Sheepshead Fish Provide

News & Tips: Sheepshead Fish Provide

Everyone remembers their first time, and I certainly remember my first sheepshead. I was 15 and it was December, and I was using a spool of 12-pound mono for a handline (after recently losing my Zebco rod, yanked overboard). I was fishing inside a local marina where I'd had good luck with redfish the previous month, full of pilings and sailboats crowded into every boatslip. Something ponderous picked up my shrimp, stronger than any redfish I'd ever caught, and practically sprinted up and down the boat canal. I gave line when I had to, somehow snubbed him short around those many structures. It was a long fight and a chilly dawn, and my trophy redfish materialized into something with stripes, an odd fish with teeth.

Florida angler with a six-stripe sheepshead. These fish seem to have a slightly-smaller head than the common five-stripers found in Texas and Louisiana.

The old Cajun who ran the marina knew exactly what it was, a six-pound sheepshead that became their next dinner. For them it was a treat, since they ate all sorts of marsh critters, assorted seafood, even scrap ducks that hung around the outer seawall. That sheepshead was a fine dinner for them, but certainly would have been for anyone else who can fry fish.

It's true that most bay fishing guides along the Gulf Coast would rather be waterboarded than photographed for publication with a sheepshead, but that's a vanity problem. For everyone else, this is a reliable winter sport and a tasty treat on the table.

And gaining respect: Jacksonville, Florida now has a huge sheepshead tournament each February, with first prize winning a boat, motor and trailer. It's called the El Cheapo, with a moderate entry fee and a big fish fry afterwards. Since the Mayport jetties there has a huge public boat ramp within sight of the jetty rocks, it's easy for a motley collection of boats to sign up and fish. The weather might be sunny since this is Florida, after all. Or it might be foggy, cold, windy or rainy, since the tourney date is picked far in advance. The tourney's anglers wisely dress for the worst, but the sheepshead provides in almost all winter weather.

Abundant, but not that easy to catch, a sturdy battler and excellent table fare (if a little tricky to clean), the sheepshead is winter's most dependable bay action from Georgia to Texas. And the wise angler who knows this fish counts a good electric knife as a necessity here.  

This is a roundish, slab-sided fish shaped like a freshwater bream, but fat and ready to spawn each January or February. There are actually two species, one with five stripes, the other with six, the dividing line somewhere in South Florida. The six-stripers run east of there, the "fiveys" to the west.

Winters were bleak on the Texas/Louisiana border where I grew up, but during February (the cruelest month of all), you could at least count on catching a big box, often a hundred pounds of sheepshead, by walking the jetties. The best weather was warm and foggy, with a green tide. If a norther was blowing with a blue sky, and the water muddy, forget it. Frozen shrimp was fine, since nobody offered live shrimp in that area. However, if a single shrimpboat was working nearby, we would hustle out there in the jonboat and demand (okay, we asked nicely) for a couple of pounds of shrimp. Sometimes that boat had only a small pile of tough rock shrimp, but the sheepshead fell all over that.

Our favorite technique in those days was "flipping" out a home-made bucktail jig a dozen feet or less from the jetty, and letting it hit a rock down below. Tough, 20-pound mono line such as Ande was best, a hard line that wouldn't cut easily. No leader was necessary. With a shrimp-tipped jig, a sheepshead could smell it out within a minute or less, often far less. If you caught a couple of fish from one spot, very likely others were beginning to congregate there, from all the commotion. (They're very curious). Each fish that fought the jig probably lost his shrimp, and another fish would grab it. This makes sheepshead susceptible to chumming.

Sheepshead during summer, inside a platform off the Texas coast. They do love their structure, which provides barnacles and tiny oysters for food.

Our best chumming feats were out at the platforms just offshore, whose pilings were covered with big barnacles. A handy baseball bat, paddle, gaff, hammer, anything would knock those barnacles loose, and there was often a small cloud of sheepshead in the "chum" within minutes. They dearly love fresh barnacle meat, which is said to taste like oyster, though I haven't tried it. You dropped a jig into the chum area, stopped at 20 feet, and waited for a tap-tap. It didn't take long. While diving those same platforms during summer, I had scraped barnacles with the tip of my speargun, and had watched sheepshead arrive from many directions.

