Spiny Dogfish in the winter waters

by Rick Stringer

In 1966 I was a student at the University of South Carolina and came home for Christmas break. The original dance pier was still at Folly as was a long fishing pier constructed by H.B. Hiott. The fishing pier was used during the summer to catch large sharks, including bull sharks (C. leucas).

That December I walked out on the fishing pier and noticed several people fishing for sharks. After a while one of the reels went off and the angler brought in a 3 foot long, kinda weird looking shark that I learned was a spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias).

Spiny Dogfish. Illustration by Rick Stringer.
Spiny Dogfish. Illustration by Rick Stringer.

They are a bit strange in that they lack an anal fin and have a spiracle like stingrays. A spiracle is a hole in the dorsal surface that allows a fish to breathe water out and which provides oxygenated blood to the eyes and brain. Interesting critter! This made me pretty happy since it meant I could still shark fish in the winter, even if they were fairly small, with most around 3 feet in length, the biggest reaching around 4 feet.

Not all dogfish are small. The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) reaches lengths in excess of 20 feet and weights of over 2000 pounds. A giant dogfish!

They were originally call “dokefyche”

The spinys are brown/gray in color, with white spots on the dorsal surface. They have very small, but sharp teeth and feed voraciously on most anything that swims. The term dogfish came about in the 1400s, “dokefyche” to describe small sharks that hunt in packs like dogs. Quite often they will swim in packs and seem to hunt as a unit.

Once I had a live spiny on a surface rig, hoping to entice a great white bite, when I noticed the float go under several times. After a while with no further action I reeled the bait in and saw several spinys following it. On the end of the hook was a different spiny and only a small part of the original live spiny I’d set out.

Click on image to see video of Rick Stringer and a spiny dogfish.
Click on image to see video of Rick Stringer bringing in a spiny dogfish.
Watch out for those spines

[Click on image to see video.]

Spinys don’t really fight as well as other sharks but they will try to impale their spines into anything available once brought into the boat. There are sharp spines anterior to each dorsal fin, hence the name. The spines are slightly venomous and hurt even if one is only slightly scratched.

We usually have a large influx of these sharks after the water cools to at least the mid fifties. At that time they can be caught beyond the surf zone in fairly shallow water as well as a few miles offshore. They can live for over 30 years and are the subject of dissection in colleges around the world because they are so abundant.

A commercial longline fisherman told me that he longlined for spiny dogfish many years out of Charleston harbor, and in fact unintentionally hooked several great white sharks that tried to eat the hooked spiny dogfish. So they are on the great white menu.

In Britain they are the fish in “Fish and Chips”. The flesh is white and of course sharks have no bones, so my family has dined many times on spiny dogfish. As with any shark the trick is to prepare the fish almost immediately and eat them the same day if possible.

Rick Stringer on boat. Photo by Les Stringer.
Rick Stringer on boat, sometime in the 1970s. Photo by Les Stringer.
Why the prudent fisherman owns so much gear

In 1971 I was out of Stono Inlet, in my 16’  boat, catching spinys on a flat calm beautiful day in February. I was preoccupied with the fishing and failed to notice a fog bank coming in my direction until it dropped on top of me.

I was a couple of miles out and the sun was setting. I pulled anchor and tried to make my way in but kept getting into the breakers, not able to figure out exactly where the channel was.

Remember, at that time there was no GPS. After nearly capsizing the boat I turned around, went back out a little and put the anchor down to spend the night waiting for the fog to eventually lift. I unfortunately also did not have a radio in that little boat, so I had no way of letting my wife know I was OK.

The shout heard over the dead low tide

After I didn’t return that night, my wife, Cheryl, called my friend Jimmy Yarnell. Jimmy and Tommy Donehue launched a boat and came looking for me. It was around midnight when I heard someone shouting my name. By then the current had stopped because it was dead low tide. I shouted back and we eventually found each other and, after bumping into a couple of sandbars, made it in.

Cheryl was happy and angry at the same time when she saw me…the next day a radio was purchased. Cheryl has resigned herself to the situation and knows that I am a fair weather fisherman and have all of the safety equipment and that I can’t change at this late date. She gave up on me and solo fishing a long time ago, but today I have a phone, a radio and a GPS!

Rick Stringer is our Ocean Correspondent and an attorney at Stringer and Stringer, Attorneys at Law.

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