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How to Catch Atlantic Sheepshead From Piers and Jetties

I've had great luck catching sheepshead on an old bridge-turned-pier in Florida. Here are my best tips.

Yes, you can catch sheepshead on the average pier.

Yes, you can catch sheepshead on the average pier.

Where to Fish for Sheepshead

One of my favorite places in the world to fish for sheepshead ("Atlantic Sheepshead") is a fishing pier at Vilano Beach, Florida. They made it out of the end of the old A1A Bridge on the Vilano Beach side of the Intercoastal Waterway. I used to fish all the time from the old bridge when it was still in operation. And since they reopened it as a fishing pier, I have had wonderful luck there fishing for sheepshead.

If you're in the Charleston Harbor area, you can almost always catch sheepshead around the Charleston Harbor jetties. You can also find the fish at the jetties at the harbors of Murrells Inlet and Winyah Bay.

Sheephead will be at these jetties but you'll have to find them.

What Is the Best Bait for Sheepshead?

The best bait to use for winter sheepshead at the jetties is fiddler crabs.

This fishing pier, or at least the end of it you can see, used to be part of the Vilano Bridge that A1A used to go across. You can see the new bridge over to the side. The old bridge is a great place for sheephead.

This fishing pier, or at least the end of it you can see, used to be part of the Vilano Bridge that A1A used to go across. You can see the new bridge over to the side. The old bridge is a great place for sheephead.

Tips for Catching Sheepshead

If you have a small boat, the jetties will be a great place to go fishing for sheepshead, but be sure you know what the water conditions are going to be and that you have enough knowledge to keep your boat from washing up on the jetties.

You can use a float and fish at or near the surface, or you can fish the rocks further down. The sheepshead are there, and once you find the depth they are at you can usually hook several.

Sheephead are notorious bait stealers, and they will be up to their tricks in winter the same as summer, so feel for the fish, and once you feel the sheepshead going for your bait, set the hook and hopefully your rod will bend from the weight of a big sheepshead.

You can try fiddler crabs as bait under a float and on the bottom. If you're fishing fiddler crabs on the bottom, use only enough weight to get your crab down to the bottom. You want to hook the crab through its bottom and straight out through the top of its shell.

I often use two-hook bottom rigs to fish around jetties, especially in the cooler winter months. I bought my two-hook rigs in Florida and they offer the bait in two different directions about eight inches apart. I put a fiddler crab on both hooks and fish them under a float over rocks at the jetties, and I usually do well with this setup on sheephead.

Fiddler Crabs will move around in winter especially in warm sunny places in the marsh.

Fiddler Crabs will move around in winter especially in warm sunny places in the marsh.

When and How to Fish Piers and Jetties

I fish two ways for sheephead. I either fish straight down by a pier pole or I fish on the bottom. I have a 12-foot pole with a metal scraper that I mounted onto the end of it. If I go to a place where I can use the pole and scraper, I use it to knock barnacles and etc. off of the pier poles, just under the water. This chums the water and attracts more sheephead and other types of fish. When I do this, I use pieces of oyster or clam to fish with and I usually catch lots of sheephead.

If I'm fishing on the bottom I use a two-hook bottom rig but if I'm fishing around pier poles up in the water I use a single long-shank hook, and I am a big fan of clear round fishing floats. I use the long-shank hooks so I can take the hooks out of their mouths easier.

Once the fiddler crabs start moving around well in the spring, if I'm fishing from the North Carolina Outer Banks down to the St Augustine area in Florida, I gather my own supply of fiddler crabs. and as soon as the ocean waters start warming up I start cleaning up on the sheephead with fiddler crabs. I do a lot better fishing for sheephead in the spring as soon as the water starts warming up. I like to fish when the water is a little stirred up but not so cloudy that the fish can't see my bait.

At the old bridge pier in Vilano Beach, Florida, the best time of the year is mid-April through the end of June. The water is warm enough at this time of year that you should be able to have great luck fishing for sheephead. Later in the summer, the water gets too warm in the day time but you can still do good at night.

If you can catch or buy live shrimp, the spring is a great time to use them to fish for sheephead in the Vilano Beach area. Fish your live shrimp on a single long-shank hook about three feet under the water under a large round fishing float. Reel your bait over near a pier pole and you should have great luck with a live shrimp. You may have to adjust how deep you are fishing your live shrimp, but you should find plenty of hungry sheephead ready to take your bait.

In the early spring, just after the water warms up, you can do well fishing on the bottom with a two-hook bottom rig baited with cut-up oysters. I use a number 2 or number 1 hook and I use long-shank hooks so I can get the hook out of the sheephead's mouth easier. I keep a pair of needle nose pliers in my pocket to help get the hooks out also.

I stopped using colored fishing floats a few years back and I now always use clear plastic fishing floats. Believe it or not, you will do better with the clear floats than you will ever do with colored fishing floats. It took me years to figure out that when you throw out that big red-and-white fishing float you scare the fish away including sheephead.

You can catch a supply of fiddler crabs and keep them in aquariums for winter sheephead fishing.

You can catch a supply of fiddler crabs and keep them in aquariums for winter sheephead fishing.

Keeping Fiddler Crabs for Bait

You may not be able to find fiddler crabs in the winter, so what I do is catch a huge supply in the warmer months and keep them in my heated garage for fishing with during the cold winter months. So you may want to catch and keep a good supply for the cold winter months.

Your fiddler crabs will do the best if you can keep them at 70 - 85 degrees, but don't put a heat lamp over your fiddler crabs or you'll cook them alive.

I keep them in aquariums with marsh sand as a substrate and I bury small bottles in the marsh sand to make places for the fiddler crabs to hide. I feed them on raw fish and hermit crab food and this way I usually have fiddler crabs to fish with all winter.

Keep their food in dishes and keep their homes clean and they will live just fine until you're ready to take them fishing. You'll want to keep wire tops on your aquariums or the fiddler crabs will get out and go on their own adventures.

If you feed them fish or shrimp make sure it's raw and cut it up fine and offer it in a small bowl that they can get into and out of easy. Fiddler Crabs aren't really aggressive and I have rarely been bitten.

It's real important that you provide lots of hiding places like bottles covered up with marsh sand so that your future sheephead bait will have plenty of places to hide.

Provide each aquarium with a water dish that they can get into and out of easily. Don't put them in the water dish. Let them get in and get out when they want to and they will do well.

Beer-Battered Fried Sheepshead

And once you catch those sheephead, filet them and then use the recipe below to fry some of the best fried sheephead you'll ever eat.

Besides sheephead filets, you will need the dry mix below and the beer mixture below.

Dry Mix

Mix well:

  • 2 cups self rising flour
  • 1 cup self rising cornmeal.
  • 1 teaspoon ground sea salt.
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper.

Beer Mixture

Mix in a blender:

  • 1 cup beer
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs

Dip your pieces of sheephead filet into the beer batter first and then dip them into the dry mixture.

Now you'll want to deep fry each piece of sheephead filet until it is golden brown on both sides. You may want to turn the fish over while it is in the deep fryer so it gets done on both sides and all the way through.

I hope those tips will help you to catch plenty of sheephead and be sure and try this recipe for beer-battered sheephead because it is so delicious.


Please post your comments below. Have you ever had any experiences with fiddler crabs? Have you ever fished for sheephead with fiddler crabs? Tell us all about it in the comment section below.

© 2011 Thomas Byers