Back to the winter fishing: Back in the day, we saw almost nobody else on our local flat-topped jetties, where we sloshed up and down in tennis shoes. We kept the cooler on the jetty and didn't need ice, as it was winter. Just a bucket of cold water on the fish. We did have to be careful that a passing ship or crewboat didn't wash it away with their powerful engines. As always, walking the jetties offered great opportunity for tripping and getting hurt, but we'd spent countless memorable days on this structure, each of us with a hard-earned scar or two. The best boat was always a sturdy aluminum jonboat, which could bump around in the rocks without damage, picking up anglers and fish, anchoring only feet away.

We saw almost no one else out there. However, one day a friend and neighbor, Martin Verboon, tallied 450 pounds of sheepshead without moving his jonboat. He sold them, of course. Today in Texas they have strict limits of only five sheesphead per angler, which has kept the population very healthy. In good weather out there, if you can't catch your five sheepshead, you should be beaten like a borrowed three-legged mule...or maybe not. It depends on how serious you are, how good the weather is, location and available bait.

By contrast, the Port Aransas jetty down is far different from that of Sabine Pass, where we fished. Port Aransas has easy car access, while Sabine requires a boat. Aransas has a winter Texan population, retirees from places like Iowa, who have become specialists at catching Aransas sheepshead for their next dinner. These people use collapsible cane poles, baited with live fiddler crabs. It's a tough place to catch lots of sheepshead; there is lots of fishing pressure with big, jagged rocks. The fiddler crab baits don't put out much smell for sheepshead for find them, compared to shrimp.

Sheepshead caught from a Louisiana oil rig. Drop a shrimp-tipped jig down here during winter, and you'll find easy action.

Sheepshead are around all year, but in summer they're seldom caught at the jetties and oil rigs offshore. However, they certainly swarm there. It's easy enough to swim around with them, poking a few with a gig. However, they're not nearly as fat as during winter, when their fillets thicken prior to spawning.

In later years I guided out of Port O'Connor, another big set of Texas jetties reachable only by boat. Often I hauled people out there who were not great fishermen. Or casters, for that matter. So, I anchored the boat in 20 feet of water near the end of the jetties and we fished almost straight down, using 2-ounce drop weights, shaped like the common snapper weights used in the Gulf. Forty-pound mono leader worked best with a small 1/0 or 2/0 J-hook. The drop-weight could be unsnagged from rocks below, more often than not, as compared to our dismal record of lost egg weights. Using this technique, we caught many hundreds of sheepshead. Everybody saw action, wives and kids included. We used Ambassadeur reels filled with 20-pound line. Live shrimp did the trick as bait. I encouraged everyone to release sheepshead of less than four pounds, and, by day's end, we still had a dozen "fatties" to fillet on the table, from four to six pounds.  

It should be noted here that sheepshead, like tripletail, do not carry a large fillet. It takes a big fish to deliver a decent-sized fillet. Small, barely-legal sheepshead have almost no meat on them, and they're wasteful to keep. Even a two-pounder doesn't offer much; the head and carcass must make up 90 percent of the body weight.  

As for our biggest sheepshead ever, it lurked at the same POC jetty, but on the bay side. We were fishing chunks of blue crab in March for black drum. Someone found a whole, live softshell blue crab in the bucket, a rare treat for many fish. Instead of pinning it to a huge circle hook on a big drum rod, for some reason it was attached to a small j-hook and dropped down. Pure luck on that part, using the right hook: Something inhaled the crab, and we prepared for an epic battle with another 30-pound drum. Instead a sheepshead came up, weighing 10 pounds, 10 ounces. He must have gone crazy on that softshell, eating the entire crab. 

Some of the very biggest sheepshead are actually caught from marinas, giant 12-pounders who have sensibly retired to quiet waters, where sharks no longer prowl, the tide is gentle, and there is (for them) a rich growth of barnacles and young oysters to graze upon. Even small shrimp and crabs. So, my six-pounder so many years ago on that quiet, cold morning was no accident. Maybe he'd retired early to that marina, thought he would live out his life in Fat City for the rest of his days. Whoops! Life took a turn for the worse. He never counted on some amateur kid with a handline wearing him out during a long and desperate fight, then delivering him straight into a Cajun's kitchen...