Sheepshead are considered the panfish of inshore saltwater angling -- but with tactics from these pros, you're going to need a bigger pan. (July 2007)
The blunt, strong jaws of sheepshead are perfect for crushing crustaceans, and they aren't bad at stealing bait either.
Photo courtesy of Johnny Spitzmiller.
A successful day of fishing can mean different things, depending on the targeted fish that the angler is after. When an early-April angler comes back to the dock with a mess of crappie, it usually means the fish are biting and are shallow. If another angler comes back to the dock with a limit of flounder, it means he's figured out a pattern.
However, when an angler comes in with a mess of sheepshead, it means he's a good fisherman.
The reasoning behind this theory is that in sheepshead fishing, figuring out a pattern and finding fish willing to bite is no guarantee you'll come home with a crew of "saltwater bandits." These fish are known among saltwater inshore anglers to be notorious bait stealers.
Sheepshead feed primarily upon shrimp and crabs. Because of their dental structure, sheepshead also have an uncanny ability to eat barnacles, an unusual target for fish. The teeth of the sheepshead allow it to bite barnacles off the structure (pier and bridge pilings, for example) and chew them up. The same rocks and pilings that are home to barnacles are also favorite locales for crabs and shrimp and during this time of year, that's where the sheepies will be.
Understanding how the fish bite, where they feed during the hot summer months, and how to rig to sway the odds in your favor can help make you the noteworthy angler back at the dock. We decided to seek advice from two veteran guides whose experience might just help your next sheepshead trip close to a sure thing.
Reel Fish Head
"The South Carolina coastal areas, and the Charleston harbor area in particular, are loaded with sheepshead structure," commented Charleston-area inshore guide Captain Rick Hiott. "Mainly the structure is in the form of piers, bridge pilings and large commercial docks."
The veteran guide offers that almost any structure that has some kind of vertical drop around it and some decent current will act as a magnet for summer sheepshead.
"The commercial docks are my personal favorite," Hiott indicated. "The large pilings are spaced far enough apart that you can maneuver a small 12- to 16-foot boat in and around the pilings and target the fish straight down."
Anglers should take note that some docks and bridges are restricted in compliance to Homeland Security measures, and fishing around certain structures, particularly major thoroughfare bridges is prohibited. Lots and lots of law enforcement personnel crowding around your boat and shouting at you with bullhorns will tend to spook fish anyway, so you're better off making sure that you're fishing where it's legal to do so.
One way of deciding which structures to focus on involves the depth of water on that structure. Hiott said he prefers docks and pilings with depths of at least 10 feet.
In addition to piers and bridge pilings, Hiott also recommends looking for sheepshead at the Charleston Jetties. The jetties are parallel rock walls that line the entrance to Charleston harbor. The jetties are also home to the 15-pound, 12-ounce South Carolina state-record sheepshead, caught in 2001 by Doug Hoover, a close friend of Hiott. Over the years, Captain Hiott has found that he catches plenty of fish from docks and bridges, but the fish are smaller, generally in the 2- to 3-pound range. Fish from the jetties are bigger, with catches in the 5- to 6-pound range being more common.
Capt Hiott's technique for catching summer sheepshead is to get right in and around the pilings. He rigs a live fiddler crab on a 2/0 Kahle hook just a few inches below an in-line 1/2-ounce sinker. He may use more weight depending on the current but insists on using enough to keep tension on the line at all times. Because he's fishing around unforgiving structure -- barnacle encrusted pilings and oyster beds -- he spools up with 30-pound dark green Ugly Brain line. The veteran guide positions his boat where he is within a rod's length of several pilings and will pendulum his bait next to the structure, allowing the bait to sink to the bottom.
He admits that some days the fish will be within 3 feet of the surface and others will be hugging the bottom; but whatever their depth, they are always within a foot or two of the structure. He slowly raises and lowers the bait, keeping constant tension on the line. The idea is that a bait with slight upward motion will give away the fish's presence while it is biting the bait.
Finding sheepshead and catching sheepshead are two different things. The old cliché about catching a sheepshead is that you have to set the hook when it's looking at the bait. The sheepshead earned the reputation as a bait stealer due in part to the deftness of its teeth. The bite of a sheepshead is the result of the fish plucking the bait with its teeth rather than sucking a bait into its mouth like most predator fish. In order to pluck a bait, the sheepshead must bare its teeth by rolling back its thick, fleshy lips. If the sheepshead's teeth are its great advantage, then its lips are its greatest weakness.
No one is more adept at taking advantage of this weakness than Captain Johnny Spitzmiller of Mount Pleasant. Spitzmiller specializes in fishing for sheepshead during the summer months through his guide service, Ambush Inshore Charters.
The Mount Pleasant guide concentrates almost all of his efforts on fishing the jetties. He is especially fond of the oceanside tips of both the North and South jetties and the edges of the historic breach in the South Jetty known as the "Dynamite Hole."
He employs a vertical presentation that requires pinpoint boat positioning.
"I like the tide to be up on the rocks when I'm after sheepies," Spitzmiller said. This requires fishing the period of three hours before high tide and the three hours after high tide.
Fishing a vertical presentation on a moving tide around the jetties can be a risky proposition. While most anglers who target the jetties do so from an anchored position, Spitzmiller prefers to maneuver his boat with the aid of a 24-volt 90-pound-thrust trolling motor.
His choice for rigging is a light-action Allstar rod on spinning tackle. The lighter the line, the better the technique, so the guide opts for 8
Spitzmiller acknowledged that the most popular bait for catching the sheepshead is a fiddler crab. His second favorite bait is a whole live shrimp.
Another important fact is to use just enough weight to let the bait sink slowly into holes in the rocks. The guide adds a split shot weight about 12 inches above the hook. He'll start at one end of the jetties and work down the rocks, pitching a fiddler crab or live shrimp into visible holes.
"I usually start seeing fish before I catch them," Spitzmiller said. "Standing up in the bow right on top of the rocks, you can usually see fish holding down in the holes."
Despite seeing fish in the rocks, the guide admitted that he rarely sees the fish bite his bait. Unlike freshwater bass or crappie, which are known for moving up to take a bait, sheepshead prefer to go down for a bait. Sight-fishing for sheepshead is effective to a point, but the bait should be lowered to the bottom right in front of the fish.
Spitzmiller prefers to present a bait close to the bottom with as little movement as possible. He indicated this type of presentation will more closely resemble what a natural bait would do than does a presentation that moves the bait upward in the water column.
"Patience is key," he said. "Keep that fiddler crab in the strike zone as long and as still as possible, holding the bait just off the bottom. On a crab bite, the line just gets heavy. A live shrimp bite will result in a faint tick in the line."
With either bait, Spitzmiller insists that the secret is in the hook.
"I like to use a small No. 2 gold crappie hook," the Captain claimed.
Once a bite is detected, refrain from setting the hook. Instead, apply a simple pull back on the line and keep the line tight to the fish. This tactic causes the light wire gold crappie hook to pierce the sheepshead's weak spot: its thick lips.
For this tactic the guide recommends frequently changing hooks because the rocks, fish and the salt water will dull the light hooks in a hurry. These hooks work best tied to an abrasion-resistant light line. Spitzmiller is a big fan of the Cajun Red Lightning line by Shakespeare. The red color line makes the line more difficult to see in the water and the line is especially durable, a bonus when fishing around oyster shells, barnacles and rocks.
To book a trip with Rick Hiott, contact him at Captain Rick Hiott's Inshore Fishing Charters, (843) 412-6776 or (843) 554-9386. Call Johnny Spitzmiller at Ambush Inshore Charters, (843) 971-0537.