s possible with a shark – while steering clear of the sharp teeth. He hands the fish to me – its skin resembles 90-grit sandpaper – and I lift the shark for a quick photo. 

We quickly remove the circle hook and submerge him in the water. I pull him back and forth to get water flowing through his gills and he rockets out of my hand back into the darkness of the sea. As my adrenaline slows, I am thrilled to have landed a leopard shark from the kayak. It’s an absolute rush! 

Joe and I catch several more sharks throughout the day, as well as a couple of bat rays and, of course, a few crabs that love to steal our bait. It will take days for our forearms to recover from fighting these bottom dwellers, but it’s always worth it. 

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JOE AND I PLAN at least one or two trips a year to fish for leopard sharks from either our tandem or single kayaks. There are many areas to fish for leopards off the coast of California, but our favorite is Tomales Bay, a 6,800-acre estuary located just above Point Reyes, hard on the Marin County coast. The bay is relatively shallow and, at 12 miles long, is loaded with smaller fish and crabs that make up the sharks’ diet. 

Leopards tend to hold in indentions on muddy or sandy bottoms. Late summer and early fall seems to be the best time of year to fish, as the leopard sharks start to congregate in warmer shallows to spawn, but you can catch them year-round. They can get up to 7 feet in length, but the average size for sport anglers varies between 3 and 5 feet, with weights around 45 pounds. It takes 10 years for a leopard shark to grow 3 feet in length. Their timid nature and small teeth prevent these sharks from being a threat to humans, but don’t be fooled: Their teeth are sharp!

A medium-action rod-and-reel combo capable of holding 250 to 300 yards of 25-pound line is adequate for fighting these fish. We round out our set-up with a 4-ounce coin-shaped weight on a slider above a 30- to 45-pound 18-inch steel leader with a barbless 3/0 to 5/0 circle hook. We use whole squid for bait. 

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FISHING FROM A BOAT for leopard sharks is always fun, but from a kayak it’s a bit more of an up-close-and-personal experience. If you decide to fish for leopards from a kayak, always use extreme caution. We fish Tomales early in the morning before the afternoon winds kick up, and we choose days with small tidal changes. Follow all safety precautions and learn self-rescue techniques prior to hitting the water on a kayak. Elevated mercury levels in Tomales Bay have led to warnings about consuming leopard sharks caught here. Because of this we practice catch and release.

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Leopard sharks are one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen and are an absolute blast to catch. They put up a great fight and it’s a true adventure catching one from a kayak. No matter if you catch one or not, a day spent on the water is always a great day. CS

Editor’s note: Nancy Rodriguez lives in the El Dorado County hamlet of Cool with her husband Joe. She is an outdoor enthusiast who loves to fish, hunt and backpack. Nancy is on the hunt staff for Prois Hunting & Field Apparel for Women and enjoys inspiring women to get outdoors.

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