Born in miniature perfection out of mermaid’s purses or into their mother’s wake, dogfish grow into spiney scavengers or tigerspotted hunters and travel under a dozen different names.
There are three species of dogfish of interest to anglers fishing British waters—the lesser spotted, greater spotted (also called bull huss) and the spurdog. The black-mouthed dogfish (Galeus melastomus) is also found around Britain but in deep water along the Contintental Shelf and it is not an angler’s fish.
Lesser spotted dogfish The lesser spotted dogfish (Scyliorhinus caniculus) is one of the commonest elasmobranchii or cartilaginous fishes native to British waters. These fish have a skeleton of cartilage while the majority of fishes have a skeleton of hard bone. Although it possesses a typical fish shape, the lesser spotted dogfish, like its greater spotted relation, is strikingly distinguished from the bony-skeletoned fish by its crescent-shaped mouth. This is situated on the underside of the head, which forces it to turn sideways to attack its prey. Another difference is the lack of an operculum or gill covering. The five gill openings are long slits, situated behind the mouth and slightly forward of the pectoral fin. The upper half of the body is a reddish brown colour covered in hundreds of small black spots with one or two darker blotches. The underside is a creamy white, but when left exposed to the sun after capture large red blotches appear. The skin also differs greatly from bony fish in that, instead of having large overlapping scales, the scales are hundreds of minute pieces of bone embedded in the skin. The angler catching one of these fish should exercise great caution as the skin of the dogfish is extremely rough and can inflict a very painful graze.
The crescent-shaped mouth has small, pointed teeth which bite and tear food. Just in front of the mouth are the very large nostrils which may account for its very strong sense of smell. It certainly needs this faculty as it has very poor eyesight and so seeks its food mainly by scent. In this way it can detect any dead organisms in its vicinity and so act as a scavenger.
As the dogfish is so widely distributed, every angler is bound to catch one sooner or later. The easiest way of extracting the hook without coming to harm is to either subdue the dogfish with a blow on the head or to hold the tail and fold it towards the fish’s head, holding the two together, and so immobilizing the fish while the hook is extracted.
The breeding habits of the lesser spotted dogfish differ greatly from the bony fish in that the dogfish family possess male and female sex organs. In the male fish, part of each pelvic fin is modified as a clasper with which the female eggs are fertilized internally. The female of the species lays her eggs in pairs. These are about 2-2V£in long by 2in wide, with four long, curling tendrils—one at each corner. With these tendrils, the female anchors her eggs to growing seaweed or other objects on the seabed.
Egg laying appears to go on throughout most of the year as fish are often caught with these egg capsules about to be laid. It is not unusual to discover such capsules in the boat after landing a female. On opening the capsule it will be found to be similar to a bird’s egg in that it contains a yolk and a white. The empty capsules, known as ‘purses’ are frequently washed up on to beaches after the young have developed. The incubation takes several months and when the fry emerges it is a perfectly formed fish about 4in in length. Unlike most other fish which are able to live off their yolk sac for a time, it has to forage immediately for its food.
The lesser spotted dogfish matures at a length of about 24in and a weight of about Valb, but rarely exceeds a length of 3ft and a weight of about 2lMb. The British rod-caught record fish weighed 4lb 8oz and was taken from Ayr Pier in Scotland in 1969. The species is abundant all around the coast of the British Isles, and is found in both deep water and in shallow water near the shore. Although it sometimes inhabits water over rocky ground, it favours sandy, gravel or muddy bottoms. Most of its feeding takes place on the bottom, but it will sometimes swim near the surface to steal herrings, sprats and other fish from drift nets, often getting caught itself in the process. The basic diet consists of shrimps, small crabs, hermit crabs, molluscs, and any small or dead fish that come its way.
Greater spotted dogfish
The greater spotted dogfish (Scyliorhinus stellaris), also known as the nurse hound or bull huss, is far less common in British waters than its smaller relative. It is again distributed all around our coasts but is found in numbers only along the South Coast and around Ireland. Generally, it prefers deeper water and a rocky seabed.
Apart from being a larger fish, it differs from the lesser spotted kind in that, as the name suggests, it has bigger, but fewer, black spots on the reddish-brown upper half of the body. It also tends to have a rather broader snout, but neither characteristic is a certain means of distinguishing one species from the other. The only reliable aid to identification lies in the difference between the nostril lobes or flaps. The nostrils of the lesser spotted variety are covered by a single flap, whereas the greater spotted dogfish has a separate flap for each nostril.
