Catching Convicts

Catching Convicts
The sheepshead, or convict fish, ranges all along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico, providing fun fishing and good eating for anglers of all ages. (Keith Sutton photo)

Some say the sheepshead is the saltwater equivalent of a master pickpocket. When a fisherman presents his bait, this black-banded cousin of the porgy comes up and steals it, nibbling it off the hook like a kid eating a Popsicle from around a stick. The fisherman never feels a thing, never knows the fish has cleaned his rig.

“Sheepsheads are so sneaky,” one angler said, “the only way to catch one is to set the hook just before you feel it bite.”

Perhaps these things are true. Perhaps in some waters under some conditions, sheepsheads do a first-rate job of giving anglers the slip. But on one November day, I watched as Captain Bill McCaughan coached two first-time sheepshead anglers, ages 9 and 14, on the finer points of catching these buck-toothed bandits. Following his instructions, my sons Jared and Josh managed to land almost 100 2- to 5-pound sheepsheads during a half day fishing around offshore oil rigs.

McCaughan stopped at the first rig and began his lesson.

“The legs on this big tower have barnacles on them,” he told the boys. “Sheepsheads love barnacles and have big buck teeth so they can bite them off and eat them. The thing is sheepsheads love shrimp, too. So we’re going to bait our hooks with shrimp, cast them over by the legs on the tower and hope some big hungry sheepsheads are waiting for a snack.”

McCaughan helped Jared and Josh tie on a jig, then showed them how to bait it, running the hook from the tail of the shrimp toward the head, leaving the barbed end exposed. “Now you’re ready to fish,” he said. “Make a cast and see what happens.”

“How will I know when I get a bite?” Josh asked.

“That’s the tricky part,” McCaughan replied. “Sometimes you’ll feel a nibble. Sometimes you’ll see your line go slack or see it move off toward the side. When those things happen, gently lift your pole and see if you hook a fish.”

“I think something just nibbled,” Jared said. He raised his rod slightly and the tip made a nosedive. “I’ve got one! I’ve got one!”

The strong fish circled, trying to wrap the monofilament around the barnacle-encrusted support, but Jared kept a tight line and doggedly pulled the fish away from the refuge of the pilings.

“I’ve got one, too!” Josh whooped.

The boys enjoyed quite a battle on the medium spincasting gear they used. But soon, both fish were netted and flopping on the deck.

“Now, let me show you something important,” McCaughan told the boys. With some fishing pliers, he retracted the lips on one of the fish. “See those big chompers. Get your fingers too close, and they’ll bite one off. Their spines are dangerous, too. They’re sharp as icepicks. So be careful. We’ll remove the hooks with these pliers.

“They have buck teeth, just like sheep,” he continued. “That’s why they’re called sheepsheads. And see these black bars on their sides? They’re just like the stripes on a prison convict’s uniform, so some folks call them convict fish.”

Lessons learned, the boys returned to fishing. And over the next three hours, as we moved from oil rig to oil rig, they caught sheepsheads one after another after another. For a couple of country kids, it was a little like heaven.

McCaughan, now retired, guided many clients to big catches of redfish, cobias, speckled trout, red snappers and other popular saltwater sportfish. But when it was quantities of fish his clients wanted, likely as not, McCaughan would suggest they try for sheepsheads.

“During summer, it’s hard to get sheepsheads to bite,” he says. “But the rest of year, they’re aggressive hitters if you use the right techniques. We catch most in five to 15 feet of water around the offshore oil rigs, but they also frequent oyster reefs near deep water and passes between the barrier islands. Inshore anglers catch them, too, particularly those who fish around bridge and pier pilings and other places where barnacles, the sheepshead’s favorite food, are plentiful. Imagine hooking a 3- or 4-pound bluegill, and you’ll get some idea how much fun they are to catch on light tackle. Kids really enjoy fishing for them, because they fight like the dickens, and you can catch a bunch in just a short time.”

McCaughan’s favorite sheepshead rig is also the simplest. A 1/4-ounce, bare, leadhead jig is tied directly to the line and baited with shrimp. Some anglers prefer heavy tackle, but McCaughan uses rods and reels similar to those used for freshwater bass fishing. Light jigs and fairly light line (15- to 25-pound-test) work best, he says, because they allow the bait to fall slowly, mimicking a barnacle that’s been dislodged.“Use a jig rig when there’s a slack tide and little current,” says McCaughan. “When there’s strong current, a drop rig is best. Put a 2-ounce sinker on the end of your line, and a loop line with a 1/0 to 2/0 hook a foot above that. With the hook between your weight and the tip of the pole, it’s easier to feel light-biting sheepsheads. If you use light jigs in heavy current, you won’t feel the bite at all.”

Regardless of the rig that’s used, McCaughan recommends a light touch when setting the hook.

“I always say if you jerk, you’re a jerk,” he chuckles. “When you jerk, the hook slides over the sheepshead’s teeth, and you miss them. It’s best to ease your rod tip up until you feel the fish, then hold pressure on it. Anglers who don’t do this are the ones who find it difficult to catch sheepsheads.”

In some areas, anglers attract sheepsheads by chumming with ground-up shrimp, oysters, clams or crabshells left over after a feast of boiled crabs. McCaughan uses a simpler method.

“Use your rig hook or some other long pole to knock barnacles off the pilings,” he says. “In just a minute, if sheepsheads are present, you’ll see them boiling up in the water, ready to bite anything that falls past.”

Sheepsheads are delectable table fare and can be prepared using almost any cooking method: fried, sautéed in butter and garlic, broiled, in chowders and more. McCaughan prepares them as mock crab meat, tying strips in cheesecloth and boiling them for two or three minutes in crab boil seasoned with salt. Serve as is, or use to prepare a delicious crabmeat salad.

“Some anglers find it so difficult to clean sheepsheads, they give up on them altogether,” says McCaughan. “Sheepsheads have very heavy, coarse scales, and it’s darn near impossible to fillet one if you start from the head and go down as you might on a bass or crappie. The key is to use an electric fillet knife, starting at the tail and working toward the head to remove the fillets.”

At the end of their day fishing, Josh and Jared counted the hash marks that indicated the total number of sheepsheads they caught. “Ninety-one, 92, 93 ... 93 sheepsheads,” Jared reported. Not bad for two boys on their first saltwater fishing trip.

I remembered the old saw about sheepsheads being sneaky and difficult to hook. Seems some myths die hard. Using the simple techniques suggested by Captain McCaughan, even a kid can load a boat with convicts.

Looking for fishing shows on Outdoor Channel during the months of October – December? “The Hunt for Big Fish” and “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” both air in the last quarter of the year. Check the schedule for updated air times.

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