Some people call them "convict fish" for the vertical black stripes and their bait stealing tactics. Whatever you call them, they are hard to catch unless you have "the touch". I've been able to teach that touch to my son, Tom, and here are a couple of nice sheepshead taken in St. Augustine, Florida, to prove it.
Herb Allen has written two nice articles about sheepshead fishing. One titled "Hard Fighting Convicts", and another titled, "Sheepshead as Aqua Thieves." Herb gives us the picture on just how hard these guys are to catch. That is unless you have "the touch".
There are three sub-species of sheepshead that range from Nova Scotia all the way to the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. They inhabit the coastal areas around docks, pilings, oyster bars and jetties. At times, they can be found away from the immediate coast on relatively close in reefs. They feed on crabs, particularly the fiddler variety, small shrimp, oysters, and other crushable shellfish. Their name stems from the two rows of crusher teeth that look remarkable like sheep teeth. It is these teeth that make hooking them so difficult. One to three pounds is the usual size, but they are not uncommon over 10 pounds. Several states that list state records have a 12 to 14 lb record.
Fish for sheepshead around pilings, docks and jetties. I use as light a weight as possible, about a foot of 30 lb monofilament for a leader and a 1/0 hook. Fiddlers are the preferred bait, and if I can't find fiddlers, I usually fish for another species that day. They will sometimes hit live shrimp, but not as well as fiddlers.
One crab, two if they're small, goes on the hook, and into the water as close to the structure as possible. Anchoring around sea jetties can sometimes be a little dangerous, but a careful watch prevents accidents.
Now comes "the touch". I usually keep my weight about a foot off the bottom, and gently lift it up a foot or two every 30 seconds or so. If I feel resistance, I simply keep lifting a little faster, and a little faster, until the fish moves away from me. That is when I set the hook. Although I have had some fish jerk the rod from my hand on a hard strike, sheepshead will generally sit still in one place crushing the bait on your hook. That very gentle bite is hard to detect. When I lift the rod gently and feel pressure, I know he has the bait in his mouth. Setting the hook at that point is senseless, because the hook will part from the bait and slide right out of the fish's mouth. As I raise the rod a little higher, the fish will sense the bait getting away from him and will suck it further back into it's mouth, turning away from the pressure. That is when the hook set will work best. But hold on, because thes fish don't know the meaning of quit. I like to catch them on 4 or 6 lb line. Every fish is a 10 minute battle!
Try this method on your own local sheepshead. And by the way, you'll not find a better eating fish. They're a little hard to clean, but worth the effort.
Do you fish for sheepshead? Know someone who does? Got a story or question? Tell me about your experiences and ideas.