Shark Fishing: A Guide to Species

Shark Fishing Species Guide

A rogue’s gallery: 15 shark species of particular importance to sport fishing around the world

By Doug Olander

SHARKS — anglers, like everyone else, just can’t seem to get enough of ’em.

Somewhere between 400 and 500 different species of shark swim in our oceans, in depths from mere inches, over shallow flats, to thousands of feet; from the hottest equatorial seas to freezing waters over the poles. Some never grow to a foot in length, while some man-eaters exceed 20 feet.

With a tail as long as its body, a thresher is unmistakable among sharks.
Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

This gallery offers a look at 15 shark species of particular important to sport fishermen — most of them species particularly likely to be encountered and/or targeted.

Some are wild on the hook — offering a performance as exciting as any species of game fish in the world. Many are unspectacular but dogged fighters. But no matter how they fight, bringing a big one boatside offers one of fishing’s more dramatic moments.

I’ve included the all-tackle world record for each species. Some species are part of the International Game Fish Association’s line-class-record system. IGFA members can see all records at the IGFA Web site.

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Carcharhinus limbatus and C. brevipinna

Blacktip world record: 270 pounds, 9 ounces — 8 feet long (Kenya, 1984)
Spinner world record: 208 pounds, 9 ounces — length not listed (Texas, 2009)

No shallow-water sharks outjump the blacktip.
Michael Patrick O’Neill /

Blacktip sharks and the closely related, very similar spinner shark, are among the most widespread and cosmopolitan of “sporting” sharks, found in all the world’s temperate and tropical waters and ranging from flats they share with bonefish to deeper offshore waters. These active and agile predators are popular with anglers who at times catch them casting topwater lures and flies and enjoy their spirited fight and, often, their repeated leaps. These species are responsible for most of the annual shark bites reported by Florida beach-goers when they follow mullet runs into the murky waters near shore, and the flash of an arm or foot may attract their attention.

Distribution of the blacktip shark
A superb light-tackle game fish of inshore waters, this blacktip was caught in Florida Bay.
Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
It’s easy to see how the blacktip got its name. They’re remarkably widespread; I’ve caught them in all tropical oceans.
Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

The IGFA all-tackle world-record blacktip shark.

270 pounds, 9 ounces.

Kanya, 1984

courtesy International Game Fish Association

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More about spinners and blacktips: Read about Florida’s fabulous topwater action for spinner sharks and blacktips just off the beaches.

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Prionace glauca

World record: 528 pounds — 10 feet long (New York, 2001)

There are no warm-and-fuzzies in the ice-cold stare of a blue shark.
David Shuler

The long, slender and aptly named blue shark is nowhere a stranger, being circumglobal in tropical and temperate waters. The wide-ranging sharks of offshore waters can be a nuisance. Their fight is less than spectacular, though bringing a big one to the boat can get exciting. Arguably one of the least-desirable sharks for eating. While attacks on humans are rare, blues are in the “potentially dangerous” category.

Distribution of the blue shark
Blues are particularly long and narrow and can look elegant viewed from above.
Richard Herrmann
The IGFA all-tackle world-record blue shark
528 pounds
Montauk, New York, 2001
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Sphyrna tiburo

World record: 32 pounds — 3 ½ feet long (Florida, 2013)

A glance at a bonnethead should be enough to identify it as a junior member of the hammerheads. Daniel Andrews

In essence a small, inshore hammerhead, the bonnethead prefers estuaries, flats and bays in tropical and temperate waters of the New World, along both western Atlantic and eastern Pacific coasts of North and South America. Flats anglers can sight-cast to them as they actively search the sand with zigzag turns looking for anything edible. Agile little bonnetheads will hit lures and flies, and offer great light-tackle sport.

Distribution of the bonnethead shark
Bonnetheads are often spotted over the same flats that bonefish frequent.
Adrian E. Gray
The IGFA all-tackle world-record bonnethead shark
32 pounds
Apalachicola Bay, Florida, 2013
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Carcharhinus leucas

World record: 697 pounds, 12 ounces — 8 ½ feet long (Kenya, 2001)

Bull sharks abound the world around in many habitats.
Michael Patrick O’Neill /

Unquestionably one of the most dangerous of the world’s sharks, the bull is also one of the most ubiquitous: Anywhere in the world there’s a tropical or temperate coastline, there are bull sharks. Bulls move freely far up rivers and into lakes. The thick-bodied, powerful sharks when hooked offer a reasonably stubborn but unspectacular fight (though the release might be lively).

Distribution of the bull shark
This is not a photoshopped image, but the real thing, taken at dusk from shore on Cat Island, Mississipi, where bull sharks often prowl in very shallow water.
Jason Arnold /
Bull sharks aren’t flashy fighters, but hook one this size in 3 feet of water with light spinning gear, and expect an exciting tussle.
Jason Arnold /
Read about the capture of this massive, 1,000-pound bull shark.

