Stalking Predators : For Bay Area Fishermen, Sharks Offer Unique Alternative to More Popular and Glamorous Striped Bass and Salmon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dawn is breaking as Barry Canevaro guides his boat across the wind-blown bay toward San Francisco. City lights glitter through the swirling fog as dockworkers load freighters for overseas voyages.

The waterfront is already alive and the city is waking up.

But the only signs of life Canevaro cares about are beneath the surface, visible mostly as blips on his electronic meter. Canevaro is looking for sharks.

"The thing about sharks is, they're all over the bay," the gruff-looking Canevaro says as his boat, the Fishing Fool IV, plows toward the San Francisco harbor, one of many ports within the sprawling bay.

And another thing about sharks: They're catching on in the Bay Area among recreational fishermen, a unique alternative to the more popular and glamorous striped bass and salmon, both believed to be on the decline and the salmon available only seasonally.

One more thing about sharks: They have that mystique, what with the teeth and the danger and everything.

"We caught one once that had chunks of blubber in it and they were later identified as harbor porpoise," recalls Abe Cuanang, 40, a longtime Bay Area fisherman. "And we caught another that had what appeared to be deer fur or deer hair in its teeth. At least, that's what it looked like."

Both of those were sevengill sharks, and they were hooked at depths of more than 100 feet. They tugged a few times, but didn't offer much of a fight on the heavy tackle Cuanang had to use. They were something to behold, though, prehistoric-looking monsters with thick greenish-gray skin and a single dorsal fin at the base of the tail.

The largest, Cuanang says, was nine feet long, with a 78-inch girth, weighing more than 300 pounds--and with a mouth built to bite.

"These are scavengers and active predators," Cuanang says.

The attraction of catching such a beast?

"Just the mystery of dredging something up from the deep."

Says skipper Scott Baggett of Port San Pablo Marina's boat Nobilis, one of only two party boats that cater to shark fishermen: "Sharking has gotten popular in the last few years. People are finding out that sharks are good eating and plentiful. They're delicious and if you want lot of meat, a few sharks will fill the freezer."

A 300-pound sevengill will do more than that, but sevengills are not the most highly prized catch of Bay Area shark fishermen. Nor are sixgills, smooth dog hounds or bat rays, all sharks that inhabit the bay.

The favorites, Canevaro says, are the soupfin and the smaller, but no less spirited, leopard shark. And because of heavy fishing pressure exerted on the soupfin by commercial fishermen--and to a lesser extent by recreational fishermen--catching one is a rare treat.

Therefore, the leopard shark, a cunning predator with gray skin mottled with black and brown spots, is the shark of choice.

"A lot more people are fishing for leopard sharks, now that the (striped bass) fishery has fallen off, and they're the closest thing to striper fishing, anyway," Canevaro says. "They pull the same way, fight good and taste excellent."

As Baggett puts it, the leopard shark, and the less-plentiful soupfin, "are the Cadillacs of table fare here in the bay."

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The Fishing Fool IV is approaching the mouth of San Francisco Harbor and Canevaro has laid out quite a feast for any leopard sharks that might be in the area--salmon bellies, scraps of salmon caught offshore in previous days, and small bait fish called midshipmen.

He pulls out a midshipman, its silver-studded gray skin bearing a resemblance to a midshipman's uniform.

The wind is blowing briskly and, although fog still curtains the city, the sun is shining on the water.

Canevaro, 48, cuts the engine to an idle, and the Fishing Fool IV glides up near a berthed giant red freighter loaded with dozens of shiny new tractor-trailer rigs bound for who knows where.

Canevaro quickly baits four rigs, casts them and anchors the rods in swiveled holders across the stern of his 26-foot sportfisher.

"The conditions couldn't be worse today," he says. "We've had a full moon and the tides have been extremely high. We don't have much time."

High tides move swiftly in the bay, making it difficult to keep the bait deep in the water.

But the tide has just ebbed and, for the time being, is fairly slack.

Canevaro explains that leopard sharks, although they don't have the teeth of their larger cousins, do have a full measure of shark cunning, usually making several passes and nose hits at their prey before committing to an all-out attack.

The reels are in free-spool with the clicker alarm on to sound when a shark takes the bait.

Canevaro's instructions are brief.

"When they take the bait, they do it at what I call a 20-m.p.h. speed, but we'll wait to set the hook until it's running at 30 m.p.h.," he says. "Then crank the reel into gear and pull back hard, and hold the rod up. That way the hook will set."

Sounds easy enough.

Only a few minutes pass before one of the clickers begins chattering. It doesn't reach 20 m.p.h., though, and soon stops clicking. Whatever was at the other end lost interest. "Sharks are curious creatures," Canevaro says. "They don't always take it the first time, but they'll stick around."

Another alarm sounds, one of Canevaro's customers grabs the rod, the fish begins taking line at a modest speed and an attempt is made to set the hook. It's not as easy as it sounds, though, and there's no hookup.

Another alarm, another attempt--and finally, a hookup.

The medium-strength rod bends, the fish spooling the 25-pound test line in spurts for a good 10 minutes before the angler is able to gain enough back to bring the fish within view.

A large leopard shark is rolling beneath the boat, trying desperately to escape, mounting one final run after Canevaro just misses with his net.

"They don't like the net," he says, pointing out the obvious.

The shark has grown weary, however, and is quickly brought to the surface and scooped up by Canevaro, who knocks the fish out with a club, pulls out his knife and guts it right there on the deck.

"You've got to clean it right away or else the meat will spoil," he says. "So many people wait until they go home and then say the meat's no good and then the fish goes to waste."

The rig is cast again.

As the sun warms the again-spotless deck of his boat, Canevaro tells of his concern regarding the increasing popularity of shark fishing, commercial fishing having reduced shark numbers to what he says are dangerously low levels.

Sharks are still vulnerable to overfishing, Canevaro says, but things are getting better now that restrictions have been put on both commercial and recreational fishing.

A longtime active member of United Anglers, Canevaro helped persuade the Department of Fish and Game to limit the take of leopard sharks to three at 36 inches or longer. Only one soupfin, sevengill and sixgill may be taken per day.

"We wanted a two-fish limit on leopard sharks and (the DFG) wanted five," Canevaro says, watching a customer being pulled about the stern by yet another shark. "If we don't protect them now, it may be too late later."

The shark is landed, another four-footer that is released when Canevaro points out that it is a female ready to spawn. The bite continues until the incoming tide is moving so swiftly that heavy weights would be needed to keep the bait down. Besides, the customers' limit had already been reached.

The red freighter is being pushed from the dock by tugs, and Canevaro fires up his engines and heads back across the bay, home to Emeryville, leaving the sevengills, sixgills, soupfins, dog hounds, and of course the spotted leopards, behind.

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