Midwinter tips for catching a limit of good-eating panfish.
Sheepshead are fun to target, satisfying on the table and found throughout coastal Florida. It is during what passes for “winter” in the Sunshine State when the cold-tolerant sheepshead earns its highest marks from anglers.
Structure is key when it comes to sheepshead. Docks and bridge pilings are your best bet. You want to find the structure with barnacles. I’m talking about the pilings you have nightmares of accidently bumping your boat into. These are typically concrete. These barnacles not only provide a home for small crustaceans the fish crave, but sheepshead enjoy eating the actual barnacles. You can often see fish rooting around in the white clumps like a hog rooting up soil. You want to keep your bait tight to the structure so the fish can easily find it when “rooting.” An old trick that still pays dividends is to take a shovel or hoe and scrape some of these barnacles off into the water. This disperses scent that the sheepshead can’t resist. Jetties and artificial reefs, out to 30 feet or so, are also terrific structure for sheepshead.
The small, boney mouth of a sheepshead was designed for crunching barnacles and crustaceans. They seldom strike plugs or other finfish representations, nor do they readily take cut mullet, pinfish, etc. Shrimp is an acceptable bait, but if you hook a live one through the horn or tail as you would for seatrout or snook, there’s a good chance the sheepshead will pick your hook clean before you know it. Fiddler crabs reign supreme when it comes to sheepshead bait. Small pieces of clam and squid will suffice, too. Pieces of shrimp work but are not as tough as clam or squid when the fish “picks” at your bait.
These fish don’t inhale a bait like other gamefish; they seem to savor their meal, chewing it up before swallowing it. You will often feel an initial tap. Don’t set the hook yet. The fish just took its first bite. You’d be rude to pull away their meal with a premature hookset! Keep tension as the taps continue. Once you feel your line start to move or go slack, set the hook. I prefer a very sharp (to pierce the bony mouth) size 1 circle hook, so instead of a hard set, a slow lift of the rod and few cranks of the reel will give the hook good penetration.
As for tackle, a standard 3000-sized spinning outfit will work perfectly. Braid I think is essential, as the lack of stretch in the line allows you to feel even the smallest of bites. A fish-finder rig, with a 10-inch piece of 20-pound fluorocarbon, attached to a size 1 circle hook is my go-to. Weight will vary depending on depth and current. A jighead will also work, ensuring no slack between your weight and bait. Just be sure the hook is on the smaller side.
The sheepshead limit is eight per person, with a 12-inch total length minimum in both Gulf and Atlantic state waters. There is also a 50 fish vessel limit during March and April spawning periods. Be sure to have a sharpening stone handy when filleting these fish, as their thick, tough skin and boney rib cage can do a number on a knife. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine January 2020