Wild and Wooly Winter Targets: Sheepshead!
Here in the Golden Isles the poor sheepshead certainly doesn’t share the same notoriety as speckled trout, redfish or tarpon, but it probably should. They are hard fighters, quite abundant in numbers and size, and are excellent table fare. Many local sheepshead aficionados have aptly named this finned adversary “the convict fish”, and for good reason. Not only do the seven black vertical stripes on this spiny finned fish resemble that of an inmates, the sheepshead’s uncanny ability to steal your bait rivals that of any common jailbird.
Although sheepshead can be caught year round, late fall, winter, and early spring yields more numbers and size than any other time of the year. While it is entirely possible to catch one of these light biting fish on an artificial lure, the vast majority are caught on live or dead bait. Fiddler crabs are the overall most popular bait, but live shrimp, dead shrimp, other crab or crab parts, oysters, clams, mussels, barnacles and other crustaceans, mollusk, or bi-valve meat will work. Often anglers will bring a variety and see what works best on any given day.
The sheepshead’s lairs are plenty, but in general, any barnacled covered structure will work. Bridge pilings, dock pilings, and jetty rocks are three of the most common places to find these fish but they do reside quite heavily on other structures as well. Fallen timber, wrecks, sea walls, oyster beds, channel markers and many other submerged debris all will hold sheepshead. Oddly enough, sheepshead will reside at many different depths and salinity. Sheepshead can be found in brackwish waters turned nearly fresh and out 10-15 miles offshore, and everywhere in between. In late winter and early spring there is usually a fairly good number of big spawning size fish in the 5-12 pound range on the near shore wrecks in 30-60 feet of water.
There are many types of tackle variations that will work on sheepshead. One of the most popular rigs is the simple fish finder or Carolina rig. Many sheepshead anglers will limit the length of the leader to 4-8 inches. I prefer a short shank live bait hook such as a Gamakatsu St#18413 Live Bait hook in the 3/0 size. You will find many hooks that will work, so use what works best for you. At times I will go to a jig head that employs the same style of hook. I typically start off with a 1/2 weight but will go lighter or heavier depending on the conditions.
A vertical presentation is the key to sheepshead fishing. Fishing straight up and down as close to the structure as possible is by far the best way to feel the bite and increase your odds of landing these fish. That’s not to say that a bait that is cast, or even a bait presented with a float (which is gaining popularity), won’t catch them, because they will. Over the years I’ve tried them all and the vertical drop has worked better for me.
The last and crucial bit of information is the”bite” and how to feel it. This is a combination of patience, technique, tackle and shear “luck”. Hopefully you are “lucky” enough to feel the bite before your bait is swiped. I highly suggest using at least 20 lb. braided line and fluorocarbon leader of at least the same strength, and even heavier if you are getting repeatedly broken off. (Even the seasoned sheepy slayers lose a few to structure). Now that we have our bait, tackle and location (and drags tightened!) drop straight down until you feel your weight hit bottom. At this point lift your bait 4-8 inches and be patient. At times you may want to come up a little further or even allow the sinker to remain on the bottom, maintaining a tight line. The bite may come as a peck or two, an added bit of resistance, or even a good thump. Set the hook immediately with a very short and sharp snap. I typically don’t give the sheepshead any wiggle room once hooked I reel pretty fast to get the fish up. Have a net ready and dip quickly as this fish has formidable teeth that will separate you from your trophy!