March 17, 2022
Sheepshead seem like the only inshore game in town around the Southeast through late winter. Most of the trout and redfish have either moved deep or have already been caught out of the coastal rivers, canals and potholes where they seek refuge from the cold.
Fortunately, loads of sheepshead move inshore in late winter and early spring to spawn on structure. These fish are tasty and usually not too difficult to fool, though it can take some know-how to find and catch them.
And because they are abundant, limits are liberal compared to more targeted species—up to 25 a day in most Louisiana parishes; 15 in Mississippi and Georgia; 10 in Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina; 8 in Florida; and 5 in Texas.
Sheepshead are named for their sheep-like teeth, evolved for crunching up crabs and shellfish of all kinds, and they’re most often found where these foods are plentiful. To find them, you simply need to locate barnacles, oysters, crabs or mussels on any sort of hard vertical structure in coastal rivers, bays and bayous. Jetties, piers, bridge pilings, oil structures, rocks and wrecks all attract sheepshead.
’Heads are not solitary fish, particularly in late winter and early spring—find one and you may find a dozen. The average fish is 2 or 3 pounds, but 5-pounders are common, and they get considerably larger. The world record, caught along a seawall in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, weighed 21 pounds 4 ounces.
The trick in locating sheepshead is to run to a number of likely spots—a long row of barnacled bridge pilings, for example. Watch for fish roaming just a few feet under the surface, or use forward-looking or side-scanning sonar should your boat be equipped with one or both of these electronic marvels.
Anywhere you see fish, position via anchor well uptide and let the stern of the boat ease back to within casting range of the structures. A note of caution: If you plan on tying to pilings, take along plenty of fenders to protect the finish of your boat. In moderate winds or tide flows, a trolling motor with a GPS anchor can keep you within range at just the right angle.
RIG UP RIGHT
Sheepshead are known as bait stealers because they often nip the bait off with their sharp teeth rather than inhaling it whole. Sometimes they swim up and suck in the bait from below, slacking the line without any indication of a "bite." This leads to the old joke that you must set the hook just before the bite to catch them, but veteran sheepshead anglers rarely miss a fish because they rig right and know what to keep an eye out for.
Braided line in 15-pound-test is good for most sheepshead, though in areas where you may catch larger sheepshead and maybe bull reds, too; like around some of Louisiana’s inshore rigs, 30-pound braid will give you a better chance around the structure.
Use 20-pound-test mono leader with 15-pound braid, 30-pound-test mono with the 30-pound braid. Most experts recommend using a dropper loop to tie on the hook, with the weight on the bitter end of the leader. This puts you in direct touch with the hook when there’s a bite—the fish doesn’t have to move the weight to alert you that there’s something going on below. Size 1/0 to 3/0 short-shank, 2X-strong hooks are preferred. Believe it or not, sheepshead can actually bite through the light wire hooks sometimes used for inshore trout fishing.
Another popular alternative is to use a bare jig, ranging from 1/4 ounce for structure in 8 to 10 feet of water and moderate tidal flow up to 3 ounces for depths to 40 feet and high current flow. Jigs with stout, short-shank hooks in size 1/0 to 2/0 are a good choice.
The Bottom Sweeper Jig (bottomsweeperjigs.com) designed by sheepshead expert Capt. Dan Schafer, in sizes from 1/4 to 3 ounces, is equipped with a 2X-strong, short-shank hook ideal for holding a crab and hooking sheepshead.
The Jail Bait Reef Jig (eyestrikefishing.com), in 1/2- or 3/4-ounce sizes with a double hook, includes small rubber bands that allow you to secure a live fiddler crab to the back of the jig. This keeps a lively bait working for you until a sheepshead finds it.
Live fiddler crabs are widely recognized as the optimal bait for sheepshead, and many baitshops in sheepshead country carry these crabs. Or you can round up your own on marshy shorelines at low tide—just run them down or punch a stick into a small hole in the mud indicating a burrow and the crab will scoot out (a great activity for overactive kids). In some places they’re so thick you can throw a quarter-inch-mesh castnet over the swarm and then pick them out of the mesh. You’ll want several dozen to catch a limit of ’heads since, as mentioned earlier, the fish are good notorious bait stealers.
