We’ve learnt a lot from guiding professionally for surf species like leopard sharks - here are some of our big lessons that will help move your surf fishing to the next level...
1) Use Circle Hooks Exclusively
With leopard sharks particularly slow-growing, it’s important to practice catch and release with any you catch - particularly those big females that may be over a decade old - and using a circle hook is a great way of ensuring you don’t deep hook the shark and lose part of your rig.
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. 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.
After trying various different patterns, I’ve arrived at the Cox & Rawle Mutsu as the perfect all-round leopard shark hook. It’s strong enough to deal with the really big bat rays and other sharks we encounter too, and they’re sharp out of the packet.
Go bigger - 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. Here’s my general rule of thumb for West Coast species:
2/0 - shovelnose guitarfish, halibut, smoothhound sharks, smaller species
4/0 - small leopard sharks and rays
6/0 - good all-round leopard shark and ray size
8/0 - thresher sharks, big leopard sharks and big rays
10/0 - larger shark species (soupfin, threshers etc)
12/0 - larger shark species (soupfin, threshers etc)
2) Wire Is Your Friend
I used heavy mono and fluorocarbon for leopard shark rigs 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 100lb 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 - but that’s it before it wears out above the hook and lets go just as that big female fins in the shore-break…
So, use wire - 130lb black nylon coated wire to be precise. The leopard sharks do not care about this one jot, 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 scary and toothy. 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 monofilament.
3) Always Use a Mono Leader
Repeatedly casting in the surf without a mono casting leader on your braided main line is a bad idea for so many reasons and 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 and 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. I generally use a 6-8oz lead and 50-60lb mono leader 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) takes this into account and prevents crack-offs on the cast.
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!)
As well as being kinder to your hands, the stretch 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.
So, regardless of your rig, learn a back-to-back uni knot and 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. This our basic rule of thumb:
Weight vs Leader Strength
0.5oz - 5-10lb
1oz - 10-20lb
2oz - 20-30lb
3oz - 30-40lb
4oz - 40-50lb
6oz - 50-60lb
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)
4) Know the Difference Between a Casting Leader and Top Shot...
If you’re fishing offshore for tuna and game species, a long wind-on topshot of fluorocarbon (or mono for the really big species) line is standard and it performs three main tasks: to have extremely low visibility underwater thanks to the refractive index of fluorocarbon being closer to that of water, to add stretch to the rig and to provide good abrasion resistance.
But, if you get a topshot 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 50ft mono or fluoro leader on the beach... it won’t go far and you won’t hold bottom (due to the larger surface area), two requisites for picking up a nice leopard shark.
A casting leader - the right kind to use in the surf - is shorter and designed to absorb the power of the cast plus provide abrasion resistance. It’s almost always best constructed from monofilament too. Mono is less dense than fluorocarbon so it’s lighter and doesn’t sink as fast, usually offers higher knot strength and generally isn’t as stiff, making an ideal material for a casting leader.
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 or wraps on the spool, no more. This usually equates to about a 13-15ft leader on a 12’ surf rod.
5) Stop Using Rubbish Frozen Bait NOW!
Wondering why you’re doing seemingly everything correctly and not hooking up as often as you think you should? Still using that twice-refrozen bag of mackerel from last summer as bait? The two are connected...
If I were to give everyone one big tip for next season, it would be focus on obtaining the freshest bait before each session and going the extra mile to catch or source it the day before you go, rather than grabbing a bag of frozen baits.
Your catches will show a marked increase and your extra effort will be rewarded, I promise.
Interested in learning more? Book one of our guided trips for spring, summer or fall 2020 and take your surf fishing to the next level with the help of a professional guide - call Ben on +1 (714) 642-5770 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for trip info and dates.