December 01, 2023
We had a livewell full of shrimp and small fiddler crabs. Plus, a 5-gallon bucket full of freshly scraped oysters. I had just stepped aboard Capt. Gabrielle Barnes’ 22-foot bay boat, joined by her friend and business partner Capt. Lionel James, and we were headed for the Destin bridge.
As we motored through Choctawhatchee Bay, Lionel spoke excitedly about a sight fishing trip on the beach, taken two days prior, where he caught several nice redfish. Unfortunately for us, a cold front shuffled our plans for today. However, fortunately for us, Gabrielle’s plan B had us fishing under a bridge and out of the rain.
Gabby’s plan B had us focused on sheepshead, a species beloved among Florida coastal anglers for its excellent table quality, widespread range and weather-tolerant habits. Indeed, sheepshead fishing—in Gabby’s home waters and really everywhere—just seems to get better and better as the water cools down. They are fun to catch and don’t require specialized or expensive gear.
One thing about them, though: In very clear or heavily fished water, which certainly describes the Destin area, sheepshead can become selective feeders. The big ones, which are the ones you want, are notorious for turning down baits or rigs that don’t look right or smell right. Gabby and Lionel have perfected some methods for persuading those fish to bite.
“Beginning in mid to late December, sheepshead begin to congregate at the bridges and will hang around until they head offshore to spawn on the full moon in March,” Gabby said.
Gabby slowly idled her boat around the bridge pilings watching the sonar in the 20- to 25-foot deep water. She mentioned that seeing fish is good, but not essential. The more important factor is moving water, but not a ripping current. “You want the tide creating an eddy behind the square, it’s critical to getting the bait down to the fish,” Gabby said.
The square, as I would quickly find out, is where the action goes down. The square is a literal square pad of concrete at the base of several of the bridge supports. The square looks like it could be a solid block of concrete from the surface of the water to the bottom, but just below the water’s surface the pad ends and the individual pilings continue.
As Gabby drove the boat, watching the sonar, Lionel stood on the bow holding the anchor. “This looks good,” Gabby called out to Lionel as she nosed her boat up to the square. Just as I thought he was going to lower the anchor into the water, he jumped off the boat, onto the square.
This wasn’t their first rodeo, far from it. Lionel quickly took the anchor, chain and trailing line around the bridge support column. Once he was completely around the support, he took the flukes of the anchor and brought them over the anchor line, which was tied off to the boat, locking us in place.
In lieu of a cleat this was a fast and efficient way of tying the boat off to a bridge piling. Even though Gabrielle told me this was legal, saying that FWC officers wave to her on a regular basis, I still wanted to check with FWC. Brian Rehwinkle, FWC Division of Law Enforcement, told me that as long as the boat is not creating a navigational hazard, it’s okay. To be clear, tying up this way is for bridge pilings, not navigational channel markers.
And almost as quickly as Lionel was with the anchor, he was back on the square with a commercial scraper, scraping barnacles and oysters off of the waterline edges of the square. You could clearly see the chips and chunks of oysters and barnacles, along with a bit of an oyster slick, drifting down but also back with the current.
Gabby then brought the 5-gallon bucket of oysters on top of the square where she began to shuck them, adding to our smorgasbord of bait. After shucking each oyster, Gabby would drop the oyster in the bait bucket and stomp on the oyster shell, breaking it up into several pieces.
The precision with which Gabby and Lionel worked reminded me of a well-trained sailfishing team working a half dozen kite baits. Gabby kept a smooth routine of shucking, stomping and kicking pieces of oyster shells into the water for 5 to 10 minutes.
And not surprisingly, with broken oyster shells still sticking to Gabby’s bright pink plastic boots, she was hooked up, rod bent over, and running down the square, working hard to keep the fish headed to the surface.
Gabby clearly knows what it takes to catch very large sheepshead.
“We don’t catch small ones, the typical size sheepshead we catch is between 4 and 6 pounds,” she said.
As for secret spots, she said that all of the pilings could be holding fish, and every bridge, including the Highway 331 bridge and Pensacola bridges, will be holding fish. For that matter, sheepshead range around the entire Florida coastline: From the Alabama/Florida line clear on around the peninsula and up the Atlantic coast to Georgia and beyond. Their habits are universal; they are crustacean feeders equipped with special teeth supremely adapted to picking small crabs and other edibles out of barnacle-encrusted structure. Jetty rocks, dock pilings and artificial reefs are some favored feeding grounds, but perhaps the best spot of all is a coastal bridge, with pilings and other components reaching down into tide-swept waters.
In the Florida Panhandle, Gabby said there are a few keys to consistently catching bridge sheepshead. For one thing, it’s important to have moving water, but not ripping water. “If the current is rushing and I have to go to a 2-ounce sinker to keep it down, I’ll leave,” Gabby said. The bait needs to look natural.
She also said that you want enough water to create an eddy behind the structure making it easier for you to get your bait down into the strike zone.
