A few weeks ago I was running a trip and the weather was poor at best. The group was from north Mississippi and they wanted to go fishing. I told them the seas would be a little rough and that the trout were spotty. They still wanted to go, with the phrase, “We just want to bend a rod, Captain.”
I anchored at one protected spot all day with 2 lbs. of dead shrimp. Minutes after the anchor caught, two rods were doubled over and the crew was yelling and cheering. The big fish was netted and held up for pictures followed by the question, “What in the hell is that?” Not knowing what they were in for, I simply replied, “It’s a sheepshead, very good eating.”
For several hours we caught, kept, and released more sheepshead than I have ever seen. Some of the fish were close to 8 lbs. and they crew could not have been happier. They left me that day with full coolers and big smiles. Sometimes we take for granted how good we have it in the South. Pretty good weather most of the year, with endless areas to fish. Too often we get spoiled with healthy limits of trout and redfish. Yes, the wind will blow and the seas will get rough, but the fish are still there.
Limiting yourself to just a few species of fish is just plain silly. I have said it before, and I will say it again, “I just like catching fish.” Sometimes you just have to fish for what ever is biting. Sheepshead aka Bay Snapper can be found all along the marshes, beaches, and islands up and down the northern Gulf. Living close to structure’s (oyster beds, bridges, pilings, wrecks, and reefs) make it all too easy to find this hard fighting fish.
Known for its bait theiving abilities, sheepshead is a great fish to introduce new anglers to fishing. In case you did not know, the cold weather actually brings the sheepshead in when other fish scatter. With this past winter being one of the colder ones in a while, sheepshead fishing became a staple catch for most charter trips in the reigon. Catching sheepshead is not that tricky once you figure out one thing, SMALL HOOKS are a must. If you have never seen or studied one up close, their mouths are like a bream’s, but full of bucked teeth. Mostly feeding on barnacles, small crabs, and bivalves, they are the kings of stealing bait. The smallest, strongest hooks you can find are a must.
Dead shrimp have to be at the top of the list for bait, but squid, cracked crab, cut bait, and fiddler crab meat will all work. Small peices of bait will prevent the fish from robbing your hook. Structures, of any kind are worth a cast or two to catch sheepshead. Brigdes and piers can be worked for hours since most have hundreds of pilings on them. These fish hold right against the legs picking all day at the instagram app barnacles that line almost everything in the Gulf that has sat for several months. One neat trick to get the fish rolling is to bring along a flat head shovel and scrape the barnacles off the legs of the structure.
If there are sheepshead in the area, they will come from far away to get in on the free buffett. Tackle for these fish is not to complicated. A sturdy baitcasting or spinning reel can handle almost any sheepshead. I use 30 lb. braid on all my outfits and they can turn even the biggest sheepshead. A simple Carolina rig, with a 3/8 sinker will get most of it done. If the fish are holding at or near the surface, switch to a cork.
Just as I mentioned before, sturdy 1 and 2/0 hooks will fool the majority of the fish. Like any fish, they sometimes do get leader shy, so bring along some 20 to 30 lb. flourocarbon. Remember some sheepshead can easily go over 10 pounds, so have a net ready. Getting a bum rap for being “tough to clean,” sheepshead are easily cleaned, with the right tools. Leave the fillet knife at home, these fish require a different approach. Serrated knives with tiger or scalloped edges can slice through sheepshead with ease.
The rib cage on sheepshead is stout, so make sure the blade is sharp, and please wear a glove for protection. Once cleaned, sheepshead can be used in any recipe you have for trout, snapper, or even grouper. One cool trick for sheepshead fillets is to boil them in crab boil. The meat will fall appart when it is cooked through, and presto, immitation crab meat. If you have never eaten sheepshead before, you simply don’t know what you are missing. Just because we don’t get a limit every time we fish, that should not be the way we measure our success.
The amount of time we spend with family and friends on the water can’t be measured with a limit. Taking the time to learn to fish for a different species can and will make you a better angler. Have fun with sheepshead, show a kid or novice angler how to do it. It may remind you of why you started fishing in the first place. As always, have fun and be safe.