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Sheepshead Fishing in Winter

Reef fish closures gotcha down? Warm up to this black-striped, white-fleshed culinary treat.

Bridge angler was quick on the hookset on an eating-size sheepshead.

You won't be taking home any 20-pounders, as you might with gags or red snapper, to be sure, (the all-tackle sheepshead record is 21 pounds, 4 ounces) but a stack of 1- to 3-pounders is likely, and if you fish offshore rockpiles during the March/April spawn, you may add some fish of 5 to 8 pounds to the box.

Sheepshead remind me of a sort of giant saltwater bluegill, and as such, they ought to be very easy to catch. To be sure, they are abundant panfish of the saltwater kind, but catching them can at times be a challenge. However, if you're interested in eating bottom fish—and who isn't—they are becoming one of the few games in town, so tightly are the feds limiting our take of grouper and most snappers.

The limit on sheepshead, on the other hand, still allows you to take them home by the flock; the rule is 15 daily, which means if you have two or three anglers aboard and happen into a swarm of hungry ‘heads, you can actually fill the cooler, a rarity with any species these days. So here are a few tips on sheepshead fishing in winter and the rest of the year, too.

Don't expect any line-class record ‘heads, either; the IGFA does not extend their respect to the species by keeping class records, though they do provide this honor to the mighty rock greenling of Alaska, which reaches a massive 4 pounds, 11 ounces, as well as the very sporting black sea bass (all-tackle record 10 pounds, 4 ounces, not half the size of the biggest sheepie.)

Sheepshead are not wimps, either; they're remarkably powerful critters for their size. A 5-pounder caught on the flats is a match for a redfish of similar size—though it's rare to catch ‘em on the flats because they are so much more wary than redfish (see below). And when you hook up with a heavy one around a piling, he's just as quick to wrap up and cut you off as any snook.

First, a quick scoop of biology; Archosargus probatocephalus is a member of the porgy family, thus his shape. They are named for their teeth, which do look somewhat sheeplike, and enable them to crunch up the shellfish and crabs which are their primary diet. Inside the mouth are hard, bony nodules which complete the crushing operation; they can grind up anything from oysters to mussels to barnacles—if you've ever tried to scrape barnacles off a boat bottom, you have to truly admire the power in the sheepshead jaws, because they nip them off like carrots.

Catching sheepshead is a learned art. It looks as if it should be very simple; toss a piece of fresh-cut shrimp in front of them and they eat it, most of the time. But that parsimonious mouth is very stingy when it comes to ingesting hooks; often they nip off the bait and leave Mr. Mustad hanging naked.

First, it's essential to use a hook small enough to fit the relatively small mouth of the fish; size 1 or 1/0 is the ticket to admission. Actually smaller hooks work even better, but the teeth are so strong that the fish can occasionally bite right through the light wire of smaller hardware. (They can also bite through mono or fluoro leader and line, and there's not much you can do about that if the hook goes in far enough for them to chomp on either. Adding wire leader is not an option—they'll rarely eat even the tastiest bait suspended on wire.)

You usually need a sinker of some sort because ‘heads are most often found in holes, channels and cuts, usually around rocks, concrete or other hard structure where shellfish can fix and grow and where small crabs live. One good way to rig is to put the hook on a dropper made of 20-pound-test hard mono or fluoro (both have more resistance to teeth than standard mono) and then hang the sinker on the bitter end of the line about 18 inches below. With this rig, you can immediately feel it when a fish starts nibbling on the bait; if the sinker is above the hook, as in a standard rig, the fish has to bite hard enough to move the sinker before you feel anything—and by that time the bait may be long gone.

Another rig, used effectively by Capt. Mark Thomas of Tampa among others, is a 1/8- to ¼-ounce jighead with an oversized hook, size 1/0 or so, on which a piece of fresh cut shrimp, about thumbnail-sized, is impaled. With the jig, you feel the bite immediately, and it casts more easily than a separate sinker/dropper rig.

While fresh shrimp is by far the easiest bait to come by, sheepshead also readily take an assortment of other natural baits; oysters, fiddler crabs and tubeworms are all high on the list of sheepshead aficionados. Dave Hack of Venice, who loves ‘em so much he goes by the nickname Mr. Sheepshead, scoops up sandfleas, takes them home, boils them and then freezes them. The process toughens the baits and also makes them readily available anytime he feels like heading for the jetties. (He now sells these, too—check him out via Google or Yahoo!)