If crabs are scarce, live shrimp catch plenty as well. Your best bet is to cut the tail off a 3-inch shrimp and make it into two baits. If you use a whole shrimp, you will typically just feed the sheepshead below.
You must master a few fine points of fishing if you want to catch sheepshead. First, you must keep a taut line. If you feel weight or if the line goes slack, set the hook—otherwise the fish will steal the bait.
If the bite slows, you can often turn it back on by using a spudding hoe to knock barnacles and mussels off the structures and create a chum line. Be sure to check your state’s regulations before doing this with oysters, which are regulated in size and harvest dates.
In water less than 8 feet deep, the best sheepsheaders often anchor at the edge of casting range and throw their baits to the structure they expect to hold fish. This maneuver keeps from spooking fish that are shallow, particularly in clear water. In deeper water, it’s common to tie directly to a piling or Spot-Lock next to one and drop the bait vertically, which gives a better feel for the often delicate bite of a sheepshead.
Sheepshead can be anywhere, from oyster creeks only a couple feet deep to piers and bridges in 60 feet of water. Anglers on the coastal marshes roughly from St. Augustine, Fla., to Virginia sometimes catch them by sight-fishing sheepshead that prowl the tidal creeks like redfish. But, if you want to load the cooler, fishing around structure in deeper water is more productive.
- In Charleston, S.C., the Mount Pleasant Pier adjacent to the U.S. 17 bridge on the Cooper River is a noted sheepshead spot, as is the Jekyll Island Pier on Saint Simons Sound at the northern tip of Georgia’s Jekyll Island.
- On Amelia Island, Fla., the George Crady Bridge Pier is a giant sheepshead magnet on Nassau Sound, while on the other side of the state, the 331 Bridge on Choctawhatchee Bay loads up not only with ’heads but with bull reds and large trout in fall and winter. Another noted Florida structure is the Sunshine Skyway Pier, both the north and south sides, on Tampa Bay.
- On Mobile Bay, the numerous gas rigs not only have sheepshead-attracting pilings, but many have rock rubble at their bases that attract the fish. You can sometimes see the fish around the base of the rig, and where there are 2 or 3 on top there may be a dozen below. Or visit the Dauphin Island Bridge—a crab drifted next to pilings there rarely lasts long.
- In Mississippi, the pilings of big coastal bridges produce, including the U.S. 90 bridge across Biloxi Bay between Biloxi and Ocean Springs and the Bay St. Louis bridge, also on U.S. 90, near the Louisiana line.
- On the Louisiana coast beginning in February and through March, the inshore oil structures are loaded with big sheepshead. These rigs don’t require a long, open-water boat ride, either—many are within a few miles of the marsh and most stand in 15 to 40 feet of water. Some of the well-known areas include Black Bay, Breton Sound, East Bay and West Bay.
Sheepshead can be a challenge to clean. Try these tips the next time you’re faced with filleting chores.
Having the right gear can make cleaning a pile of sheepshead a whole lot easier. You’ll want a fine-edge fillet knife about 7 1/2 inches long or more. Rapala’s Fish ’N Fillet ($20.99; rapala.com) model with the wood handle is a classic in this genre.
Another great choice is the 9-inch AFTCO x Boker Flex Fillet Knife ($69; aftco.com). For high-end knives, the Bubba Lithium-Ion Cordless Fillet Knife ($119; bubba.com) with multiple interchangeable blades is hard to beat.
A pair of stainless-steel meat shears like Ugly Stik’s Marine Shears ($24.99; purefishing.com) is helpful for nipping off the dorsal spines before you start cleaning. If you’re not an expert sheepshead cleaner, you may shed more blood than the fish.
To fillet a ’head, cut in just behind the gill cover and down to the backbone, then back along the backbone toward the tail. Leave a skin tab at the base of the tail, flip the fillet over flat and peel off the skin. Then, cut away the rib cage and you’ve got a fillet of boneless white meat.
Broiling is a great way to cook the fillets. Brush with a little mayo, shake on a little Montreal seasoning and place in an oiled broiler pan about 6 inches below the oven broiler. Cook just long enough that a fork can easily penetrate the flesh.