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Somniosus microcephalus

World record: 1,708 pounds, 9 ounces — 13-plus feet long (Norway, 1987)

Ice fishing for monsters — this greenland shark was released back through ice just after this photo was taken.
Johnny Jensen

Unlike other sharks on this list, the Greenland shark is restricted to the far-north reaches of both sides of the Atlantic and up into the most northern Arctic waters. These sharks have been aged up to 392 years; sexual maturity occurs at around 150 years. Very limited sport fisheries in fjords, sometimes through the ice, have offered a handful of anglers the unique chance to land one of these monsters, which they do more for the novelty than any sort of real fight. Given this species’ habitat, humans are safe from Greenland sharks.

Distribution of the Greenland shark
IGFA all-tackle world-record Greenland shark
1,708 pounds, 9 ounces
Trondheimsfjord, Norway, 1987
courtesy International Game Fish Association

More on Greenland Sharks: See photos of a Greenland shark-fishing adventure.

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Sphyrna mokarran

World record: 1,280 pounds — 11 ½ feet long (Florida, 2006)

Scientists theorize that the odd shape of the hammerhead’s “hammer” gives it better visual acuity — improving binocular and surrounding vision.
Jason Arnold /

Anglers may catch any of several hammerhead species besides the great hammerhead including the smooth and scalloped varieties, but S. mokarran is the largest. It roams the world’s oceans, ranging from shallow nearshore waters to offshore. Attacks on people are exceedingly rare. A fair opponent when hooked, though studies have shown that hammerheads are particularly prone to mortality when released, even if they appear healthy.

Note that all three of these hammerhead species are widely illegal to harvest, with the scalloped hammerhead added in 2014 to the federal Endangered Species List.

Distribution of the great hammerhead shark
Large hammerheads are notorious around south Florida for chasing down and devouring hooked tarpon, particularly in Boca Grande Pass, where this photo was taken.
Capt. Jenni Bennett

More on Hammerheads:Hammerhead sharks are particularly vulnerable to post-release mortality, a study has shown, and would be best not targeted by anglers, though incidental hookups are inevitable.

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Negaprion brevirostris

World record: 405 pounds — nearly 8 feet long (North Carolina, 1988)

A big flats lemon registers its displeasure at being held next to a flats skiff.
Brian Grossenbacher

Widely distributed, lemons prefer shallower coastal waters, and they’re definitely the big dog of the flats. Lemon sharks can be chummed in to a skiff in a couple of feet of clear on the right tides, and sight-casting to them and hooking up in such shallow water is explosive action. Although Lemon attacks on humans are rare, they’re not unheard of. By law, lemons must be released in the waters of most coastal states where they occur.

A lemon shark swims off with the rest of its meal, the head of a large jack.
Michael Patrick O’Neill /
Distribution of the lemon shark
A triple hookup on skinny-water lemons in Florida Bay near Islamorada.
Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
IGFA all-tackle world-record lemon shark
405 pounds
Buxton, North Carolina, 1988
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Isurus paucus (shortfin)

World record: 1,221 pounds — 11 feet long (Massachusetts, 2001)

Makos are known to target swordfish, often biting off tails, but in this case an enormous mako has clamped down on the striped marlin that some Australian anglers were attempting to release, boatside. Photographer Al McGlashan remained in the water to snap an entire series of photos. In this video, a mako attacks a hooked sailfish (note how it first bites off the tail to disable it.)
Al McGlashan

Found in most of the world’s temperate and tropical seas, the mako shark is truly one of the ocean’s great game fishes. This fastest of all sharks often goes ballistic when hooked, repeatedly making memorable sky-high somersaulting leaps. They’ve been known to jump into boats, and frequently chomp on outboards’ lower units. Makos will devour live baits but also track down marlin lures trolled at high speeds. Makos are also considered excellent eating. The species certainly has the potential to present a danger to people. The longfin mako, I. paucus, is less common and stays farther offshore.

No game fish in the world can outjump a mako, or is more unpredictable once hooked.
Al McGlashan
Distribution of the mako shark
A long, narrow snout and rows of long, narrow, dagger-like teeth characterize the frightful visage of the mako.
Tim Smith
Makos have broad, powerful tails with keels just ahead of the tail to move quickly and precisely.
Rich Ryan
IGFA all-tackle world-record mako shark
1,221 pounds
Chatham, Massachusetts, 2001
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Carcharhinus longimanus

World record: 369 pounds — 7 feet (Bahamas, 1998)

Relentless hunters of the open ocean, these aggressive sharks are thought to be one of the species particularly responsible for deaths of shipwreck victims.
© Doug Perrine

Common in tropical, temperate and cool-temperate seas worldwide, the whitetip is one of the requiem sharks; its close relatives include the bull, bronze whaler, dusky, silky and tiger. These open-ocean hunters are fast and aggressive, and many’s the offshore angler who has lost a prize to them. At the same time, when hooked, they’re quick, tough opponents. Whitetips definitely present a danger to humans.