On Tampa Bay, one of the more popular baits has become the exotic green mussel, an invader from Asia first brought to the bay in the bilge water of ships about 15 years ago. These days the mussels jam many pilings and docks, and sheepshead love them. They stay on the hook better than oysters, too. (By the way, the traditional tactic of putting an oyster on a treble or double hook to catch sheepshead is no longer legal; it's single hooks only for the species.)

Whatever the bait, the trick is to hold light tension on the line when you feel that first bump. If you can sense weight there as you take up the slack, go ahead and set the hook; you miss some, but you hook most once you develop the touch. Microfiber line helps, a lot; better sensitivity and more authority to set the hook.

You can often visually locate sheepshead in clear water; they tend to hang near the surface, and you can spot them as they turn and flash. But even if you don't see them, you can often stir fish up by chumming around crusty pilings and riprap; use a hoe or spud to scrape the barnacles. As this stuff showers down, sheepshead will smell it and move in from considerable distance.

Larger ‘heads congregate on rockpiles and ledges in 8 to 30 feet of water to spawn in March and early April; the channel edges on Tampa Bay inside the Skyway are a favorite spot, and many nearshore reefs also hold them at this time.

There is also a limited flats fishery for sheepshead on Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor during late fall and winter. On the lowest tides, it's not uncommon to see them up in the shallows waving that gray tail as they root out an oyster or a shrimp. However, a sheepshead seen in this way is not a sheepshead caught; they are paranoid on a level that makes bonefish seem like carp. If you land an artificial lure anywhere in the same zip code, they will instantly vaporize. The only tactic that has ever worked for me is to cast a whole shrimp, unweighted, on a light spinning rig uptide from the fish and let it sit there. Sometimes the fish smells it, swims up and eats it—when that happens, you have achieved one of the pinnacles of flats angling. They put up a nice battle in the shallows, too, with some fast, powerful runs.

Oddly, these same fish may travel to nearby potholes when the spirit moves them, and then they become dumb as catfish; most of the large winter catches are made by finding these backcountry holes. They also settle into rocky holes in many coastal rivers during cold weather.

Sheepshead are in the same gang as the pinfish, which explains something about their physiography—they are armed with some of the sharpest, longest spines in fishdom—sort of the uberpinfish, if you will--and the armament sprouts in all directions, from the back, the chest and the nether regions; there is hardly a safe way to pick up a sheepshead except with tongs.

But pick up a sheepshead you must, because that's what it takes to extract those wonderful white fillets. As you might expect of a creature that eats only shellfish, the taste of sheepshead completely belies the barnyardian name; it is among the finest of all fishes, right up there with hog snapper—another critter with a nasty name and a wonderful taste, come to think of it.

After years of being wounded by ‘heads, I finally came to the conclusion that the only reasonable way to deal with them was to disarm them. These days, when I catch one it goes on ice immediately to “put it to sleep”, as we like to tell the grandkids, and then out come the poultry shears. I systematically nip off every pointed spine on every fish—if you leave even one, I can assure you it will find a way to bury itself in your finger.

Once the spines are gone, sheepshead fillet pretty much like other fish, but they do have a thicker hide and tougher scales—run the point of a sharp fillet knife up each side of the backbone to make a channel before you start the filleting cut and it will go more smoothly. You have to cut around the base of the dorsal spines, too; they extend well into the meat. Now strip off the skin and you're ready to cook. On small fish, trim off the rib cage because it doesn't have much meat; on larger ones, you may find it better to leave the rib meat in place and deal with the bones once the fish is cooked.

Sheepshead are delicious any way you care to cook them. One of my fishing friends, radio host Mel Berman of Tampa, likes to cube the meat, boil it briefly in crab boil spices like Zataran's, and then dip in melted butter and lemon juice—tasty as lobster, and more tender. Of course, you can't beat breading and deep frying, and simply putting them in a fish basket, adding a little non-stick oil and plopping them on a hot grill is also a great way to go. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Jan. 2010

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