December normally marks the beginning of the winter Sheepshead season. Southern Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) a member of the Porgies (Sparidae) family, are an almost exclusively southern species ranging from the mid-Atlantic to Texas. Also known as “Convicts”, “Heads”, “Bait Stealers” “7 Stripe Jetty Snapper” are among the most challenging fish to catch for coastal anglers. During summer months Sheepshead congregate around inshore structure such as bridge pilings, docks, downed trees, and anywhere barnacle growth is found. In the fall “Heads” begin staging up on structure in the mouth of creeks and sounds. These pre-winter Sheepshead primarily feed on bivalves and crustaceans. Once the winter temperatures are in place Sheepshead migrate to near shore reefs in search of warmer water and remain until early spring spawning takes place.
Most any regular fishermen of Sheepshead will claim to have the “secret” bait and rig for big Heads. 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 best bait and for some reason the big purple fiddlers are the most popular among saltwater anglers. Other well known baits include: sea urchins if you can get them and #1; 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. Winkles sometimes live in small tide pools and may also be found in muddy habitats such as estuaries, and in depths of up to 180 feet.
Tips and Tactics
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.
Coastal Tide Stages
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 hook or similar. Made of either 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 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. Once cleaned many fishermen prefer to trim the dark bloodline from the fillet before cooking. Kill’em and Grill’em.
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