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Leopard Shark Fishing - Rigs, Baits, Setups & Tips

Updated: Jan 24

We’ve learnt a lot about Leopard Shark Fishing in California from guiding professionally for these awesome surf sharks - here are some of our big lessons and tips on Baits, Setups, Rigs and Tackle that will help move your California and Bay Area shark fishing skills to the next level.

Best leopard shark fishing tips california
A really nice 55-inch-plus leopard shark caught surf fishing in California using the tips, setups, rigs and baits in this article

Leopard Shark Fishing Ultimate Guide article index:


Leopard Shark Fishing Tips: Use Circle Hooks exclusively (Best Hooks for Leopard Sharks by far)

With leopard sharks particularly slow-growing (most aren't sexually mature until at least ten to 12 years old), it’s important to practice catch and release with any you catch - particularly the larger 50"+ females that may be over a decade old.

Using a good quality, high carbon steel circle hook is a great way of ensuring you don’t deep hook the shark and lose part of your rig.

leopard shark fishing caught on a leopard shark pulley rig
A big 60-inch leopard shark caught on a circle hook-equipped Leopard Shark Pulley Rig from American Sea Fishing, and the baits and tactics in this article

Circle hooks work by hooking fish in the lip due to their unusual shape, only taking hold when the hook begins to exit the mouth as the shark moves off with the bait.

They work exceptionally well for leopard sharks, and surf shark fishing in California, Oregon and Washington State in general.

Check out the photo below of a perfectly hooked leopard shark caught on a Cox & Rawle Mutsu Circle Hook (8/0). This is typical of this style of hook and makes removal very easy.

leopard shark fishing
Leopard Shark caught on an American Sea Fishing Leopard Shark Pulley Rig - the best setup and rig for leopard shark fishing

I can honestly say that I have never deep-hooked a leopard shark on a circle hook, or had to cut the rig or hook, and I’d be really reluctant to use a J-hook again.

They’re always hooked in the lip and it’s easy to grip the shank with decent pliers and turn it back out the way it went in for a quick and easy release. 

After trying various different patterns, I’ve arrived at the Cox & Rawle Mutsu as the perfect all-around leopard shark hook.

It’s strong enough to deal with the really big bat rays and other sharks we encounter too, and they’re stupidly sharp out of the packet. Serious hooks for serious fish. 

Best leopard shark surf fishing hooks
An 8/0 Cox & Rawle Mutsu Circle hook - the best hook for leopard shark fishing anywhere

The Best Size and type of Hook to use for Leopard Shark Fishing (and lots of other Shark and Ray species in California, Oregon and Washington State...)

For the best leopard shark rig or set up, go big - 8/0 or even 10/0 - if you’re getting bitten by a lot of small stingrays or baby sharks, and want to be selective about what you hook up on.

In peak summer, when lots of rays and other small sharks are around, I'll go for a 10/0 Mutsu Circle Hook for leopard shark fishing.

I'll also choose this if fishing a beach which has a lot of big soupfin, sevengill sharks or bat rays due to their larger size.

When the baby rays are less invasive, and the leopards are a little busier, an 8/0 Mutsu Circle Hook is the best hook to use.

Avoid those heavy offshore type hooks for leopards - they're largely uncesssary unless targeting giants on conventional gear. We've never bent or broken an 8/0 or 10/0 on a fish, even when landing big sharks on heavy spinning tackle.

Here’s my general rule of thumb for the best hooks to use for surf shark fishing in California, Oregon and Washington State:

2/0 - shovelnose guitarfish, halibut, smoothhound sharks, smaller species

4/0 - 6/0 - small leopard sharks and rays

8/0 - big leopard sharks and rays

10/0 - larger shark species (big leopard sharks, soupfin etc)

12/0 - larger shark species (soupfin, seven gill etc)

Leopard Shark Fishing? Wire leaders are your friend...

I used heavy mono and fluorocarbon for leopard shark rigs early on and never had an issue until I really started to get dialled into the SoCal fishery for those multiple big-fish days - that’s when the shortcomings of even 100-pound mono become evident.

Sure, it’ll likely land you one or two big leopards - assuming they don’t get the line across their mouths in a prolonged fight, then it’s game over.

