Nothing Sheepish About Sheepshead

A mainstay of anglers looking for table fare, the sheepshead requires fishermen to think outside the box for the best chance of success.

Author Mike Marsh with a big sheepshead caught from classic cover: dock pilings.
Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh.

Sheepshead anglers are a peculiar lot compared with anglers who pursue "normal" saltwater game fish. Anglers heading out for a day of flounder or king mackerel fishing usually see sheepshead fishermen along the sidelines. Some know what the sheepshead guys are doing and slow their speed when they spot them, while others don't have a clue to why anyone would risk scraping the sides of his boat against a bridge support.

Sheepshead anglers are low-key, like the fish they catch. However, just because it takes a minimum amount of gear and tackle and only a small boat, or no boat, to catch sheepshead, fishing for them isn't necessarily a low-class sport.

Catching sheepshead represents a unique challenge and there are as many secrets to catching them as there are for any other game fish. Some anglers become so addicted to catching sheepshead they forgo fishing for other species altogether.

The key to catching sheepshead is patience. Many anglers do not have the patience it takes to become adept at tugging sheepshead away from a piling encrusted with barnacles and oyster shells, let alone dealing with boat wakes of the uninitiated washing their boats against concrete or wood.

Sheepshead fishing begins with gathering bait. Sheepshead eat mollusks and crustaceans. That's why anglers who pursue other inshore game fish using fish baits seldom hook sheepshead. An angler fishing with shrimp or squid for other fish species may get a sheepshead strike.

Fiddler crabs are the gold standard bait for sheepshead. Some call these tiny crabs that burrow in marshes "one-armed bandits." The male has an outsized claw he waves to attract a female. They are about 1 inch long, make excellent, easy-to-catch baits and are also easy to keep. Kept inside a livewell, sand-filled bucket, or a plastic container with a tight lid inside an ice chest, fiddler crabs are effective baits.

Low tide is the best time to catch fiddler crabs. The tiny critters gather in armies at the water's edge in creeks and ditches. A fine-mesh cast net can be tossed over a gang of fiddlers. A crab dip net will also make massive catches. Still, some anglers collect them by hand.

A fiddler can pinch. But if handled gently, they seldom nip hard enough to draw blood. Some anglers catch fiddlers in the grass when the tide is up and others catch them as they scamper on bulkheads and piers. It takes plenty of fiddlers for a day of sheepshead fishing, so many anglers freeze them ahead of time, spending off-fishing days collecting bait.

Any other crab makes good sheepshead bait and there are many tiny species of crabs that work. Mud crabs that hide among oyster shells and beneath riprap and other hard objects make excellent sheepshead bait. Obviously, however, before using protected crabs like blue crabs for bait, anglers should check the regulations.

Some anglers buy or rake clams to use for bait. Clams are subject to harvest restrictions in most places, but any seafood market sells clams that can be used as bait. The bigger "chowder" clams are the best sheepshead bait. Banging two clams against each other breaks the shells. The foot is cut into two pieces and the rest of the clam's internal organs are separated, making three baits.

The problem with using clams is non-target fish like pinfish that also eat clams live at the same structure areas as sheepshead. But there are places where clams are incredibly effective. Most anglers find fishing during fast-moving tide stages keeps bait stealing to a minimum.

Barnacles are also good baits. Scraped from hard structure with a metal bar or plastic paddle, barnacles reveal their soft internal workings. Sheepshead eat living barnacles, nipping through their shells to extract the animals, so why wouldn't a barnacle make a great sheepshead bait? Many anglers don't even think about using barnacles, but such unconventional thinking is what separates successful sheepshead anglers from the rest of the flock.

For most fishermen, though, the one-armed bandit is the appropriate bait for tossing into the den of thieves. Living among other bait stealers in pier-piling jail cells, the sheepshead, with their dark-striped sides, have earned the nickname "convict fish."

