The Great White Delicacy

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Holly A. Heyser


Tick tick tick tick ... My ears pricked up when I heard the clicker on the reel awaken. A shark? Maybe. Tick tick tick tick ... tick tick tick ... BZZZZZZZZZZZZ!

The line screamed off the reel as the shark swam away with the bait. It was my turn at the reel, so I picked up the rod and pointed it at where the mystery shark was headed. Wait for it ... wait ... wait until he eats the bait. Set the hook and reel!

A little too easy. My heart sank. The shark was hooked, but it was no monster. Damn. Fishing for sharks in San Francisco Bay is a crapshoot. You could hook a monster seven-gilled shark, which can grow beyond 12 feet. Or, more often, you hook soupfin or leopard sharks, and this was what was on the end of my line now.

Strong, yes. Willful, too. But no great giant. I guessed maybe three feet long at best. Nothing like back east, where we used to lay into mako sharks off the Long Island coast. Makos are fast, mean, and tasty. Fishing for a mako shark is the only instance I know of in which each end of the rod and reel wants to eat the other. I've hooked makos larger than 10 feet, and landed eight-footers. One took me 90 minutes to fight to the side of the boat.

No, this little shark was nothing like that mako. As I reeled, the leopard came into view. Such a pretty fish. You can see why they call them leopard sharks.

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Holly A. Heyser

Sharks evoke primal feelings within us. We are creatures of open plains who like to see everything that's around us. Deep forests and the hidden depths of the ocean frighten us. Sharks live in those depths, and some sharks eat people. To be eaten alive is just about the worst fear anyone has, and I've had a few encounters with the Man in the Gray Suit, as great whites are so euphemistically called. Even when you're safely aboard a boat, seeing one cruise alongside, staring at you with those doll's eyes, is chilling.

But there are sharks and there are sharks. It's illegal to catch white sharks now—we need more of them to control the goddamn salmon-eating sea lions—so those of us inclined toward shark fishing have targeted smaller, tastier sharks for years. There was once a large soupfin shark fishery in California, and our captain this day, Barry Canevaro, fished leopard sharks commercially years ago. No longer.

As many of you know, most shark populations are in steep decline. Overfishing and the immoral practice of finning live sharks, just for that nasty gelatinous soup, added to the slow growth rate of the species and have hit the fish hard. I no longer will buy them in the store because I don't think sharks can handle a commercial fishery anymore.

But there are still enough sharks in the San Francisco Bay for a hook-and-line fishery, although Canevaro wisely sets a two-shark limit on his boat—even though the state allows three sharks per angler.

The first of our sharks decided to get himself wrapped up in everyone else's line as I got him near the boat. But Canevaro got it over the rail and into the boat. Even a small shark won't stop fighting once it's on the deck. This is no meek trout or panfish. You need to dispatch a shark with a swift blow to the head, or it will thrash around and potentially bite you—although leopard sharks lack the razor teeth of a seven-gilled shark.

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Holly A. Heyser

Once it's dead, you need to gut a shark right away to keep the meat clean and fresh. This is vital. Most people won't eat sharks because they think they taste awful, like ammonia; another piece of the shark taboo. And it's true. If you don't take care of a shark once it's aboard, the meat can stink.

Properly handled, however, shark meat is white, firm, and surprisingly juicy. It tolerates a little overcooking the way codfish will not. Shark is firm, but not as dense as swordfish or sturgeon, and it is more tightly flaked than most fish. Skinning one is a bitch, though—they do, in fact, tan shark skin for boots and such.

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Holly A. Heyser

I've eaten plenty of spiny dogfish in my day, so I was looking forward to eating this leopard shark. Dogfish used to be ubiquitous on sandy bottoms anywhere from North Carolina to Maine, but even they have come under pressure in recent years. I was once the only person on the boat who would keep my sharks. Now some party boat captains will even advertise that they fish for them. Times have changed.

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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