That’s when it wears out above the hook and let's go just as that big female fins in the shore-break.

leopard shark fishing
A really big leopard shark caught on a rig with a 130lb wire leader

So, the best leader material for leopard shark fishing is wire - around 100 to 200-pound black nylon coated wire, to be precise.

The leopard sharks do not care about this one jot, and it’ll stay intact all day and you can catch a dozen fish on one rig versus one or two on a mono leader. 

Also, as the saying goes, elephants eat peanuts and it’s likely that at some point your little mackerel bait will get picked up by something bigger. Maybe a large soupfin shark or similar.

Good luck if you’re not running wire at that point because you won’t be attached to a Pacific surf monster for very long on light monofilament leaders.


Why you MUST use a Mono Casting / Rubbing / Abrasion Leader above the rig

Repeatedly casting in the surf without a mono casting leader on your braided main line is a bad idea for so many reasons.

Mostly, the only thing stopping most people from spending a couple of minutes tying on a few feet of mono is that they can’t be bothered, don't know the knots or don’t think it’s necessary. Trust me, it is.

First, you need the combination of abrasion resistance and stretch when casting a big bait and weight, like a mackerel on a pulley rig.

Plus, I generally use a 5 to 8oz sputnik surf sinker and with the large bait, and casting this places enormous strain on the line.

The use of a heavier mono leader (my main line is a lighter breaking strain braid, 40 to 60 pounds) takes this weight into account and prevents crack-offs (when the link breaks) on the cast.

Avoiding breakages on the cast is really important when you're casting big sinkers.

A sinker that's broken off as a result of the line breaking on the cast turns into a missile and will cause considerable damage to whatever it hits. It's also expensive and time consuming to re-rig.

Second, when you go to leader a big fish in the surf, you’ll really want to be grabbing onto mono and not braid for obvious reasons: cheese-wiring your hands is really painful!

The 80-pound mono below is a great option for leopard shark fishing casting leaders - we've used this for years and love the combination of high knot strength and durability.

As well as being kinder to your hands, the stretch mono has absorbs violent head shakes and allows you to potentially make a mistake, like locking up the drag or getting flat-rodded, and still land the fish due to the stretchiness of that mono.

The abrasion resistance is also useful for the really big fish longer than your rig, or anything that gets wrapped up - once the rough skin of even a small shark rubs on braid, it won’t last long.

leopard shark caught on a surf fishing pulley rig American sea fishing leader
Leopards, like most sharks, have rough skin that'll wear through braid easily

So, regardless of your rig, learn one of the following knots: back-to-back uni, Crazy Alberto, FG or PR knot.

Use it to rig up with a mono leader appropriate to your casting weight with the variable in breaking strain dictated by the bait size, casting style and target species.


Best Size and Sinker Types for Leopard Shark Fishing

There is only one choice for sinkers for leopard shark fishing in open ocean: a large sputnik surf sinker, like the one in the photo below.

Best sinker for leopard shark fishing

In a harbor or very calm conditions, neither of which are our favorite conditions for leopard shark fishing, you can get away with a pyramid-style sinker, but most of the time we prefer open sandy beaches with a degree of water movement.

When it comes to choosing the best size sinker for leopard and surf fishing in general, it's first useful to consider the type of gear you're using first.

It's no good trying to cast an 8oz sinker on a Light-rated rod and 10-pound line.

So, This is our basic rule of thumb for how to choose the sinker size and casting leader (or main line if that's taking the force of the cast) strength for surf and shark fishing:

Sinker Weight vs Mono Casting Leader Strength

0.5 oz - 4-10lb

1oz - 10-20lb

2oz - 10-30lb

3oz - 20-40lb

4oz - 30-50lb

6oz - 40-80lb 

8oz+ - 60-100lb 

Also, it’s useful to remember that a frozen whole bait weighs a lot more than a fresh one - this can be the difference between a rod breaking and not (we speak from bitter experience regarding this...)


