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In Praise of Sheepshead Fishing

This overlooked saltwater species is hard-fighting, plentiful and delicious. What's not to love?

In Praise of Sheepshead Fishing

Lead Powerful jaws and rows of teeth enable sheepshead to dine on favorite foods like barnacles, and fiddler and stone crabs. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Tough to clean and widely loathed for their expert bait-stealing skills, sheepshead don’t rank high on most anglers’ lists of "desirable" fish, but the incredibly powerful and abundant reel-busters can provide outstanding sport on light tackle. They also give anglers great opportunities to catch large fish without spending a fortune or even stepping onto a boat.

”The fine, white flesh and mild flavor of sheepshead makes it great table fare, but their heavy scales and remarkably strong fin spines make sheepshead difficult to clean or fillet," says Dr. Bob Shipp, a noted marine biologist and author of Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. "For this reason, it is sometimes passed over in favor of other food fish. Sheepshead frequent continental coastal waters from Nova Scotia through the Gulf of Mexico with the greatest abundance probably in southwest Florida."

Most sheepshead run in the 2- to 6-pound range. However, the world record weighed 21 1/4 pounds and was caught off the concrete seawall on Lake Pontchartrain within the city limits of New Orleans (read more below).

FAVORITE FORAGE

The pugnacious, buck-toothed reef rulers feature alternating black and white stripes that mimic the pilings where they like to feed. With powerful jaws and strong teeth, sheepshead can easily crush shells of small marine animals, including barnacles, small stone crabs and fiddler crabs. They also eat shrimp, minnows, clams, squid, cut bait and other morsels.


Sheepshead
A sheepshead’s black and white stripes allow it to blend into the pilings where it likes to feed. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

"Sheepshead get overlooked by many people, but these strong, scrappy fighters are a heck of a lot of fun to catch," says Patric Garmeson with Ugly Fishing Charters (uglyfishing.com) in Mobile, Ala. "When I’m fishing for sheepshead, I prefer live bait. If I’m specifically targeting sheepshead, I’ll use a small crab like a hermit crab or a fiddler. Sometimes we catch sheepshead on baitfish, but most of the time a crustacean is the way to go."


Sheepshead love to snip barnacles off pilings, rocks, shells and other objects with their incisor teeth. Therefore, they typically hang around wrecks, reefs, docks, bridges, jetties and similar hard structures. In Florida, they swim among the mangrove roots. Sheepshead usually stay near hard cover, but they’ll also roam along sandy beaches to munch mole crabs, also known as sand fleas.

"We catch many sheepshead around the docks, concrete walls and jetties," says Charles Newton of Redfish Charters (redfishcharters.com) in Rockport, Texas. "When fishing for sheepshead, we use small hooks and bait them with small crabs or live shrimp. Sheepshead will hit dead shrimp, too."

Around wrecks, reefs and jetties, throw Carolina rigs or drag jigheads along the bottom. Use any natural morsels, such as cracked crabs, live or fresh shrimp, squid or live minnows for bait. Fish as close to structure as possible. Keep live baits swimming just outside entangling cover.

"When I’m fishing specifically for sheepshead, I use a Carolina rig with a half- to three-quarter-ounce weight and an 18-inch 30-pound leader," says Kenny Kreeger with Lake Pontchartrain Charters (lakepontchartraincharters.com) in Slidell, La. "I tip it with a live shrimp and fish around hard structures. I put the bait as close to the structure as I possibly can."


A live blue crab about twice the size of a quarter, or just a piece of crab, make excellent baits, too. Break off the claws and use them for chum. Hook a small live crab through the shell by the rounded rear swimmer fin so it can still move easily. Hook a crab chunk through a leg hole.

"Crabs make outstanding sheepshead baits," says Robert Brodie with Team Brodie Charters (teambrodiecharters.com) in Biloxi, Miss. "We pull the top shell off and break a crab in half or quarter it. For a big crab, we cut each half into three or four pieces. Fiddler crabs are another treat. That’s like candy for a sheepshead. We’ve caught sheepshead exceeding 10 pounds. On light tackle, it’s quite a challenge to bring in such a powerful fish."

SHEEPSHEAD HAUNTS

Bridges, docks, petroleum platforms and any other structures with barnacle-encrusted pilings all make great places to catch big sheepshead. Pull as close as you can to the pilings and tie up rather than anchor, if possible. Drop a live shrimp, crab bait or other temptation next to the piling. Sheepshead seldom chase baits far from cover.


Let the bait hit bottom, then lift it. Slowly bring the bait up in 1-foot increments to determine where the sheepshead are suspending. They might lurk near the bottom or hover next to a piling anywhere in the water column.

Often, anglers without boats can catch giant sheepshead around docks, seawalls, bulkheads and similar structure. As you would when fishing a bridge, dangle baits as close to the pilings as possible in deep enough water. In shallow water, cast to cover or a drop-off edge. Always be on the lookout for secondary cover. Use just enough weight, depending on the tidal flow, to hold the bait down in the strike zone.

Where legal, anglers might scrape barnacles off the pilings with a rake or shovel to create a cloud of meat pieces and debris in the water. Sheepshead quickly home in on the scent and succulent meat bits. People also throw old bait, crab or oyster shells, food scraps, cracked clams and other morsels off their docks to attract sheepshead.

