• Scientific name: Mustelus mustelus
    • Also know as: Gummy Shark, Common Smooth-hound, Smut, Smooth Dogfish, Sweet William.
    • Size: Up to 4ft and 25lbs
    • UK minimum size: 20ins/51cm
    • UK shore caught record: 20lb 3oz
    • IUCN Status: VU (Vulnerable)
    • Distribution: More common around the south and west of England, but the range appears to be increasing.
    • Feeds on: Diet is made up primarily of crustaceans, shellfish and molluscs. Fish are taken only occasionally.
    • Description: Small shark species. The first dorsal fin is large, second is only slightly smaller and located further back. Pectoral fins are also large and a small anal fin is present. The snout is pointed and eyes prominent and the mouth consists of crushing plates due to diet, rather than sharp teeth. Five gill slits are present on either side and tail is notched. Underbelly is cream/pale.
    • Additional Notes: Recent years have seen confusions over exactly which species of Smooth-hound is found in UK waters. This page still lists two species of smooth-hound (common and starry) but see Species Confusion section below.

Location, Habitat and Numbers

Smooth-hound Distribution
As this distribution map shows, smooth-hound is a fish found in European and North African waters.

Smooth-hound are a shallow water shark species, which favour sandy, shingle and light broken ground, and tend to stay clear of heavy, rocky ground. They live in relatively shallow water and are seldom found in water more than one hundred metres deep, and regularly come close enough to land to be targeted by the shore angler. Once a species that was predominantly found to the south and west of the British Isles, the range of smooth-hound has been increasing – they are now caught with some regularity from the east of England and have been reported in increasing numbers from the coastlines of Cumbria, Yorkshire and the North East. The expanding range of smooth-hound is helped by the fact that they are not commonly eaten in the UK and so not targeted commercially by British vessels (although in the past smooth-hound was sold in fish and chip shops under the name sweet William, rock salmon or flake, as was lesser-spotted dogfish). The British shore caught record for the smooth-hound is a specimen of 20lb 3oz captured by P. Orchard while fishing from Hillhead Sea Wall in Hampshire in 2000. The boat caught record is a 28lb smooth-hound which was caught in 1969 by A. Chilvers off the coast of Norfolk.

A major reason for increasing smooth-hound numbers – and one that should not be overlooked – is that smooth-hound are caught on a catch-and-release basis by almost all anglers. Anglers are happy to catch smooth-hound and take a few quick photos before returning the fish to the sea. Bigger average sizes of smooth-hound and more regular catches are the reward that anglers are reaping from taking this approach. Unfortunately, smooth-hound are caught for human consumption in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Africa and it is commercial fishing pressure in these areas which has seen the species numbers reduced in many parts of the world. Smooth-hound are classed as Vulnerable both globally and in European waters by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Feeding and Diet

Despite being a shark species and looking like a predator smooth-hound do not primarily feed by hunting fish. Instead, they scour the seabed for crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, hermit crabs and prawns and will also eat shellfish. They will take fish on occasions when the opportunity arises, but fish do not make up a significant part of their diet. The smooth-hounds feeding habits can be better understood by looking at its teeth. Rather than the typical sharp shark-like teeth the smooth-hound has blunt but powerful crushing plates which are adapted perfectly to consume the crustaceans which make up the majority of its diet. This lack of teeth leads to the smooth-hounds alternative name of gummy shark.

Starry-smooth Hound

Starry Smooth-hound

There is another species of smooth-hound found in UK waters: the starry smooth-hound (Mustelus asterias). This species is identified by the speckled white spots found on the upper flanks and back. Its feeding habits and distribution are the same as the common smooth-hound. The shore caught record for this species was set in 1972 with a specimen of 23lb 2oz caught by D. Carpenter from Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. The boat caught record is a 28lb 3oz smooth-hound caught in the Bristol Channel in 1998 by A. Bowering.

Updated: Species Confusion

Over the last few years there has been considerable debate over exactly which species of smooth-hound are present in British waters. While it is still widely believed that both common and starry smooth-hounds are found around the UK there is growing evidence that it is not the case. The theory is that the spots on the back of the smooth-hound are not an accurate way of determining species, and it is in fact only the starry-smooth hound which are found in the UK – some with distinctive starry spots and some with no spots at all. There is evidence to back this up – Dr Edward Farrell of University College Dublin carried out genetic analysis of 800 smooth-hounds caught in the North East Atlantic and found that all of the specimens examined were starry smooth-hounds, despite some having no spots on their back. It will take further research by universities and marine research institutes to determine beyond doubt whether there are one or two species of smooth-hound in British waters.

Methods and Techniques to Catch Smooth Hound

Shore fishing for smooth-hound usually starts in the spring when the first smaller fish being to move into smaller water to feed on the crabs which have begun to peel. Numbers and size of smooth-hound will continue to increase as the temperature increases and peaks in summer. The weather needs to be still and the sea needs to be fairly calm to bring the smooth-hound within casting range of the shore – choppy or rough seas will see the smooth-hound staying out offshore in deeper water. Many anglers also find that catches tend to pick up as the sun begins to set.

The best rigs are single hooked and clipped down behind a bait clip or impact shield. Hook size should be 3/0 in a strong pattern as this will allow the smaller smooth-hound to be hooked, while being able to handle a larger specimen which could come along. It is not normally necessary to cast great distances as smooth-hound will come into fairly shallow water when the weather is calm, usually casting somewhere between sixty and one hundred metres will find the feeding fish. When it comes to bait peeler crab is the best choice, and accounts for the vast majority of smooth-hound catches around the UK. Fresh and frozen appear to be equally effective. However, if peeler crab is not available squid baits which are combined with mackerel strip or ragworm can also catch this species, and prawn or shrimp baits can also prove effective. It is also worth trying hardback crab, as this is what smooth-hound feed on naturally, and some anglers have reported that catch levels stay the same when the peelers run out and hardback crab is used instead. Alternatively, using a half peeler/half hardback crab bait can work well, and makes the supply of peeler crabs last twice as long. Hermit crabs can also be used, although the small size means that a large number need to be used to provide a sufficiently sized bait. A good way around this is to combine hermit crab in a cocktail with ragworm or a strip of mackerel. Whichever bait is used do not overload the hook with bait as the point needs to be exposed to be driven into the hard mouth of this species.

Hardback Crab
Peeler crab is a top bait for smooth-hounds, but anglers also have success with hardback crabs.

Smooth-hound hit baits hard and run with the bait in their mouth – even a modestly sized specimen can pull a rod over, or potentially into the sea. Many anglers either set the drag of their reel so it will give line, or set their reel onto the ratchet (line out alarm) to provide an audible warning when a smooth-hound is taking their bait. Smooth-hound, even smaller ones, are very strong fighters which give anglers a great fight. Often they will need to be given line to make runs before they can be successfully reeled in, and big fish can be lost to anglers who attempt to reel in a fish too quickly and end up snapping their line. With all of the qualities smooth-hound possess it is easy to see why so many anglers want to protect stocks by catching and releasing this sporting species.

Handling Smooth-hounds

When removing smooth-hounds from the water for unhooking they should not be pulled up by the tail. This is because the internal organs of the smooth-hound (and all other shark species) are used to being permanently supported by water and pulling shark species out of the water by the tail can cause the internal organs to shift around in the body – harming and potentially killing the fish. Instead, the smooth-hound should be kept as level as possible and one hand should be used to hold the fish by the tail and the other to support the belly. Tagging studies have shown that smooth-hound have an excellent survival rate when they are handled this way and returned to the water quickly after being caught.