By Jeff Dennis
Fishing for sheepshead gains popularity each winter like fans jumping on the proverbial bandwagon of a winning college basketball team during March Madness. Why? Sheepshead can be eager to bite even during cold snaps that may stagger the inshore fishery for a time.
Sheepshead are a member of the porgy-family of fishes and their scientific name is Archosargus probatocephalus, translating to the chief porgy. Sheepshead are known for their ability to steal bait off any fish hook, earning a similar status as the chief of thieves.
Sheepshead do not strike the bait in a way that makes the rod tip bend as most other fish do. Rather they take the bait with stealth, sending only a slight vibration up the monofilament line to the angler.
Sheepshead seem to simply suck the bait off the hook without the angler ever feeling any disturbance. Anticipating their bite and gauging when to set the hook can be considered an art form of sorts for anglers.
Some catch on to the sheepshead tricks and master reeling in the elusive fish, while others never get in the game. The time spent learning how to catch this fish is worth it because their flesh makes excellent table fare.
Sheepshead are distinguished by the vertical black and white bars that some say resemble a vintage prison uniform, earning the nickname of convict fish. Anglers can count on sheepshead to keep up a voracious feeding routine when most others species become sluggish during colder coastal temps.
It’s not unusual to go sheepshead fishing and to run out of bait because they stole it off your hook consistently.
With multiple teeth on each side of their jaw and several molars, sheepshead have a toothy display that resembles our own dental work. This allows them to munch barnacles off of submerged structure like bridge pilings, and to crush their all-time favorite bait, a fiddler crab.
You can purchase fiddlers at a tackle shop, or take a walk on a mud flat to chase them down and pick them up. Fiddlers are easily kept alive in a small container that is kept dry, with a functioning lid to keep them from crawling out.
Light tackle is all that is required to catch sheepshead, making it a very sporting pursuit. Use a 1/0-ought hook with a small split-shot weight to keep the bait down in the water. Use multiple split-shot if the current is strong because sheepshead are likely holding close to the bottom structure.
Some sound advice is to keep your rod tip moving slowly up and down when fishing, so you are ready to set the hook when there is any hint of the line tightening up.
Target sheepshead when the current is moving, and not during a slack tide. It won’t take long to start losing baits if you are set up where the sheepshead are located. If you have no bites within 15-minutes, then changing your spot is warranted.
For example, when fishing a jetty formation, trying different spots in sight of one another is a common way to locate sheepshead. Artificial reefs can hold plenty of sheepshead, so use a depth finder to locate structure and look for signs of fish stacking up in certain spots.
Other baits that work on sheepshead include mollusks, mussels, oysters and crustaceans. Heads-on shrimp can tempt a sheepshead as well as sand fleas. Don’t overlook chumming by knocking some oysters and barnacles off of structure to drop them down into the water and attract attention.
Fishing for sheepshead requires a specialized technique and unique bait, but the sheer challenge to catch fish during cold weather keeps anglers devoted, despite any frustration from getting your bait stolen.
The author’s Lowcountry Outdoors blog is celebrating a tenth anniversary in 2019.
Photo Credit – Jeff Dennis
The sheepshead bite continues just fine during cooler weather.