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Easy Winter Sheepshead Fishing

Catching Sheepshead in the winter can be easy if you simply take it easy!


Easy Winter Sheepshead Fishing
Don Johnson 395/flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0
Sheepshead fishing during the winter months can be fantastic if you can find the fish. We went looking for them off the Georgia coast and found that most of the closer in artificial reefs along the Georgia coast are holding lots of good sized sheepshead. In the winter months the sheepshead head offshore to take up residence on these reefs. The key to catching them is knowing how to present your bait and how to set the hook!

The Seasons are Closed!

Everything offshore along the Atlantic from North Carolina to South Florida is shut down. It’s not the weather. It’s the regulations. The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) has deemed that lots of our offshore bottom fish are being threatened by over-fishing. Whether they are accurate in their assessment or not is irrelevant at this point, and while you can argue until you are blue in the face, the fact remains: grouper, red snapper, black seabass, and vermillion snapper (beeliners) are closed to fishing all winter long. So a trip offshore becomes an expensive catch and release adventure unless you can find other fish to catch. Sheepshead can fill the void!


The tackle we use for offshore sheepshead may b a bit heavier than that we take for inshore fish, but the technique is the same. Put a bait in front of their nose and wait for that subtle bite. We were fishing with 20 pound test line and using only enough weight to get us to the bottom. In this case it took 5 ounces to get a bait down, because the tidal current was really moving hard and fast in this full moon period.

Our leaders were of 15 pound test fluorocarbon and were only nine inches long, terminated to a 1/0 hook. We use short leaders and small hooks for sheepshead. Longer leaders don’t allow you to feel a bite, and larger hooks make it harder to hook a fish.

We fish straight down under the boat. After anchoring in 60 feet of water over the artificial reef, we dropped baits to the bottom and reeled them up about three feet. There we waited for a bite. Our bait – the always reliable fiddler crab.

That Subtle Bite

When a sheepshead bites a bait, he does not strike it and run like lots of other fish. Oh yes, you will occasionally find one that will do that if he is competing with another fish for food. But usually, they will simply swim up to the bait, gently suck it into their mouth, and sit in one place while they use their grinding teeth to crush the bait right off the hook. Once they do that they gently spit the hook right out of their mouth. So a long leader would leave enough slack that most anglers would never even know the fish was there.

Detecting that Subtle Bite

So we use a short leader – one that allows us to stay in touch with our hook. That’s the key – staying in touch with your baited hook. But, even with a shorter leader we often do not feel that bite. Key number two is to lift your rod! Yes – simply lift your rod about a foot every 30 seconds or so. If the fish has your bait in its mouth, you will feel some pressure as you lift.

That pressure might be a rock or other bottom structure, or it might be a fish. The experienced sheepshead catcher can tell the difference. When they slowly and gently lift their rod tip, they sometimes encounter resistance that feels like they may be hung on a rock. I teach people to feel whether the rock they think they are hung on is moving at all. A sheepshead will often be moved up and down in the water column – even just an inch or two - by wave action, or they may slowly begin swimming away with the bait. Rocks don’t move, and once an angler learns how to tell the difference, the catch rate on these seven-striped jetty bass (a term of endearment provided by a guide friend of mine) goes up dramatically. Yes – count them – seven black stripes.

Setting the Hook

I can argue two directions on a hook set for sheepshead. Set it hard or reel it slow. I have more success on the reeling technique than I do with a heard hook set. Think about it. The fish is grinding the bait and hook just inside his mouth. A hard hook set often simply pulls the hook right out of his mouth.

By applying some pressure and beginning to reel – slowly at first and then faster – you make the fish think the bait is getting away from them. They clamp down to hold onto it, sometimes turn directions, and will end up being hooked a very large percentage of the time. Reel slowly, then faster and as your rod begins to bend lift up and apply a lot more pressure. The fish will hook himself, usually right in the corner of the mouth.

The hard upper and lower crusher teeth inside the mouth of a sheepshead is so hard that hook penetration is extremely difficult. That’s why a hard hook set does not work – you simply cannot get a good soft spot inside the mouth.

Fight with a Drag

Most hookups will be in the corner of the mouth and often in the lip area outside the teeth. This is softer flesh and if you put too much pressure on the fish, your hook will invariably pull out.

Set your drag so that the fish can pull line when he runs away from you. Even with heavy tackle, you can’t expect to winch these guys into the boat. You will losse many more fish than you catch.

Bottom Line

To borrow a term from our freshwater bass anglers – this is “finesse fishing” at its finest. You can’t overpower a sheepshead and you have to be very subtle to feel the bite, set the hook, and fight the fish. If you can get these techniques down you can be very successful!
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