As for water temp, she said that ideally it’s in the 50s which she feels gets rid of the baitfish. Speaking of which, she said that if you begin losing baits to pigfish and pinfish you’ll want to move. “You work way too hard for your oysters to lose them to pinfish,” Gabby said.
On the flip side, Gabby said that if her anglers are losing fish and getting bites she’ll stay. Probably much like our day, where we were consistently either hooked up, losing fish, or catching trophy-size sheepshead so we didn’t move the entire morning.
Best Sheepshead Bait & Rigs
As for bait, Gabby likes to cover her bases. Some days crabs work best, some days it’s live shrimp, but Gabby said her favorite bait are freshly shucked oysters. “Oysters are a lot of work, but they’re the best,” she said. “If they’re being picky, they’ll eat an oyster.”
Having the right tackle is important, Gabby explained. “Sheepshead fishing is its own thing. The right tackle is everything. I go with a typical inshore 3000 or 4000 reel and lighter action rod. I use braid with about 2 feet of 15- or 20-pound leader. I use as little a weight as possible, generally up to a 2-ounce egg sinker which bumps up to a swivel on the line to leader connection. And maybe most importantly—and why you can’t use too heavy of a rod and reel— is that you have to use a small wire hook. I like using a No. 4 or even a No. 2 Owner Mutu Light circle hook.”
On the other side of the bridge piling, it was evident Lionel was hooked up again; I could hear him click into YouTube mode, with his patented “Let’s go!” phrase. And then we heard, “No, not again.” Gabby laughed. I poked fun at Lionel for losing another fish. Gabby smiled as she let a fresh oyster drop to the bottom. If you were keeping score, which Lionel clearly was, it was Gabby four, me one, and Lionel zero.
I asked Gabby if she had a secret she was willing to share and she said, patience. “You have to let your bait sit. If you’re impatient and move it around too much you won’t catch as many.”
When I asked Gabby about catching other fish with so much chum in the water she said that you definitely will catch red and black drum. And if you do, you’ll probably straighten out your hook, which Lionel did on one of his “Let’s go” moments. But, Gabby said that if you then opt to go with a little heavier tackle and beefier hooks you probably won’t catch sheepshead.
I could see that Lionel was feeling the pressure of not landing a sheepshead and was changing baits, opting to go with a live shrimp and jumped off the square to fish a little farther back while fishing in the boat. Meanwhile Gabby was taking the slowdown in action to downsize her leader, going from 20-pound to 10-pound.
The good-natured banter between the friends and business partners added to the day. But, clearly Lionel didn’t want to strikeout. “You want to double hook the oyster,” Gabby told me while smiling to Lionel’s ongoing commentary. “You can even triple hook the oyster, looking for the hard part of the oyster to finish hooking through.” “Let’s go!” Lionel screamed. Fish on.
As Lionel fought to keep the fish from getting into the pilings below the square, Gabby jumped in the boat to help get a better angle for netting Lionel’s fish. I couldn’t help but to needle Lionel as Gabby was all business doing what she could to help Lionel land his fish.
With some Lady Luck, also the name of Gabrielle’s charter business, Lionel caught his keeper sheepshead. He also got his video wrapped up and the pair gave me a fishing trip I’ll always remember.
Can oysters & barnacles be used as bait or chum for sheepshead?
Oysters and barnacles are very different when it comes to regulations, according to FWC. Oysters have closed seasons, bag limits, size limits (3 inches minimum) and can only be legally harvested in specific shellfish harvesting areas that are classified as “approved” or “conditionally approved” and in the “open” status. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Aquaculture manages these shellfish harvesting areas. Barnacles on the other hand do not have size limits or specified bag limits, which means that you can harvest up to 100 pounds per person per day with a recreational saltwater fishing license and you can use them to chum sheepshead. You can also simply scrape them off bridge piles and allow them to sink and attract sheepshead. Do not scrape barnacles from private docks or other private structures without permission of the property owner.
MINIMUM SIZE LIMIT: 3 inches
DAILY BAG LIMIT: Two 60-pound bags per person or vessel, whichever is less, except in the Apalachicola Bay area.
SEASON (CONSULT FDACS FOR APPROVED AREAS): Closed June 1-Aug. 31 in Dixie, Levy and Wakulla counties; Closed July 1-Sept. 30 in all other counties; Closed until further notice in: Apalachicola Bay which includes St. George Sound, East Bay, Apalachicola Bay, and St. Vincent Sound and their canals, channels, rivers and creeks; and Indian Lagoon and its canals, channels, rivers and creeks. Click here for current status of shellfish harvest areas.
Sheepshead Regulations: Gulf & Atlantic State Waters
MINIMUM SIZE LIMIT: 12” total length
DAILY BAG LIMIT: 8 per person
VESSEL LIMIT: 50 per trip during March and April *State regulations extend into federal waters.
SEASON: Open year-round.
LEGAL GEAR: Hook and line, cast net, seine, spear or gig.
ILLEGAL GEAR: Harvest prohibited by or with the use of any multiple hook in conjunction with live or dead natural bait; snatching prohibited.
Special regulations apply for this species when fishing in Biscayne National Park. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2023