The greater size of this species —the record rod-caught fish weighed 21lb 3oz and was caught off Looe, Cornwall, in 1955—means that, while sharing a similar diet with its smaller relation, it can also consume much bigger prey. The greater spotted dogfish has been known to eat fish as large as the thornback ray.
The species mates, eggs being fertilized internally, as does the lesser spotted species. The eggs are larger, measuring 4-5in by lin, and have long tendrils on each corner by means of which the eggs are secured to the seabed. The newly hatched fry measure about 644in.
Both species of dogfish can be taken on a very wide range of baits. The stronger the smell of the bait, the better. When fishing from a boat, a sack of rubby dubby tied to the anchor is used to send a strong scent of fish offal down on the tide to attract any dogfish.
Dogfish hunt in packs and can be caught in numbers. If three hooks are used, three fish at one time can sometimes be taken. The bait should not be too large for this fish as it has a smallish mouth. When hooking a fish strip—mackerel or herrings are often used—a piece about 3in in length by lin in width should be used with a 10 hook. On a strong tide a running trace of about 7ft is recommended, while on a slack tide the paternoster rig pays off.
The bite is slow and bouncy, and very distinctive. Do not strike until the fourth or fifth pull in order to ensure that bait and hook have been swallowed. The dogfish is slow-moving and sluggish, and indeed seems incapable of achieving any real speed. Once hooked, this fish’s fight is unmistakable. There is a backward pull, followed by a move towards the boat, and this sequence is repeated all the way to the surface. Remember that very often the angler is convinced that he has hooked the fish only to find that it has merely been holding the bait, which it releases on being hauled up.
The spurdog (Squalus acanthias) is very numerous in British waters, where specimens up to 21lb 3oz have been caught. It can be easily distinguished by the ‘spurs’ or spines, in front of each dorsal fin. Great care must be taken when handling the species, as these spurs can inflict severe lacerations.
Also called Picked dogfish or Common spiny dogfish, the spurdog is given to hunting in packs. Meeting up with a pack is either a blessing or a disaster, depending on your point of view: they snatch at just about every kind of bait without the slightest caution. Unlike the bull huss and lesser spotted varieties, the mouth of the spurdog makes very short work of a nylon monofilament trace, so light wire is usually used by specimen hunters.
The fish will often seek its prey close to the shore which gives the beach and rock angler the chance of a good catch. Most of the top action is on cold winter nights during an incoming spring tide, as the fish likes the security of a good depth of water. Among the best places to fish for them is the 18 mile long Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast, and the North Cornish headlands of Trevose and Towan. The British Record shore-caught spurdog of 16lb 12oz was taken as Chesil in 1964.
Shore anglers often make large catches of the lesser spotted dogfish, particularly in the west of Ireland. In shallow water, catches are better after dark than during the daytime, although when the water is coloured there are exceptions to this rule. It would appear from this that the fish does not like strong sunlight, for this perhaps has an adverse effect on its already poor vision.
Shore-caught fish behave in exactly the same manner as those taken from a boat, except that the bouncy bite is more pronounced (particularly if the rod stands on a monopod rest), making the angler think something much bigger than a 2lb dogfish has attacked his bait. This can be very irritating to the bass angler after a sporting fish, or to the tope hunter who might have taken considerable pains to cast an immaculately presented mackerel bait a great distance only to have it mutilated by small dogfish.
The greater spotted dogfish, by virtue of its greater size, puts up a much better fight than the smaller variety, although the bite is very similar. Once the strike is made, however, the similarity ends. On a strong tide this fish is capable of a short run, and takes full advantage of the flow for this. The jaws are lined with sharp teeth, which the fish often uses to chafe through the nylon hook length and so gain its freedom. For this reason, a short snood of wire is recommended.
Reliable baits include whole small squid and large fish baits. A whole mackerel, intended for tope, pre-sents no problem to this dogfish. The strike should be delayed to give ample time for the bait to be swallowed, for, as with the smaller dogfish, the great spotted kind has the nasty habit of just hanging on and then letting go at the surface before it is in reach of the gaff. If this happens, lower the bait once more to the seabed for it is not un-common for the same fish to atack the bait a second time. In one case the same fish—a distinctively marked specimen—was brought to the surface three times within a short space of time, only to swim off each time. It must have tired of the procedure after the third time, for it gave up, and was not caught. Here again, patience is the dogfish hunter’s most valuable asset.