Know the difference between a Casting / Abrasion Leader and Top Shot

If you’re fishing offshore for tuna and game species, a long wind-on topshot of fluorocarbon (or mono) line between the braid main line and rig is standard, and it performs three main tasks:

1) To have extremely low visibility underwater thanks to the refractive index of fluorocarbon being closer to that of water, or clear mono offering a degree of stealth

2) To add stretch to the rig to aid landing a fish

3) To provide good abrasion resistance against teeth, skin and structure

Best leader for surf shark fishing
Always use a mono leader above the rig for casting big baits at surf sharks. It'll help land lots more fish than going straight braid. We use 80 pound mono leaders most of the time for leopard and soupfin sharks.

But, if you get a top shot like this added by a tackle shop, it’s normally around 30-50ft long depending on the shop and stated target species.

Bad news: this is useless for surf fishing. 

To be clear: Do not try and cast out a heavy 50ft mono or fluoro leader on the beach.

It won’t go far and your rig won’t hold bottom due to the larger surface area: two requisites for picking up a nice leopard shark when bait and wait shark fishing.

A mono casting leader - the right kind to use in the surf -  is shorter and designed to absorb the power of the cast, plus provide essential abrasion resistance if the shark becomes wrapped up in the line during the fight.

It’s almost always best constructed from monofilament. More stretch and longer lasting.

leopard shark setup fishing california
Casting with a heavy mono casting leader for leopard sharks in California

Mono is also usually less dense than fluorocarbon so it’s lighter and doesn’t sink as fast, offers higher knot strength and generally isn’t as stiff, making an ideal material for a casting leader for shark fishing.

You need just enough mono so your main casting weight hangs half-way down the rod (i.e. at 6ft below the tip if using a 12ft rod) and you have a couple of wraps of line on the spool, no more, ideally less so the knot just sits on the spool.

This usually equates to about a 13-15ft leader on a 12 to 13ft surf rod. FG Knot or Crazy Alberto knot to the 40 to 60-pound braid main line and you have a great leopard shark setup.

Leopard Shark Fishing Tips: Stop Using Frozen Bait NOW! (plus: best bait for Leopard Sharks)

Wondering why you’re doing seemingly everything correctly and not hooking up on big leopards as often as you think you should?

Still using that twice-refrozen bag of mackerel or squid from last summer as bait? Relying on some suspect tackle shop freezer baits? The two are connected...

Best leopard shark bait
BEST LEOPARD SHARK BAIT - A leopard shark caught on fresh mackerel, which is an amazing bait in the summer months.

If I were to give everyone one big tip for this season, it would be focus on obtaining the freshest bait - mackerel and bonito are number 1, surf perch and any sort of croaker a close second - before each session.

Go the extra mile to catch or source it the day before you go and keep it on ice (not frozen) rather than grabbing a bag of tackle shop frozen baits.

Best leopard shark bait and rig
Head sections of mackerel, small bonito, yellowfin croaker (pictured mounted on an ASF Leopard Shark Pulley Rig) and surf perch are the best leopard shark baits.

Your catches will show a marked increase and your extra effort will be rewarded by using fresh local baits rigged on twin circle hook rigs like the ones above and below, I promise!

best leopard shark bait for shark fishing california
A mackerel bait for leopard shark fishing mounted on an American sea fishing leopard shark pulley rig

Try anything fresh and local. Leopards have a varied diet with the common theme being available nearby and recently alive.

They specifically seek out and hunt fresh forage like bait fish, crabs, shrimp and squid, rather than scavenging for easy meals like a ray.

They use scent a lot and are experts at finding fresh food from things like a blood in the churned up surf zone water from potential prey. Thus, your bait needs to be the freshest, juiciest, bloodiest bait possible.

Fresh scent (i.e. blood) is everything!

If you don't have hordes of baby stingrays, fresh squid and sardines are also an option and you can use quite a large bait to be selective if you want to catch the big 50-inch leos, like the ones pictured on this page (all caught on the rig below)...

Thank you for reading this article. If you'd like to learn more about leopard shark fishing in California, why not book a guided surf fishing session in Southern California with us and catch some awesome fish like the shark below?

If you have any questions, suggestions or queries about any of the subjects discussed in this article, please email me on I'd love to hear from you.

By the way, the products listed below this photo are all the ones we use and recommend to catch lots of big leopard sharks, like the ones featured in this article.

leopard shark fishing in California
Come on a guided leopard shark fishing session and learn about the best rigs, baits and setups to use

Leopard Shark Surf Fishing Rig and Setup Tackle Shopping List


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