Fishing for sheepshead gains popularity each winter like fans jumping on the proverbial bandwagon of a winning college football team. That's because sheepshead can be counted on to bite even when cold snaps may shut down inshore fisheries for a time.
Sheepshead are a member of the porgy-family of fishes and their scientific name, Archosargus probatocephalus, literally translates as the chief porgy. They are probably best known for their ability to steal bait off fish hooks, making them the chief of thiefs. They do not strike the bait in a way that would make the rod tip bend, rather they take the bait with stealth, sending only a slight vibration up the monofilament line to alert the angler.
Often they seem to simply suck the bait off the hook without the angler ever feeling anything. Anticipating this bite and gauging when to set the hook can be considered an art form of sorts for anglers. The time spent learning how to catch this fish is worth it because its flesh makes excellent table fare.
Distinguished by its vertical black and white bars, some say their markings resemble a vintage prison outfit, earning them the nickname of convicts. Rest assured that while other saltwater species may become sluggish during the cooler coastal temps in winter, the sheepshead keeps up a voracious feeding routine.
Sheepshead can be caught year round on structure such as rock jetties or bridge pilings, but it's during winter when anglers hold them in highest regard. Sheepshead fight heartily when hooked and any monofilament line may break when rubbed by rocks and pilings. Once hooked the sheepshead offers a great fight, and the first few seconds determine if the fish can be reeled away from the structure and into a landing net.
With four teeth on each side of the jaw, and several molars, sheepshead have a toothy display that resembles our own. Light tackle is all that is needed to catch theses fish, and their all time favorite bait is a fiddler crab. You can purchase fiddlers at a tackle shop, or walk on a mud flat and chase them down and pick them up.
Using a 1/0 hook with a small split-shot weight serves to keep the bait down in the water even during a strong current. It won't take long to start losing baits if you are set up on some sheepshead. If you have no bites within 15 minutes, then you should change spots in order to find the fish.
Natural foods they consume include mollusks, mussels, oysters and crustaceans. Heads-on shrimp makes a fine sheepshead bait, as well as sand fleas. While it takes a specialized bait and technique to target sheepshead, the sheer challenge to catch them makes many anglers devoted to their pursuit.