Sheepshead Fishing Up and Down

The art of detecting when to pull the trigger.

By Matt Stevens

No slouch: Pier angler’s “hang over” to the unitiated may be mistaken for the other kind. He’s watching his line before setting the hook on a good sheepshead.

When a sheepshead first takes your bait on a vertical drop, you’ll feel a little tap-tap. That’s simply the fish mouthing the bait. A rookie mistake is setting the hook right after this. Striking after that initial contact almost always results in a whiff and loss of bait. And that’s the main reason sheepshead have a notorious reputation for being bait thieves. Here are a few other tips to good sheepshead fishing.

Resist the urge to pull the trigger, and you’ll make it to the next phase of the bite. This phase is where finesse, feeling and a sort of sixth sense come into play. The “sheepshead stance” will help you achieve success in this phase, and the best place to learn it is a pier where you can lean on the railing.

Rest your left arm against the railing of the pier, rest your head on your left arm and situate your body almost parallel to the pier so you can look down into the water. Holding your rod in your right hand (or reversed for lefties), aim it down toward the water at a 45-degree angle. This isn’t the most comfortable position in the world, but once you get comfortable with it you will understand its importance for a couple reasons; and also be able to apply the technique when fishing from a boat or other structure that doesn’t allow you to lean.

Most importantly, this stance allows your rod to become an extension of your arm and lets you get a clear sense and feel for what the fish is doing. You should be on high alert when you feel those first little taps. Sensitive braided line in the 15-pound class will help you feel out the bite. Keep your right index finger on the line close to the bail.

The stance also allows you to accomplish another very important part of the catching process: Watching the line. After the fish has the bait in its mouth, it will start heading back for cover while swallowing the bait. Since you’re positioned to be looking down into the water, you can see your line start to move slightly to the left or right. If you weren’t looking, you might never know it is time to set the hook because the pressure from the fish is very light. But this is the exact moment when you should strike. Simply jerk your right arm upward and keep pulling so the fish can’t get back into cover and break your leader.

Sheepshead mouths are tough to penetrate with a hook. That’s because of the makeup of their teeth, which strangely look like those of a human’s. A hard hookset is necessary to keep these fish on the end of your line.

With patience and perseverance, you’ll soon be the angler catching fish after fish while everyone else turns green with envy. FS

Sheepshead Rigging

He looks threatening, but he’s really not. Big male fiddler crab is the ideal sheepshead bait. Note sliding sinker above the splitshot.

For your leader, use a 3-foot section of 20-pound monofilament and attach it to your main line with a swivel. Before you attach the hook, slide on a 1-ounce egg sinker to help keep your bait steady in the current. For a hook, choose a No. 1 live bait hook that is extremely sharp. If you’re having trouble hooking up, step it down a size or two. Finish the rig by attaching a small slipshot six inches above the hook. This allows the egg sinker to come down closer to the hook and anchor your bait in the water without hindering a hookset. If you are fishing where there isn’t much current, you can easily get away with just using the splitshot and not the egg sinker.

Bait selection is also integral when dealing with sheepshead. Fiddler crabs or mud crabs are your best bet. But sand fleas, barnacles and small pieces of shrimp will also do the trick.

Target sheepshead anywhere there is good structure. Bridges, docks, seawalls and pier pilings that are encrusted with barnacles are a good place to start. But sheepshead can also be found near jetties or rock outcroppings, on the beach or on the edges of sandbars.

First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, November, 2011.

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