The first fish I ever caught on a boat in the ocean was a dogfish, a.k.a. smooth dog shark. As a 7-year-old obsessed with Jaws and great whites, it was the most thrilling moment of my life. Thirty-three years later, nothing pisses me off more than reeling in a doggie. They are a bait-stealing, jig-grabbing scourge that does nothing but stop my hooks from getting in the mouths of sea bass or stripers or tautog or whatever else I’m trying to catch—and spending huge amounts of gas money to target. They can be so thick at times, you can’t get away from them. I honestly don’t know any saltwater angler that leaves the dock specifically for some hot dog action, so I was surprised when I read this article on the website of Chesapeake Bay Magazine about Fay Ganster and her new state-record dogfish.
Going to the Dogs
According to the story, Ganster had booked a shark charter aboard Captain John Forman’s Bottom Bouncer out of Ocean City, Maryland, months in advance. As the October fishing date neared, Forman was not too excited about the weather forecast. He ended up cancelling the trip but changed his mind at the very last minute. Ganster and her husband loaded up on bluefish and black sea bass, and then sent a chunk of that fresh bluefish to the bottom for sharks. Ganster ended up landing an 18-pound smooth dogfish, beating the previous Maryland state record by just shy of 3 pounds, which is very impressive and cool.
In the piece, Ganster says she was very excited about the catch because she hadn’t been shark fishing in 12 years, which leaves me wondering if she did, in fact, book charters specifically for less popular inshore shark species like dogfish. Or if she was targeting other shark species and just happened to catch a world-beater doggy. When I hear “shark fishing,” I, like most saltwater anglers, think makos and threshers, but the story led me to believe Ganster qualified the dogfish as an acceptable “sharking” target. More power to her if that’s the case, and I must admit I’ve never seen a dogfish as big as hers. Now, did it really take “20 minutes” to reel in? I have a little bit of a hard time with that, because part of what makes most anglers uninterested in these sharks is their rolling, lolling, twisting sack-of-potatoes kind of fight. On the other, I’ve never caught an 18 pounder, or anything close to it. What also makes most anglers uninterested is their perceived lack of value on the table. Ganster, perhaps, knows that’s untrue.
Fried Dogfish Is Great. So What?
The funny thing is that while American anglers snub their noses at the lowly dogfish, they’re big sport across the ocean. In the U.K., as an example, cults of anglers chase them as well as some of their bigger cousins. Furthermore, dogfish historically supported the entire fish-and-chips industry in Great Britain. They are such a prized catch across Europe that they’ve been fished to near extinction in some areas, particularly around England and Ireland.
The first time I ever ate dogfish, I was blown away. It was perfectly deep fried, mild, white and flaky. It wasn’t until after I ate it that I was told what it was, and my initial reaction was, “Well, I guess I have to start keeping some of those.” But I didn’t.
Like most anglers that have eaten Panko-crusted doggie, you love it when someone else caught, cleaned, and cooked it for you, but on the boat during striper season, when you’re dealing with cold spray and chop and you’re just dying for a piece of the bass action, the last thing you feel like dealing with is dogfish. Unless your goal is to return with as much edible fish as possible, you’re not devoting precious cooler space to dogs, nor are you gripping-and-grinning with one to appease your Instagram followers. Not that you’re that influential, but even massive efforts by the commercial fishing and seafood industries have failed to get American taste buds watering for dogfish. The hope was that their abundance would fill the void left by dwindling cod stocks, but so far, it seems we’re willing to just pay a lot more for cod fillets.
Maybe if I caught more big dogs, like Ganster’s, I’d feel differently. Maybe I should book a trip with Captain Forman at Bottom Bouncer. Or perhaps if I’d been hooked on eating dogfish at a young age, I’d take more for the table now, but it didn’t happen. That first dog I reeled in, despite being a fraction of the size of Gansters, went right in the cooler much to my dad’s dismay. I paraded it around the dock for a while until I eventually got distracted and ran off. Later, when I returned to the boat, I asked my dad when we were going to clean my shark. “I’m really sorry, bud,” he said. “I started cleaning it when you weren’t here, and it slipped right off the cutting board into the water.” It took me several years to realize I’d been had.