There are several ways to approach sheepshead fishing. Beginning anglers often try their luck in areas where they don't need a boat. Ocean fishing piers that charge daily fees are excellent places to catch sheepshead. A check of photos tacked up on pier house bulletin boards will show many anglers posing with sheepshead. It's not unusual for pier fishermen to haul sheepshead of 8 pounds or more from the ocean to a pier deck.

Other anglers catch sheepshead from private docks and marinas. Virtually any series of dock pilings with saltwater running beneath them holds a few sheepshead. However, all docks are not alike in respect to the numbers and sizes of convict fish they attract. Anglers who want the best success fish many docks to find the hotspots.

Only one out of 20 to 100 docks will hold large numbers of super-sized sheepshead on a consistent basis and there will only be certain places during certain tide stages at any particular dock where the fish bite the best.

The same is true of ocean fishing piers. A look at the pier house photos will show only a few individuals catching those big fish. Those anglers get to the pier early to monopolize the choice spots. Certain pilings get a reputation for holding sheepshead. A sheepshead fisherman drops his baits beside one of those pilings without relinquishing the known hotspot. Anyone studying the fishing techniques of anglers on the pier can easily identify sheepshead fishermen and return another day when the honeyholes are vacant.

To catch sheepshead from boats, anglers find pilings covered with shells or shell-covered bottoms. The edges of cut navigation channels are ideal spots for the fish and they are not visible at the surface. Once you find them, you'll probably be fishing over less-pressured sheepshead.

Some anglers scrape barnacles from pilings during low tide, and then fish beside them as the tide rises. The exposed barnacles and dislodged crabs create ready-made chum. Another trick is to chum with fiddler crabs, even those too deteriorated to use as bait. Tossing them by the handful beneath a dock attracts sheepshead, even moving them away from the structure to make it easier to

land a hooked fish.

The standard wisdom with sheepshead is to set the hook before you feel the strike. A sheepshead is named for the appearance of its teeth. The teeth look like the teeth of a sheep and are perfect for nibbling shells. They snip cleanly through a crab and small sheepshead can nibble the bait from the hook without the angler ever knowing he had a bite. But larger sheepshead can streak off with the bait like any other game fish.

Since the bite can be subtle, many anglers use superbraid lines for increased sensitivity. But some prefer monofilament lines because they hold up better when pulled taut against shells. A big sheepshead is strong enough to snap lines or cut them against pilings. Therefore, most anglers set the drag tight, attempting to "horse" the fish away from structure with just enough drag slippage to keep the line from breaking.

A stout steel No. 1 or 2 hook is used because a sheepshead can bite through light wire hooks. For fishing beside pilings, the hook is tied directly to the line on a dropper loop with the sinker tied a foot below the hook. When fishing the bottom, a Carolina rig with the line threaded through the eye of an egg sinker and a swivel, with leader and hook below the sinker, allows the angler to feel the strike.

A sheepshead angler uses a sensitive rod or holds the line between thumb and forefinger. A baitcasting outfit is an excellent choice because a thumb on the reel spool provides especially good sensitivity.

Sheepshead anglers stand on their bows and gunwales, with boats tied to the structure they are fishing. They sometimes use one hand to keep the gunwales from scrubbing while fishing with the other hand, their line dropped vertical a few inches from the piling and a look of intense concentration as they watch the line for a telltale twitch. Flotation cushions or boat bumpers tied to the gunwales help keep the boat from contacting the structure.

At the slightest tug, the hook is set, sometimes so often it appears the anglers are jigging rather than fishing live baits. But when the rod pulls back, a fish is on the line and pandemonium reigns.

The short heave-ho battle it takes to pull a sheepshead away from structure before the line parts is an incredible rush. Either you haul the fish away from the piling or it's gone. While its bite may be slight, there's nothing sheepish about the fight of a sheepshead. Tenacity is what endears the convict fish to anglers who never tire of waiting for a nibble.

Get Your Fish On.

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