Distribution of the oceanic whitetip shark
IGFA all-tackle world-record oceanic whitetip shark
369 pounds
San Salvador, Bahamas, 1998
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Lamna nasus

World record: 507 pounds — 8 feet long (Scotland, 1993)

A porbeagle — the “fat mako” of cold northern waters
© Doug Perrine

Sometimes call “fat makos,” the porbeagle is indeed closely related to and more robust than the mako. They also inhabit cooler waters, in the entire North Atlantic and southern hemisphere. Like the mako, the porbeagle is an outstanding game fish, though far less common, and is also fine eating. A limited targeted sport fishery off the U.K. has resulted in some fine catches in recent years. It is also valued as a food fish. The cool waters that porbeagles inhabit preclude much contact with humans, hence they’re not a likely threat.

The chilly north Atlantic waters off Wales are the backdrop for fine porbeagle catch; Capt. Andrew Alsop (right) has had considerable success targeting the species in recent years.
Dave Lewis
Distribution of the porbeagle shark
A mouth lined with teeth like these make the porbeagle a formidable predator.
© Doug Perrine
IGFA all-tackle world-record porbeagle shark
507 pounds
Caithness, Scotland, 1993
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Lamna ditropis

World record: 461 pounds, 9 ounces — 7 ½ feet long (Alaska, 2009)

The nomadic, fearsome salmon shark prowls chilly North Pacific coastal waters. It can be a nuisance to gear and catches in some commercial fisheries.
© Doug Perrine

Basically the north Pacific’s version of the north Atlantic porbeagle, the very similar salmon shark is a cold-water version of the mako. Like many large-shark species, the salmon shark is warm-blooded, heating its blood well above ambient water temps. Targeted fisheries are limited, mostly to areas where the sharks follow runs of salmon in close to the coasts of Alaska. Salmon sharks offer exciting, sometimes aerial, action for northern anglers.

Distribution of the salmon shark
IGFA all-tackle world-record salmon shark
461 pounds, 9 ounces
Valdez, Alaska, 2009
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Alopias vulpinis

World record: 767 pounds, 3 ounces — 9 feet long (to fork of tail) (New Zealand, 1983)

The thresher: A most amazing shark, with a tail as long as its body (which the camera angle here doesn’t clearly show).
Richard Herrmann

The common thresher shark is found in nearly all seas tropical, temperate and cool-temperate around the world. It ranges from bluewater to nearshore shallows in some areas, such as Southern California beaches, seasonally. The long tail is used to herd and stun small fish. Threshers are excellent eating and tough opponents when hooked; they often leap wildly. The less common bigeye thresher (A. superciliosus) may get slightly larger: The world record is 802 pounds from New Zealand in 1981. (After that record was established, the IGFA now lumps all three thresher species into one general “thresher” category.) Threshers are not considered aggressive to humans.

A good thresher shark caught off Baja’s Cedros Island. A thresher has to be really tired if an angler is to safely grab it by its tail.
Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Distribution of the thresher shark
A thresher shark glides above a photographer.
© Doug Perrine

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Galeocerdo cuvier

World record: 1,780 pounds — 14 feet (South Carolina, 1964)

Formidable: A trio of cruising tiger sharks. Tigers tend to scavenge, known to follow large ships to eat anything thrown over, but they are big, dangerous, unpredictable animals, often hooked by anglers (intentionally or not).
© Doug Perrine

One of the largest active shark species, tigers sharks inhabit nearshore and even inshore coastal waters worldwide. They’re not a true pelagic, open-ocean species. Tigers of well over 6,000 pounds have been reported. While impressive for their size, tigers are not terribly unpredictable or flashy fighters when hooked. They’re known to ingest just about anything edible and many things not, and they’re widely implicated in many attack on humans.

The markings on this big tiger leave no doubt as to its identity. Studies have shown tigers to be more resilient than some other large shark species that suffer high post-release mortality rates.
Jason Stemple
IGFA all-tackle world-record tiger shark
1,780 pounds
Cherry Grove, South Carolina, 1964
courtesy International Game Fish Association

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Galeorhinus galeus

World record: 72 pounds, 12 ounces — 5 feet (New Zealand, 1986)

Though not large, the small-toothed tope puts up a respectable fight.
Dave Lewis

Tope range from shore to deeper ocean waters in all oceans, particularly in temperate and cold waters. As sport fish, these sharks are particularly valued in areas where cool waters preclude a great variety of game fish species, notably the British Isles as well as South Africa and southern Australia. Anglers in these areas target tope for their quite-respectable fighting qualities.

Distribution of the tope shark
Though not formidable as sharks go, tope offer important targeted fisheries, regionally. This fish was taken in the north Atlantic off England.
Dave Lewis
IGFA all-tackle world-record tope
72 pounds, 12 ounces
Parengarenga Harbor, New Zealand, 1986
courtesy International Game Fish Association

Source: Sport Fishing

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