We were on the south side of the south jetty where the St. Johns River enters the Atlantic. Several other boats had made there way there already and were anchored along the rocks, granites monoliths that extend unseen out onto the sandy bottom for several yards. A grapping anchor with a breaking knot is a must here.
The target was sheepshead; the bait was fiddler crabs. Catching these cousins to a porgy is at best difficult for most people. They can steal a bait without you feeling them, and if you do feel them, setting the hook in their bony, toothy mouth ads yet another degree of difficulty.
Most people who fish this area fish further away from the rocks than we do. They anchor off and cast up to the rocks. This means two things: (1) they feel fewer bites, and (2) they loose lots of terminal tackle to the rocks below.
I like to position the boat directly over the rocks I want to fish, and then fish straight down under the boat. Often that means that I can touch the protruding jetty rocks with the end of my rod. One good swell coming at a bad angle could put us right on a jagged edge, so we fish and watch at the same time. Today the wind from the north tended to keep the boat off the rocks, and the moving tide helped keep it parallel to the rocks, a position that was perfect.
Fishing straight down under the boat prevents most hang ups, and allows you to easily free the few snags that do occur. More importantly, though, fishing straight down allows you to feel the fish better than any other method.
I use a #2 short shank hook and a leader that is only eight inches long. Above the swivel and leader, I use an egg sinker only heavy enough to keep the bait straight down. Generally, the lighter your line, the more strikes you will get. This trip found us with six-pound spinning gear.
The method is fairly simple. Drop the hooked fiddler straight down until it reaches bottom (which is usually the top of one of the rocks on the bottom). Then reel about twice to get the sinker up off the bottom. Try to keep the bait as stationary as possible, and slowly lift it about a foot every twenty seconds or so. Sheepshead will approach the bait, take it in their mouth and crush the crab, and then spit the hook out without moving an inch. Your gentle lifting lets you feel the pressure of the fish on the end of your line. When you feel the pressure, begin reeling fairly fast. As the pressure increases, set the hook. The fish will tend to suck the entire bait in its mouth when the pressure increases, so waiting to set the hook is a must. If you set the hook as soon as you feel the pressure, the fish won.
If you are too anxious to anchor close to the rocks, take along some cane poles that are at least sixteen feet long. They will allow you to drop the bait straight down as if you were right over the rocks. Be aware that your arms will become very tired after just a little while.
We caught about twenty-five sheepshead that morning before deciding to head offshore and look for a grouper or two. We only kept three, which was what we needed to feed six of us that night.
This action was in North Florida, but it is almost identical up and down the east coast of the US. Find the rocks or jetties and fiddle your way to some great action on light tackle!