How to Catch Sheepshead
Also known as “Convicts”, “Heads”, “Bait Stealers”, “7 Stripe Jetty Snapper”, “Bandits”, are among the most challenging fish to catch for coastal anglers. Bait thief might be a better name due to their ability to slurp the bait off the hook without even the slightest indication of having been there, much like a criminal. Sheepshead fight really hard and are great to eat. Sheepshead tend to congregate around inshore vertical structure such as bridge pilings, docks, downed trees, and anywhere barnacle growth is found. Jetties cover many areas among the Georgia Sea Islands like the Savannah River mouth, the St. Mary’s River entrance and Tybee Island north jetty, Bloody Point and Back River Pier.
Sheepshead Fishing Bait
Most Sheepshead anglers will have a “secret” bait and rig for big Sheepshead. What ever the special technique is it usually involves some variation of the following methods. Preferred Sheepshead baits include shrimp, sand fleas (mole crabs), oysters, clams, fiddler crabs, and mollusc. However, Fiddler Crabs are usually considered the standard Sheepshead bait and for some reason the big purple fiddlers are the most popular among saltwater anglers. Fiddler crabs are easily gathered among the marsh grass along almost any tidal creek or grass mud flats. Some anglers like to use hermit crabs which are everywhere. Simply crack the hermit crab shell with a beach rock, pull the crab out and put it on the hook. Other well known baits include: sea urchins if you can get them and mollusk (sea snails) known as periwinkles or winkles as the top unknown Sheepshead candy. Periwinkles can be found on sea walls, jetty rocks, and the marsh grass of inter-tidal zones.
Best Sheepshead Bait
Among the best unknown anomalies Sheepshead bait is the barnacle. Simply scrap some barnacles into your bucket and put them right on the hook although some anglers use an awl to punch a hole in the barnacle so the hook can be inserted without destroying the integrity of the barnacle. The barnacle is probably what Sheepshead eat the most during a given day. Even small live shrimp, and even fresh dead shrimp, can sometimes entice a hungry Sheepshead. Many times when the water is clear and Sheepshead are grazing barnacles off the pillions they will ignore other baits completely even within inches from their face.
Sheepshead Tricks and Tactics
Sheepshead have always been known to “nibble and graze” on barnacles and hang around pilings next to fishing piers and pilings. And as such, many fishermen carry a straight hoe to scrap barnacles off the piling sides. This in effect is ringing the dinner bell for the Sheepies with chosen baits presented next. It is also a good idea to have boat bumpers if fishing under bridges or next to piers and bridge pilings. Sheepshead are known as “Convicts” for their stripes and “Bait Stealers” for their subtle bite. Due to a very strong, tough mouth full of crushers and teeth, a small very sharp hook is normally used with no less than a 20 lb fluorocarbon leader. Monofiliment line will work in a pinch but fluorocarbon is better. Locating Sheepshead with a boat is not a difficult process: Fishermen generally look for rocky or shell bottoms, trees, jetties, or the pilings of bridges and piers. With an average Sheepshead weight of 3 to 4 lb, fish of 10, 15, or 20lbs+ are also not uncommon. A good GPS unit is basically a requirement if heading to any of the near shore artificial or natural reefs. Many locations also require the use of a reef anchor for these areas.
Sheepshead Fishing Rigs and Rods
While Sheepshead like many other fish can be caught on most any tide cycle that includes moving water, the strongest currents occur on new and full moon phases. It is common practice to avoid slack tide and dead high tide; although these tide stages can make keeping your bait in the target area easier. However, during moving tides one may also fish behind structure in the eddy allowing a vertical presentation to remain in place. While most fishermen these days use a Carolina rig or Grouper rig, the classic approach is to use a long cane pole with an egg sinker and the bait at the bottom on a Owner Gorilla Light 1/0, standard O’Shaughnessy 2/0 J or circle hook.
Sheepshead fishing with a cane pole can be a little bit different the first time out. Made of either bamboo cane, fiberglass, or graphite, the cane pole is probably the best inshore outfit for its sensitivity and lack of line play. When using a cane pole, keep the line no longer than the cane itself. Make your line about three-quarters the length of the cane pole. That will allow you to lift the fish to the surface, and even with the pole bent over, the “heads” will be on the water surface next to the boat. However, with patience and plenty of bait any rig can catch Sheepshead.
Near shore reef action will require more line than one has on a cane pole. A 4000-6000 open faced spinning reel spooled with 80lb braided main line and joined uni to uni knot to a 3 ft 25lb shock leader is my preferred rod and reel setup. However, many anglers find that using a swivel and weight above the leader will reduce much line twist that happens when the bait spins around in the current. I use a 16′ Uncle Bucks Deluxe Crappie pole and it has no problems getting the bait vertical or reaching the bridge piles. I also hook my fiddlers through the bottom back leg and the strong claw facing out, concealing the tip of the 1/0 J-hook.
Sheepshead Fishing Tips
Sheepshead are not strikers they are grazers so “normally” there is no aggressive strike that can be felt. The trick to catching Sheepshead consistently is not to set the hook but to slightly lift the rod tip while feeling for any resistance at all. If any is felt then most likely you have a Sheepshead sucking on your bait. Continue “lifting” the rod tip and begin reeling. The fish will try to get away with the meal and most of the time set the hook for you. Some caution: Keep your finger away from the Sheepshead teeth. A Sheepshead can and will bite your hook in half; imagine what your finger will look like. Also a good deal of respect should be given to the fins which are very thick and needle sharp. Always bring a net because there simply is no “good” way to handle a big Sheepshead.
Sheepshead Fish Taste
Sheepshead get a bad rap on taste many times. I believe it to be that the critic has had Sheepshead that was not properly cleaned and prepared before eating. Under no circumstance will you scale a Sheepshead and try to deep fry the meat with the skin attached. The skin must be removed before any cooking takes place. Once cleaned many fishermen prefer to trim the dark bloodline from the fillet before cooking. The bloodline will many times contain a very nasty flavor that can ruin the entire fillet if not removed before cooking. With the bloodline removed and the skin gone the Sheepshead fillet can be one of the best tasting fish I have ever had, especially when baked in butter and lemon juice. You heard it here first.
Sheepshead Fishing Forecast
The Sheepshead bite is on fire both offshore or at nearshore artificial reefs (AR) and now also on vertical inshore structure. There are so many Black Sea Bass (BSB) now that getting the bait down to the Sheepshead is a challenge. Hopefully this will translate into a good inshore BSB season as well. March is usually the best Sheepshead fishing of the year. April will produce record results by all reports. The jetties from the Savannah River to St. Mary’s River should all be seeing the same thing; BIG spawning Sheepshead. Remember to always practice good Sheepshead catch and release by catching and “releasing” the Sheepshead into the cooler.
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