Not often exceeding double figures in weight, lacking fighting prowess and easily caught from the boat when they are ‘in’… really that is an article dead and buried right there! And yet the spurdog remains of high interest to many anglers. So, what is it about this small shark that fascinates so many of us?

Shark…teeth…spines… looks… piercing green eyes… addition to species tally…Ah, now we are starting to understand the interest in this wonderfully modest fish. And do you know what, it is not a species you can just go out and catch anywhere and at any time. Often it will involve a specially arranged trip at the right time of year, potentially on some specific tides or at the very least some deliberately chosen hooklengths or rigs if there are rumours of a few ‘spurs’ being about.

The planning needed gives us that special sense and feeling of accomplishment when you do hook into, land and pose for the camera with your specifically intended quarry. For there is always a sense of achievement when you do catch the target you set out for.

Characterised by a spine at the base of each dorsal fin and small but razor-sharp teeth, the spurdog is slow growing, long lived and late maturing. The male spurdogs will mature around the age of six whilst females do not mature until around the ages of 12 to 15 years and interestingly have one of the longest gestation periods of any vertebrate lasting between 18 and 22 months when they then give birth to live young (around 10-20 pups). 

Craig McCloughling and Wayne Thomas with nice hounds - Photo credit - Wayne Thomas

Depleting stocks

Since 2007 there has been commercial management over spurdogs to the point at which it is currently illegal to land spurdogs commercially in European waters. For this is a fish that travels in large packs meaning that they were easily caught in vast numbers at a time, ultimately leading to massive depletion of their stock levels. Unfortunately, despite measures of a total ban on landing them in European waters, spurdog packs can be very patchy and thus are still caught unintentionally as by-catch in large numbers. 

As a recreational angler this is more than just a bit of background information into the species. It helps us understand the spurdog when targeting them. For it gives us some simple information to enable us to be ready for our day afloat. Information derived from the commercial fishing sector describes the spurdogs as travelling in a patchy manner but in large packs. So, translate that into your days fishing it means a few things.

Firstly, on a mixed day where spurdogs could show, you need to be ready. Ready to quickly change rigs if species become evident. Often the first sign that a pack of spurdogs are in the area is one or more of the anglers aboard will receive a bite only to reel in a very cleanly bitten through trace.

Now’s the time to quickly change to a rig for the spurs. Ideally you will have this rig ready tied so that in a move associated with efficient match fishing, you can simply clip off your current rig, clip on your spurdog rig and in seconds be back down amongst the pack that might be moving through and thus not missing the opportunity presented by the passing pack. 

The rig itself is remarkably simple. All you need is to fish a running ledger connected to your chosen hooklength. The length of the trace does not seem to matter with the spurdogs, literally any length that sits nicely on the bottom will do. But, a heavy mono, around 150lb’s, or a wire biting trace is a must to cope with their razor-sharp teeth. Slide an attractor such as a glow in the dark or brightly coloured muppet onto the line (this really does give an edge over a plain trace) and tie/crimp a single hook of around a 3/0 up to a 5/0 to the end.

Alternatively, a brightly coloured ‘Hook up’ rig is extremely effective and so simple. The other thing worth taking note of that has been going on and described in the commercial world is the pack like nature of the spurdogs. This means that if you have a day specifically targeting them in one of the prime locations such as North Devon you can ensure that once anchored up with numerous spurdogs below, you can guarantee that a feeding frenzy will ensue and it is possible to really start ‘bagging up’.

'Hookups' can prove deadly!

Location and bait choice

Spurdogs can be caught all around the UK coast inhabiting deeper water but will move within a few miles of the shore when feeding, particularly during the colder months. Spurdogs feed on small fish and their captures can sometimes coincide with an increase of baitfish in an area such as small whiting, sprats, herring and the like providing the spurdogs with a glut of food. As such they are likely to take a range of common fish baits, bluey, mackerel and herring all make good baits, but success can also come with squid, sandeel and crab too. Spurdogs do not have overly large mouths so it is worth not making baits too large, a single squid or half a fillet of mackerel will usually suffice.

So, you have anchored on your selected mark, chosen your bait and lowered it to the sea bed on one of the above mentioned rigs, what next? Well, don’t expect a rip snorting run from a spur.

A few heavy taps on the rod tip usually signals that you have an enquiry from the intended target. On the retrieve they tend to bang their heads around a bit in a desperate attempt to avoid meeting you but once on the surface… that is where the fun begins. Anyone who has had the pleasure of catching one of our native shark species, whether it’s a tope, a smoothound or the like will know how difficult it can be to hold one still and safely for your trophy shot. Not only have you got a decent set of teeth to contend with but you have the rather large pointy, painful bit as mentioned above at the start of each dorsal fin… it can be a bit of a game avoiding these as it writhes and wriggles in your arms. A firm grip around the wrist of the tail and a solid arm underneath the pectoral fins should give you a few seconds where that photo can be taken without a spur in the arm or a lovely bite mark on your leg before letting your prize swim back to its gang of ravenous friends below!

A good stamp of spurdog from the Bristol Channel

The Spurdog revival

For decades spurdogs were relentlessly targeted commercially, and their stocks took a hammering in European Waters resulting in stock levels falling below levels deemed to be sustainably safe and as such resulting restrictions being brought into force. Trying hard to not take an article related to recreational fishing too far away from our personal pursuit of the spurdog for pleasure, it is interesting to see that a quick google into Spurdog restrictions will lead you to the website where you can read of the partnership between six organisations working together in a spurdog data collecting and avoidance scheme. 

he organisations involved are, Cornish Fish Producers Organisation (CFPO), Cornish Fishing Fleet, Centre for Environmental Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Shark Trust and Marine Management Organisation (MMO). Now, what I find interesting about this is perhaps not the detail of the data or the specific reasons for the individual organisations being involved but quite simply… We ARE seeing a revival of the spurdog and that cannot be a coincidence.For over the last handful of years they are being caught in greater numbers, in more areas and in ever increasing size to recreational anglers…And that’s good news! So, if you have never fished for them, or want to break a personal best then now is as good a time as there has been in recent years to target the unassumingly fascinating shark.

James with a very good spurdog.