Saltwater Fishing: Guide to Sheepshead Fishing
Wintertime brings many things I could do without: cold weather, wind, and low water temperatures and thus slow fishing. Yet not all is lost. Sheepshead, however, thrive in this cold winter water. A member of the Porgy family, Sheepshead are hard fighting, and excellent to eat, and can be very easily caught with the right techniques.
Sheepshead have a reputation as being a "Convict" fish not only because they are clad in black and white stripes like an inmate, but also because they are notorious bait stealers. Many anglers have been quoted saying "Set the hook right before they bite" because they eat so carefully and will leave you wondering how they managed to chomp through your bait without you even noticing. This can make them quite difficult to catch, even for the most experienced anglers. I will, however, share the knowledge that I have accumulated through my trials and tribulations of sheepshead fishing.
First off, Sheepshead can be caught year round but are most abundant in the winter and early spring when preparing for their spawn. It is in these cool water temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 degrees that we find these elusive and tasty fish.
Tackle for Sheepshead
- Rod: 7' medium light to medium action
- Reel: 2500 -3000 series spinning
- Line: 15lb braid (Preferably UltraCast Invisi-Braid)
- Leader: 18" of 20-25lb fluorocarbon
- Hook: #1 or #2 hook
- Weight: Small splitshot 10" up from the hook in light current or a slip sinker above a small swivel when heavier weight is needed
Location for Sheepshead
Location is key for sheepshead and also very easy to understand. To understand why the fish are where they are, you need to know what they eat. Sheepshead have very hard and sharp teeth and a mouth full of bony bumps they use for chomping and crushing barnacles, shrimp, crab, and other crustaceans. They are structure-oriented fish, so places with lots of rocks or pilings that are covered with barnacles or full of crabs are where you will find them. Prime habitats for sheepshead include residential docks, piers, and marinas.
When fishing these locations, it is important to anchor as close as possible to the structure without putting yourself or your boat in danger. If you are fishing from land, you completely avoid this issue. Keep in mind that sheepshead stay around the pilings and structure that holds their food so the closer you can get your bait, the better. Another tip is when you are up-current from a piling, you can drift your bait back and have it actually on the piling, and then sheepshead will come and pick it off for you.
When fishing for Sheepshead, to be successful, you will need either live or dead bait. The best baits to use are shrimp, fiddler or mud crabs, sand fleas, or barnacles and most of these can be bought from a local bait or tackle shop. Barnacles can be obtained by simply scraping them off a piling at low tide and coming back and fishing that area on a higher tide. When putting your bait on your hook, be sure to conceal as much of the hook as possible while leaving the tip exposed. Also the when using barnacles as bait, after then have been cleanly scraped off of a piling, put the hook through the top where the opening of the barnacle is and exit through the thin layer or shell where it attached to the piling.
Presentation for Catching Sheepshead
After your location and bait have been secured, presentation is the final and key aspect of catching Sheepshead. No matter what structure you are fishing, it is important to get your bait as close as possible the structure. When fishing for Sheepshead I will usually start fishing at the bottom of the water column and work my way up until I start catching fish. The main technique is to drop your bait to the desired depth, and then keep tension on the line. When the Sheepshead bit you won't feel a thump when they bite like most fish. Instead you'll feel a slight vibration or ticking as they chomp and chew on the bait. Sometimes you won't feel the bite but instead will see your line moving around or moving away from you. At this point, don't set the hook like you normally would as this will just rip it out of the fish's mouth. Instead you should slowly start to raise the rod tip and put pressure on the fish. As you apply pressure the Sheepshead will pull back and as you each pull the hook becomes set in the fish's mouth.
Once hooked, you will want to bring the fish up and away from the structure as they will use their surface area to pull down into the structure and quickly break you off. After they have been brought to the surface, I like to use a landing net because when lifting them out of the water, they can sometimes break the line or shake the shook.
Using these tactics and combining these three elements, Sheepshead will become a regular catch and a tasty addition to the dinner table. Keep in mind that Sheepshead have no closed season and they need to be at least 12" to keep and you can keep 15 per person per day. These fish can be difficult to clean so make sure to check out my hub on how to fillet fish. Also, they can be cooked many ways and are always delicious and I have detailed instructions on that as well.