Spurdog Handling – Code of Best Practice

The spurdog or spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) has been fished beyond safe biological levels and are classified as critically endangered in the NE Atlantic, please treat any fish you catch with respect and release them as soon as possible. This code has been written so that you can enjoy spurdog angling but most importantly cause the minimum of damage to any spurdog you are lucky enough to encounter. Please remember a gut hooked fish is usually down to bad angling practise and should be avoided by striking early.


Whilst spurdog may look like big, tough creatures they are actually quite delicate, especially when out of the water. It is worth remembering that (in addition to sharp teeth and rough skin) the sharp spines are used by the fish as defensive weapon and these can easily pierce a wellington boot. In one instance the spine caused a wound on an angler that required 18 stitches so extreme care is required when handling them.


Of all the species of shark regularly encountered around the UK, the Spurdog (Squalas Acanthias) is one of the easiest to identify, namely due to the large spines which protrude in front of both dorsal fins

The spurdog is generally slate gray or dark brown on its back which fades to a white belly, spurdog also have a distinctive green eye and scissor like teeth. More info on the spurdog’s biology and some basic angling tips can be found in our Spurdog ID and Fishing Guide.

Be Prepared

It is essential that you are prepared for every eventuality when landing a spurdog. It may sound obvious but time taken to find tools buried in tackle boxes or under piles of clothing means that the spurdog is out of the water and under stress for longer than necessary.

This means having T-bars, pliers, wire cutters, tagging kits, weighing slings and scales (if necessary) and cameras at hand. It is also useful to have each person present on the boat/shore knowing what is expected of them whether this means moving rods or lines out of the way or taking pictures. Time is a vital factor that may dictate whether a fish will survive the capture and subsequent release so the process should be as smooth and efficient as possible.

Terminal Tackle

The use of bronze finishes hooks is the singularly most important factor in the release of deep-hooked sharks as any hook that has to be left in a fish will dissolve rapidly. A size 4/0 is generally recommended, either barbless or with the barb crushed to ease unhooking.

As lip hooking significantly reduces the likelihood of a hook being left in a fish the use of circle hooks should also be considered. Circle hooks differ from J hooks in that the angler doesn’t need to strike, insctead the movement of the fish should pull the hook into place in the scissors of the jaw.

Spurdog are a large, strong fish with sharp teeth and rough skin. Losing a fish because of an inappropriate trace increases the likelihood of fish mortality due to trailing line and rig components. The trace should be at least one metre long of 80lb nylon with a 50lb 200mm wire biting length.

It is essential to strike early to avoid a deep hooked fish. A gut hooked fish is usually down to bad angling practice, it is better to miss the bite than gut hook the fish.

Dealing with the Fish

clip_image006_thumb1The recommended option is to release the fish in the water with a long handled “T” bar. This is far better for the fish and easiest option for the angler.

Insert the slit on the bar round the bend of the hook with one hand and pull the line down with the other. Use the weight of the fish to pull out the hook.

A barb-less hook or crushed barb makes this a simple task. The practice of making spurs ‘easier’ or ‘safer’ to handle by breaking off the spines with a pair of pliers is to be frowned upon.

As spurs have a two year gestation period then there is a good chance any large spurdog you encounter will be pregnant so extra care must be taken to avoid the fish aborting through stress.

Spurdog are not an aggressive or vicious species despite the look of the teeth or spines – simply treat them with caution.  Do not attempt to handle by trying to wrap the head and tail in a single grip as is commonly done with lesser spotted dogfish.

Sharks lack a ribcage and instead rely on the support of the surrounding water to keep internal organs in place: this means that once the shark is removed from the water the organs lack support. You should always keep the fish held horizontal and always support the fish’s belly with a hand or across your knee. Never hold a shark by the tail alone letting its head hang toward the ground: this puts an enormous amount of stress on the fish’s internal organs and spine and – although the fish will often swim off strong – the chance of the fish’s survival decrease significantly.

To leave the hook in or not?

There are occasions (although this is often down to inexperience or bad angling practice) when the spurdog swallows everything and the hook is out of sight or in the protruding stomach. The best option for the welfare of the fish is to cut the line as close to the hook as possible.

The spurdog will lose the hook eventually (providing it is not stainless steel) and will swallow the stomach as this method is used by sharks, as a defence mechanism to get rid of unwanted stomach contents. If you can see the hook in the wall of the mouth then it may be preferable to land the fish to safely remove the hook.

GG Tag 10Landing the fish

If you need to land the fish then the safety of both the fish and the angler is paramount.

Remember sharks have no ribcage and the water pressure keeps all the vital organs in place. Dragging a fish backwards or holding it by the tail can easily rupture the internal organs.  It may swim off fine but there is a high chance that the fish will die a few days later.

To remove the fish from the water hold the dorsal fin and tail and lift the fish horizontally, alternatively a pectoral fin may be used, however, where possible, the abdomen should be supported to the highest degree possible. When you cannot reach the fish, a large, landing net should be used, taking care to lower the fish gently onto the deck or land.

A wet cloth or towel soaked in sea water should be placed over the head ensuring the eyes are fully covered; this usually pacifies the spurdog and makes the removal of the hook with a disgorger or long nosed pliers an easier and safer procedure.

Avoid Holding spurs in a death grip from behind the head as the fingers and thumb can crush the gill structures. A gentle grip behind the gill area will do the trick. Where an angler is fishing alone it is recommended that all fish are released in the water, either by using a T-bar or cutting the line close to the fish.

In no circumstances is the use of a gaff recommended.  It is not necessary and seriously damages fish.

Weigh, Photo and Release

If the spurdog is to be weighed, the preferred method is by the use of a suitably sized weighing sling laid out beforehand.

The fish should be placed in this sling immediately after it is unhooked, ensuring that unsupported movement is restricted. Ensure that the fish is placed evenly within the sling before lifting. Good weigh slings can also be used to release the fish.

When photographing and returning the fish remember to keep the fish horizontal, with the abdomen supported by the arms and the tail grasped firmly.

When releasing the spurdog, hold the head of the fish into the tide for a short period to get oxygen back into its gills, once the fish kicks that is a good indication that it has recovered enough to be released. On occasions the fish may become gassed up and fail to swim off; this can be caused by winding up the fish to fast. A slight pressure to the abdomen whilst the fish is in the water should expel the air.


Spurdog are a large, powerful, active fish and their teeth are as sharp as razor blades and will instantly bite a finger to the bone and their spines can cause severe damage to the angler. The best practice for angler and fish is to remove the hook whilst the fish is still in the water but if you have to land the fish then the safety of the angler and fish is always paramount and care must be taken at all times.

Enjoy the fishing but please remember respect must be given to these magnificent sharks at all times. By following this code, you will help preserve the stocks of this magnificent fighting fish for generations to come.

This code of conduct was produced by the Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network (www.ssacn.org). It may be freely distributed with the normal acknowledgements.

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