Gear Up For The Sheepshead Showdown

Fishing for sheepshead can be tricky but the tasty fillets make it worth the effort.

By David A. Brown
Fish Ambassador

The thing about catching convicts in the act is you have to know their game. That’s a fitting analogy for one of the most prized inshore species — the sheepshead.

Black and white vertical bars give the sheepshead its “convict fish” nickname.
(Photos: David Brown)

Generously distributed throughout the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, this species’ black and white vertical stripes have earned it the nickname “convict fish” by conjuring images of historic prison uniforms. However, this theme carries further with the sheepshead’s larcenous reputation as a professional bait stealer.

No question, this is one of the trickiest fish to catch, but those who understand the sheepshead’s game can craft a strategy for nabbing these bait-stealing crooks.

The sheepshead is a notorious bait stealer but well worth the effort.

Built For Theft

Actually members of the porgy family, sheepshead follow the usual elliptical body shape, kind of like a dinner plate turned vertically. After those stripes, their most noticeable feature is the prominent incisors protruding from the mouth, kind of like — a sheep. Look closely and you’ll see that a sheepshead’s jaws pack a sturdy set of grinding molars.

Normally, a fish’s dental design offers little more than a safety warning — sharp teeth, keep your distance. However, noting the sheepshead’s choppers is a point worth making, as it offers a valuable clue as to how the sheepshead feeds, and knowing this helps us effectively present the right baits.

The stout teeth lining a sheepshead’s mouth are designed for crunching hard meals.

Specifically, the sheepshead is a nibbler that likes to peck at crustaceans and shellfish to crack the firm exteriors and then gobble up the tender meat. While they’re not really strong enough to crack open a clam or a full-size oyster, sheepshead are well-equipped for crunching barnacles and crabs. Understandably, they’ll make short work of a shrimp and any tender invertebrate.

Good to know when it comes to bait selection, but don’t assume that the right offering guarantees success. Unlike the aggressive gulping styles of snook, redfish or speckled trout, the sheepshead is the sea’s most notorious nibbler. Back to the tooth thing — it’s not that these fish are indecisive; they’re just built for a specific feeding style.

Basically, a sheepshead knows that the majority of its meals come with a rigid exterior. So, unlike a relatively soft baitfish that other predators often gobble whole, the sheepshead first has to bite open the shell and then bite again to extract the edible parts. With crabs, they often end up ingesting parts of the shell, but only after crunching this natural casing to expose the tasty innards.

For anglers, this requires a blend of patience and quick response — more on that in a moment. For now, let’s look at where to find sheepshead.

Barnacle-encrusted dock pilings make supersheepshead habitat.

‘Head Habitat

Grass Flats: With shrimp often hiding amid the swaying vegetation and crabs clinging to random rocks, sheepshead are often spotted patrolling open shallows.

Mangrove Basins: The tangled mass of exposed roots, often encrusted with barnacles and oysters, harbors loads of crab and shrimp.

Marshes: From Georgia’s spartina grass marshes, to Florida’s Nature Coast waterways, to the Mississippi Delta’s bayous and canals, areas with shell bottom or exposed rock could find sheepshead hunting crabs and other crustaceans.

Oyster Bars: One of the most consistent natural habitats, these shellfish colonies harbor loads of crustacean and invertebrate forage.

Bridge/Pier Pilings: These hard vertical structures collect sea life, including lots of crustaceans and invertebrates. Sheepshead regularly circle pilings and nibble at every tasty morsel they can find.

Generally, you’ll find the most consistent opportunities around the solid structures that hold sheepshead in relatively definable areas with the lure of bountiful feeding. Piers, bridges, dock pilings and seawalls are easily accessible and offer clear visual references. The same holds for oyster bars and artificial reefs located near shore and inside major bays.

On the other hand, snooping around coastal areas and watching the depthfinder for random rockpiles, limestone outcroppings or small wrecks can present a gold mine of sheepshead potential — particularly during their winter aggregations. These fish inhabit coastal waters year-round, but the cooler months see large spawning aggregations that make the true heavyweights more accessible than ever.

Baits And Rigs

Live shrimp are the most easily accessible bait, but don’t offer them whole — that makes it too easy for a sheepshead to peck off little bits without ever touching the hook. Use fingernail-size chunks that barely cover the hook point. (Frozen shrimp might work for other species, but it’s usually a lesson in frustration with sheepshead because it turns to easily stolen mush when it thaws.)

Depending on local harvest regulations, shellfish like oysters, clams or mussels are absolutely irresistible to sheepshead, but this requires considerable gathering and shucking effort. One of the best bait options is a small crab — fiddlers collected on sandy beaches, rock or “dime” crabs gathered from shallow rocks and oyster bars or the mangrove crabs found on coastal tree limbs and docks.

Fish any of these baits on a 1/0 light-wire hook with a cutting point made for efficient penetration, and use a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader to avoid spooking wary sheepshead. Because targeted presentations are usually necessary, you’ll want at least a split shot a couple of inches above the hook.

In deeper water, use a basic slip-sinker rig with a 1- to 2-ounce sinker on your main line, then a swivel linking to a leader with your hook. For a more compact profile, some replace the sinker and hook with a lead jighead — often helpful around rocks, oysters or anywhere a longer rig might snag.

If you’re targeting sheepshead that are holding over deeper rocks or shellbars, borrow a page from the bass angler’s playbook and fish your bait on a drop shot. If you’re handy at tying your own rigs, make your leader long enough for the bait to stand above the structure.

Option: Use a VMC Spin Shot, which comprises a hook mounted on a metal stem with swivels at both ends. Tie your main line to one swivel, your leader (with a sinker) to the other and you’re ready to fish.

Strategy And Response

In shallower areas, you’ll often see plenty of sheepshead darting in and out of the shadows or scooting across a grassy flat. In deeper areas, or anytime you need to gather the fish into convenient range, consider “chumming” — dispersing enticing scents through the water.

The simplest option is tossing a handful of cut shrimp bits into the water. No predator will pass up a freebie, so start broad and then “walk” them into range by dropping the chum progressively closer.

A live crab is one of the most effective sheepshead baits.

Another option involves collecting shellfish, shucking them to remove the meat for bait, then using a hammer’s top edge to crush the shells in a bucket. Grind them into small bits and then toss handfuls of this scented grit into the water.

The smell of fresh shellfish will drive the sheepshead into a frenzy and stimulate them to bite a baited hook. Similarly, scraping barnacles off a bridge, pier or seawall (best from a boat) fires up the sheepshead with a sudden buffet.

With or without the chum influence, sheepshead will frustrate those short on patience and response. The first thing to consider is that sheepshead peck with purpose. The first couple of taps you feel are the fish attempting to crack a shell, while subsequent bites usually bring greater commitment. With softer shrimp or shucked shellfish meat, the fish will still make a test bite to make sure they can access the bait.

Timing that fully committed bite is like trying to time the stock market — sometimes it works; sometimes not so much. Often anglers overhype the situation and end up missing their moment because they’re too tense.

Relax — this is only a fish. For best results, keep your arms loose and relaxed, wait until you feel that brief blast of sustained pressure, then simply raise your rod and reel as fast as you can.

A 7-foot medium-heavy spinning outfit with a moderate tip and plenty of backbone offers the right mix of bite detection and quick response. This, plus braided main line, will help you drive the hook home. When you succeed, maintain consistent pressure all the way to the landing net, because hooks are easily dislodged from this fish’s bony mouth.

In truth, outsmarting a sheepshead is easier said than done. However, tasty fillets more than justify the effort. Fried, broiled, baked or grilled, a sheepshead dinner will leave you planning your next convict roundup.

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