Some of the best action occurs around fish-cleaning stations. Anglers cleaning their catches toss heads, backbones, entrails and scraps into the water. That attracts shrimp, crabs and small fish, which in turn draw the sheepshead.

Even the largest sheepshead tends to nibble a bait, timidly examining it before biting. Sheepshead can quickly strip baits from hooks or snip meat without touching steel. Anglers might not even detect subtle nibbles, or perhaps they feel just a slight tug or heaviness as if snagged on something. Catching sheepshead almost comes down to anticipating a strike by instinct. Old-timers are fond of saying, "Set the hook just before a sheepshead bites."

"Despite the strength of their teeth and jaws, sheepshead are persnickety, careful eaters and difficult to hook for the novice," Shipp says. "However, experienced sheepshead anglers acquire a touch for them and are able to land dozens, while frustrated beginners retrieve empty hooks time and time again."

When hooked, these strong fish put up a considerable fight. Built for power rather than speed, sheepshead don’t slash and flash like speckled trout or run like rampaging redfish. Instead, they hunker down amid entangling structures. Relying upon their brute strength, sheepshead dare anyone to budge them. Frequently, they rub lines against sharp barnacles or other objects to break free.

ARTIFICIAL OPTIONS

While sheepshead typically prefer natural baits, they occasionally hit artificials. Anglers sometimes catch big sheepshead on spoons, soft-plastic crabs, spinnerbaits, and jigheads sweetened with shrimp imitations or other baits. Fly fishermen sometimes sight-fish for them. Around pilings, jetties and other structures, sheepshead commonly rise and descend in the water and might snack on barnacles growing just under the surface. Sheepshead could also appear near anchored buoy chains. When a big sheepshead rises, long-rodders toss feathery crab or shrimp imitations to it.

"Fishing for sheepshead with fly tackle is a lot of fun," Brodie says. "When we see a sheepshead swimming around a piling, we throw the fly out and let it drift down very slowly. A small shrimp or crab pattern with a little gold coloring works very well. In clear water, it’s fun to watch a big sheepshead come up and take a fly."

In shallow waters along marshy shorelines or over oyster reefs, many anglers use popping-cork rigs. Most people prefer to use live or fresh shrimp with a popping cork, but anglers also catch sheepshead on live minnows, whole crabs or crab pieces, cut bait and artificial offerings like soft-plastic shrimp imitations and small flies. Set the cork so the enticement dangles just above the bottom or at a level where fish suspend.

Toss the rig so the wind or tide carries it over a likely spot. During a falling tide, cast as far upstream as possible and let the current carry the rig naturally downstream. Occasionally jerk the rod to pop the cork and create a splash that imitates that of a striking fish. That action causes the bait to fly upward and then sink again, which will get the attention of any predator in the vicinity.

Fishing for sheepshead requires considerable patience, but these pugnacious powerhouses have saved many a day when most other fish refuse to cooperate. Since they fight so hard and readily eat most baits, sheepshead also make a great species for young or novice anglers to target.

Sheepshead
Photo by John N. Felsher

FIND THE STRUCTURE, FIND THE FISH

In April 1982, Wayne Desselle landed the world-record sheepshead, a 21 1/4-pounder, while fishing off the New Orleans Seawall on the southern shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain. Built in the 1930s, the concrete stairway leading into the water still produces outstanding sheepshead catches. The seawall stretches for miles, providing abundant free public fishing opportunities all year long inside the city limits of New Orleans

Besides the seawall, there are many other places to catch big sheepshead in the 630-square-mile lake. Several bridges with thousands of barnacle-encrusted pilings traverse the lake. The twin spans of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway run 24 miles across the widest part of the lake. It’s the longest continuous bridge passing over water in the world and offers anglers almost unlimited fishing opportunities.

On the east side of the lake, the old Highway 11 bridge and an even older railroad trestle roughly parallel the Interstate 10 twin spans, crossing a narrow section from Slidell to New Orleans. In addition, anglers can fish bridges and other structures in two deep, narrow passes. The Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass both connect Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne, an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. In recent years, the state also established several artificial reefs in the lake.

"The Rigolets can produce a lot of good fish," says Mike Gallo of Angling Adventures of Louisiana (aaofla.com). "The old railroad bridge over the Rigolets is always productive."

Farther to the east, anglers can find great sheepshead action in the Back Bay, also called Biloxi Bay, between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, Miss. Numerous crusty pilings from docks, bridges, poles and channel markers dot the bay. Bridges crossing the pass connecting the bay to Mississippi Sound can hold big sheepshead, and there are a number of artificial reefs in both the bay and the sound.

"The bay is full of structures," says Robert Brodie of Team Brodie Charters (teambrodiecharters.com). "Hurricane Katrina and other storms left a lot of fish-holding structure and debris in the water. Some of it is still there, making good places to fish for sheepshead."

Towns surrounding these waters can provide anglers with all the services they need. For Louisiana fishing licenses, visit wlf.louisiana.gov/recreational-fishing-licenses. For Mississippi licenses, see mdwfp.com/license/fishing.

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