The big inlet jetties at the mouth of the St. Johns River are about as well known a fishing spot as there is in Northeast Florida. Everything from kingfish to flounder are taken near the massive boulders that line the rivermouth where it enters the Atlantic Ocean. But perhaps the most popular fish targeted at the rocks are sheepshead, which are available almost year-round, and are fished for almost daily by legions of anglers.
So when Capt. Jim Hammond told me about the great sheepshead action he was enjoying at the inlet jetties, I pretty much knew the drill—or at least I thought I did.
“You never fished sheepshead there like I catch ’em there,” he confidently told me. “I’m hammerin’ sheepshead that never see another baited hook because I’m working spots other guys don’t even know about.”
That’s all the tempting I needed.
Friend Spence Petros and I joined Hammond that next morning for a go at his personal sheepshead spots—on a spring Saturday morning when dozens of boats were sure to be out-and-about, hoping to find some oversize, good-eating, stripe-sided fish.
We launched Hammond’s boat off Heckscher Drive on the river’s north side, and made the familiar run east to the mouth of the St. Johns. We passed a dozen jetty spots where over the years friends and I had scored well on sheepshead in standard rock-fishing fashion. In the past we moved in close to jetties, found a sheltered, quiet spot near rocks and lowered an anchor. Then with long rods (sometimes canepoles) we reached out toward the boulders and lowered fiddler crab baits on egg-sinker fishfinder rigs to the bottom.
Not this day. When we were about midway down the north side of the south jetties, Hammond ran the boat well away from the rocks. But when he slowed his skiff he didn’t turn toward the boulders, as I’d expected. Instead, he looked to shore for a landmark, then began circling in open water, eyes glued to his depthfinder.
“When they built the jetties, a lot of big boulders rolled off the straight line of rocks they were sinking,” Hammond explained, his eyes never leaving the fathometer. “Those boulders aren’t tight to the jetties, but are out in 15 to 30 feet of water—far from the visible wall of rocks. Sheepshead hold and feed around those isolated deep boulders as well as they do near above-water jetty rocks. But sheepshead near deepwater boulders are not as skittish as those close to the jetties. Not only are they easier to catch, they’re often bigger, too.”
Hammond soon located his deep rocks marked with a depthfinder, rising several feet off the river floor in about 15 feet of water. We were 30 yards from the south jetties, farther than other boats whose fishermen were busy catching 2-pounders.
Anchoring for any sheepshead fishing can be tricky. Positioning a boat perfectly for bait presentation in wind and strong current along imposing rocks can be a trying endeavor. In deep, open water it’s safer but more difficult, since the spot you’re hoping to fish isn’t visible. In many ways it’s like anchoring a boat for grouper or snapper on a ledge or wreck. You find the spot, then move the boat upcurrent far enough that when you toss an anchor, it holds. Let out anchor line until you mark the structure—deep rocks in the case of jetty sheepshead. Then pull up a bit on the anchor line and tie off. You may need to haul in some line so that you’re upcurrent of the spot. The goal is to fish off the stern.
Hammond’s fishfinder marked a big rock on bottom, but no fish were showing. That’s often the case in shallow water, since a sonar cone is only a few feet wide and doesn’t completely cover even a modest-size jetty rock.
“I don’t look for sheepshead with my fathometer, I just want to pinpoint isolated deep rocks,” Jim said as he broke out rods and bait. “If there are sheepshead down there, we’ll soon know.
With revolving-spool reels, and standard 2-ounce fishfinder rigs, we were soon bouncing fiddler crab baits on bottom.
“You want to feel a jetty rock with a slip-sinker weight, which kind of thumps hard when you drop it,” Jim explained. “When you’re on bottom, reel the sinker up a few inches, and be ready.”
Spence and I did as instructed, and when I had my bait positioned just right, I got very focused waiting to feel that famous, persnickety sheepshead bite that usually comes and goes before you can react and set the hook.
But that’s not what happened.
The wind was down, the current mild, so our baits hung nearly straight down on those deep rocks. This allowed for exceptional feel of our baits, but it didn’t matter, because the sheepshead hit more like drum than picky bait-stealers.
Sheepshead fight well, and in deep water around rocks, you’ll need to apply plenty of pressure to keep lines from fraying on barnacles or rock edges. It took several minutes for Spence and me to get control of a doubleheader, before Jim slid the net under a matched set of 5-pound sheepies.
“Not bad, considering most sheepshead caught along visible jetties are half that size,” Jim noted accurately.
The lower St. Johns is a busy waterway and boat wakes occasionally rocked our skiff and we pivoted a bit on the anchor line. Sometimes we had to make several drops before we could feel the rocks with our rigs. When we did, almost invariably we had a strike. In two hours fishing we tallied over a dozen sheepshead, all heavyweights.
While Hammond looks for a specific boulder in deep water using his depthfinder, there are often a number of rocks in the immediate area. It’s easy to imagine that during jetty construction when a boulder “rolled” off the pile of rocks and fell away into deep water, a small avalanche likely occurred. During our trip with Hammond, Spence and I made short casts left or right of our boat, and located other, isolated boulders. It sometimes required a short toss or two to pinpoint a rock off to the sides of the boat, but once we found a spot, these fish obliged.
“The key is fishing deep water areas where sheepshead live and feed and other anglers don’t know about,” Hammond contends. “All fishermen want to find spots no one knows about, and with sheepshead, that means fishing deep structures not easily located.”
Hammond isn’t alone in his claim that deepwater sheepshead are bigger and more numerous than many anglers realize. My old friend Art Ginn, of Palatka, is on the same wavelength, though he’s from the old school of sheepshead fishermen who don’t use fancy fathometers or GPS units to pinpoint choice structures. Art is on the stern side of age 80, and has fished the Matanzas Inlet area for sheepshead most of his life. He often preaches the benefits of fishing deep, open water for sheepshead—places most other anglers pass quickly on their way to bridge pilings, docks and jetties.
Art, Harry Price of St. Augustine and I fished Matanzas, and while we caught sheepshead at a number of spots, the most productive were deepwater shell bars located far from shore. Most were in 8 to 12 feet of water, too deep to even make a ripple at low tide. Over the years Art and Harry learned through trial-and-error where the deep shell bars were located, and that they offered unparalleled fishing for heavyweight sheepshead.
Locating deep shell bars takes some doing. Drifting with jigs or slow-trolling heavy spoons, diving plugs or jigs is one way, but you’ll lose lures and it’s time consuming. A sensitive fishfinder can be used, but you’ve got to have some advanced know-how in its employ.
Old-style flasher-type fathometers are excellent for detecting hard, shell bottom, which is one reason the units are making a comeback among hardcore anglers. One advantage of a well-tuned “flasher” is the band showing bottom depth is smaller and tighter when its sonar bounces off hard bottom like shell. Typically, bottom surrounding shell is softer, made of mud or sand. This is immediately shown on a flasher unit when the bottom depth band is rather “wide” and ill-defined. But when a flasher detects shell, its bottom band tightens fast, and the depth indicator may rise six to 18 inches.
Color fishfinders and units with “gray line” capability also can be helpful in pinpointing hard-bottom shell areas; instruction manuals usually explain how to interpret bottom density on a respective unit.
All this may be more trouble than many fishermen are willing to go through to collect heavyweight sheepshead. That’s understandable, since one of the beauties of sheepshead fishing is its simplicity. But if you’re looking for over-size, aggressive ’heads that rarely see a baited hook, look to open water, and think deep structure.