Important Texas Shark Identification Tips

Written By:  Chris


I’ve been seeing a lot of pictures posted on the internet lately of people posing with a dead shark and asking for an ID of the species.  It is the fisherman’s responsibility to be able to positively identify the species before harvesting.  It is irresponsible and possibly illegal, to harvest a fish without knowing the length and bag limits of the species.

In Texas there is a large list of shark species that are allowed to be taken and a short list of protected sharks.  Many people will say, ”How am I supposed to learn how to identify hundreds of species of sharks that all look the same?”  Well, if you can learn to identify these five common Texas Gulf Coast sharks, instead of trying to learn to identify hundreds of different shark species, you should be prepared to shark fish Texas with confidence.

The 24 Inch Club

In Texas, a fisherman is allowed to harvest one shark per day per person.  There are three categories that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department groups sharks into for length limits: sharks that must be at least 24 inches, sharks that must be at least 64 inches, and sharks that are protected and cannot be harvested despite the length.

There are three Texas shark species that must be at least 24 inches to harvest.  The three sharks in the group are some of the most common sharks you will find.  People commonly get in trouble by misidentifying a shark they catch as one of the three in this group, when it is really another species that either must be 64 inches or cannot be harvested at all.

The three species of shark in this group are the Blacktip Shark, the Atlantic Sharpnose Shark, and the Bonnethead Shark.  Instead of learning every shark that doesn’t belong in this group, learn to positively identify these three sharks and you should have no problems.

Blacktip Shark

A juvenile blacktip shark, showing the dark black tipped fins

The Blacktip is one of the most commonly caught sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is also one of the best sharks for eating.  They are a lot of fun to catch and will often put on a good aerial display when hooked.

The most distinctive feature of the Blacktip is that of which its name originates; the black tips on its fins.  The posterior end of the pectoral fin is located just underneath the beginning of the dorsal fin.  It can grow up to 8 feet long.

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark

The Sharpnose is another very commonly caught shark from the Texas coast.  They are a fairly small species of shark.  The largest ones reach only three and a half feet long.

One of the most distinctive marks on the Sharpnose is the white faint white spots that are commonly found on its sides.  Another distinctive feature is the orientation of the second dorsal fin staggered behind the anal fin instead of directly above.

Bonnethead Shark

The bonnethead is the easiest shark of the three to identify.   It is in the hammerhead family and is often mistakenly called a hammerhead shark.  The main distinguishing feature is its shovel shaped head as opposed to the more flat head of the other hammerhead species.  This bonnet or shovel shaped head is all you should need to be able to properly identify this fish.

A. Smooth Hammerhead, B. Scalloped Hammerhead, C. Great Hammerhead, D. Bonnethead

The bonnet head will grow to about five feet compared to other species of hammerheads which can grow to nearly 20 feet.

Sharks that Commonly Fool People

Spinner Shark

The Spinner Shark is very commonly mistaken as a Blacktip Shark.  It is similar in shape, color, markings, and size as a Blacktip.  This can get people in a lot of trouble because the minimum length for a Blacktip is 24” while the minimum length for a Spinner 64”.  People will often harvest an undersized Spinner thinking it is a Blacktip.

The Spinner Shark (top) shows the black tipped anal fin compared to the Blacktip Shark (below) which has none.

The easiest way to tell the difference between a spinner and a Blacktip is to look at the anal fins.  A Blacktip shark does not usually have black on the tip of its anal fin, while a spinner almost always will.  See the picture below.

Notice the orientation of the Blacktip Shark’s pectoral fins in relation to it’s dorsal fin.

Notice that the Spinner Shark’s pectoral fins are much further forward in relation to its dorsal fin than the Blacktip’s

Another way to tell the difference is by looking at the orientation of the pectoral fins in relation to the dorsal fin.  The Spinner Shark’s pectoral fins are further forward than a Blacktips.  The Spinner Shark’s pectoral fins will end before the dorsal fin begins, while the Blacktip’s pectoral fins will end underneath the dorsal fin.  Check out the picture below for a comparison.

Sandbar Shark

Rarely will you encounter one of the sharks on the protected list from the Texas shore, except for maybe the Sandbar shark.  It is sometimes confused with an Atlantic Sharpnose.  The sandbar shark is probably the most commonly caught protected shark on the Texas coast.  This is a very important one to learn because there is NO situation where it is acceptable to keep a sandbar shark.

Sandbars usually are only close to shore in the cooler months.  The chances of running into a Sandbar Shark on the beach in the summer months are slim but not impossible.

Sandbars biggest distinction is their taller than average dorsal fin, which is located centrally above the end of the pectoral fin.  They are usually a bluish to brownish grey color.  It has an inter-dorsal ridge between the first and second dorsal fin.

If you even suspect that you have caught a Sandbar Shark, the best thing you can do is release it safely.

UFOs (Unidentified Fishy Objects)

So, what do you do if you catch a shark that you can’t positively group into one of the three bag length categories?  The simple answer is, “Let it go!”  It isn’t worth the penalties that the game warden could give you or the possible damage you could do to the fishery by killing a threatened species.  You could always do what I do.  Snap some pictures, go home and look it up so that you learn it for the future!

I hope I was able to help a few of my fellow Texas Shark anglers with this article.  With the hundreds of species of similar looking sharks in the Gulf, positive identification can be a challenging task.  However, if you are going to target sharks as a game species, especially if you plan on harvesting them for the table, it is your responsibility as an angler to know the rules.  If you can take the time to learn these five sharks and release the ones that you aren’t sure of, you should never run into any problems.

All regulations cited in this article are cited as of August 2012.

Thank you to the Florida Museum of Natural History for pictures and information!

Categories: fishing, Land Based Shark Fishing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Important Texas Shark Identification Tips

  1. ridgline

    Great article, I used to do a lot of kayak fishing in the gulf down near Naples FL, and would mostly try to avoid sharks. The bonnetheads were always a fun bi-catch. I had a scary encounter with what I never positively identified as a pair of lemon sharks (but I did some research and think I am correct) about a mile offshore chasing schools of Mackeral. They were curious and I sat really still until I didn’t see any sign of them for a good while.

    • I may have had to change my swimsuit after that encounter! I’ve heard about sharks coming up to people in kayaks to investigate them. I’ve never had it happen to me. A few weeks ago I had a couple dolphins circling me and coming up close. Really neat to see, but still kinda scary

  2. Nice article guys.

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