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 easily. 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.
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 safely aboard a boat, however, 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, 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.
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.
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 bottom 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.
Leopard sharks were a mystery to me, however. I’d first heard of them when I moved here six years ago because like the dogfish now, charter captains actually advertise that they fish for leopards, along with soupfin and seven-gilled sharks. They must be tasty, I thought. But for some reason I’d never gone out for them.
Until last week. We fished in shallow water, using salmon roe or an ugly fish called a midshipman for bait. Shark fishing is a lot like it was depicted in “Jaws.” You bait hooks, put the reels in free-spool with a clicker on, then you sit around and talk all day, waiting for the tick, tick, tick of the clicker. Fishing was slow but not terrible, and we caught four good leopards for the six of us on the boat.
On to the eating.
Finding shark recipes is not that easy. Yes, traditional British fish and chips is often done with shark — and I like fish and chips, but I wanted something a little more refined than that for my first taste of leopard shark. I learned the Spanish eat a similar shark, calling it tiburon, while the Italians call their version palombo.
I saw a reference to something like this first dish in, oh, I-can’t-remember-where. All I could remember is that it was a cutlet of shark served with a mushroom sauce. The cutlet is easy: Just portion some shark, dust it in flour and saute.
I wanted my shark with mushroom sauce to be kinda fancy, however, so I soaked dried chanterelles, porcini and morels, cooked them with some homemade tomato sauce, added the mushroom soaking water — then buzzed it all in a blender. Thick, pretty, and very, very mushroomy. I really like the combination of mushrooms and seafood, although at first glance it sounds counter-intuitive.
I could eat that sauce all day. It was just as good over toast as it was with the fish, and I plan on using the leftovers for pasta.
For something simpler, I went Spanish, with a simple saute of shark with pine nuts, tomatoes and smoked paprika.
This dish is da bomb. Again, I dusted chunks of shark in flour and fried them in olive oil. I mixed this in with toasted pine nuts, Roma tomatoes, garlic, parsley and some Spanish smoked paprika. A splash of white wine moistened everything, and boy oh boy was this good! I think the key was to not cook the tomatoes any longer than they needed to get warm; they were still firm enough to stab with a fork.
These recipes are repeatable if you catch your own sharks — and if you make them, you will not be sorry. But if you don’t fish for sharks, or are not an angler, you can still make these dishes. Just switch up your fish. For the Spanish dish, I’d recommend substituting sturgeon, swordfish, tilefish, white seabass, monkfish or tautog — something really firm. For the shark with mushroom sauce, really any white fish would do.