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Cold Weather Sheepshead

Fall and winter weather brings big schools of sheepshead together


Jetties Sheepshead

A family affair nets a nice sheepshead off the rocks

Photo by Ron Brooks
On a day when other fishermen would stay home, I tend to venture out into the weather. Cold, winter temperatures mean sheepshead in my neck of the woods (or would it be my piece of the ocean?). Either way, winter is sheepshead time, and the bite along the southern Atlantic coast has been hot recently.

Several rivers and inlets along the coast are lined with either a concrete or rock jetty protecting the channel. These jetties are the perfect structure for harboring all kinds of small fish and crustaceans. From small crabs and shrimp to barnacles, the rocks mean an unending food source fro the fish that feed on hard shell meals.

The Atlantic sheepshead, named for the teeth that so resemble those of a sheep, are crustacean specialists. Barnacles and small crabs are their main diet, and their teeth crush these shellfish with great ease.

The jetties are alive with sheepshead right now as they make their way from inlets ad backwater creeks out to near-shore reefs and structure. These same jetties are also alive with anglers looking to fill an ice chest with some fine eating fish.

I recently fished the jetties at the mouth of the St Johns River, a place I fish quite often. Over the years I have been successful at finding a school of ‘heads at one of several locations along the jetties. Depending on the wind and tide, I can find relatively calm water on one side of the jetty or the other.

I’m not sure what the fish are seeing along the jetties, but something makes them school in one of only a handful of areas every year. If I don’t find them in one place, I can generally find them in another. Some days they are so turned on you catch a limit in only an hour or so. Other days, it is hard to even generate a single bite. I believe this is because of the migration. The fish that were there yesterday have left, and new residents have yet to arrive. AT least that’s what I tell myself – makes for a good excuse to explain and empty ice chest!

Sheepshead in my area love to eat fiddler crabs. Local tackle shops will have fiddlers all the way up to extremely cold weather. At that point, the bait-catching people have a hard time finding fiddlers. They tend to burrow deep into the mud and sand during cold weather, and catching them is next to impossible. I know some friends who try to stock up on fiddlers to make sure they have some in cold weather. Many tackle shops will go several weeks without a re-supply. In the absence of fiddlers, small live shrimp are the alternative.

This day we had fiddlers, and the bite was on. We caught a limit of ‘heads between us in about three hours. The bite was steady, and the fish were about average size, most of them in the two to three pound range.

My method was the same one I have used for years. Lifting the bait slowly to feel the pressure. Most anglers never feel the bite of a sheepshead, and will go through a bucket of bait wondering what happened. ‘Heads generally crush the bait in their mouth with their hard teeth, and then spit out the remains. Those remains will include your hook! Seldom do they swim off with or strike your bait. They simply sit in one place and eat! The lifting method allows me to feel them on the line.

I also use as light a line as possible. I am a firm believer that terminal tackle and line can be seen by the fish; and, while they may not know what it is, they certainly become wary in the presence of this unknown stuff around them. For me, smaller and lighter are better.

The bite should remain steady for a month or more. At that point and into early Spring, the near-shore reefs, rocks and bottoms will be home to huge schools of ‘heads in both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

And I will be right on top of them with my six-pound test line and small hooks baited with fiddler crabs!

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