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Let's Catch Some Sheepshead

These Hard to Catch Convict Fish Are Fun


Got your bait? Got your tackle? Ready to go? Ok! Lets get crackin' on those sheepshead! One reader did ask last week whether these were Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus), or the California variety (Semicossyphus pulcher). These that I am writing about are the former, the Atlantic variety.

I have never fished for any of the West Coast variety, but I do understand they get much larger than the east coast namesakes. If you ever looked closely at a sheepshead's mouth, you will notice that the front teeth on both the top and bottom look exactly like the teeth of a sheep (hence the name!). They use these teeth to crush small crustaceans and shells to get at their food. The inside of their mouth is lined on the top with a very hard grinding surface, which aids in further pulverizing the shells it picks up for food.

Because the mouth is so hard, hooks have a hard time penetrating the fish, and many are simply not hooked. And it is precisely this reason that we need to fish for these good eating guys a little differently than most other fish. Setting the hook when you feel the bite on these guys will leave you with a bare hook and out of bait in very short order. That is, if you even feel them bite!

Remember that these fish like to hang around any kind of structure, particularly if that structure has any sea life around or on it. Piers, jetties, rocks, pilings, and just about any other structure will hold fish, if there is sufficient sealife growing on and around the structure. Things like barnacles and oysters do just fine attracting them. And jetties and pilings generally have their share of fiddler crabs.

I like to fish as close as I can to these structures while staying as safe as I can. Around any jetties, there is generally a current on at least one side, and probably some type of wave action to contend with on the other side. So I take particular care to anchor close, but to leave enough room for the boat to come about in any wave wash.

Sheepshead will hold around these structures, but will sometimes venture as much as 10 yards away if the school is large enough and they sense protection in numbers. So don't be afraid to drop a bait away from the rocks from time to time.

My rig consists of 6 pound test line on a light action spinning reel. I use as small a slip sinker as is necessary to get the bait down, and a leader about 12 inches long. This is a much shorter leader than most folks are familiar with, but there is a reason for that length.

I drop a fiddler crab which has been hooked through the back with a number 1 or number 2 circle hook to the bottom. I then reel up about three cranks on the reel (about 2 feet), and hold the rod as steady as I possibly can.

With the bait in the water, we would wait for the bite on all other fish. But on these fish, you have to "find" the bite. If you sit there very still and don't move your bait, these fish will steal every bait you have and leave you wondering what happened!

They move up to the bait in the water, take it into their mouth without swimming anywhere, and sit there in one place crushing the bait off of your hook. So the trick becomes knowing when they are holding the bait in their mouth.

The method that many use including myself is to slowly lift your rod tip - maybe two feet - and feel for any pressure. If you feel some pressure, simply keep lifting the rod tip. If the fish has your bait, he will begin moving away from the pressure. When he does that, reel a little faster to increase the pressure, He will move a little faster, and before you know it he has hooked himself in the side of the mouth, away from the hard hookproof roof of his mouth!

Don't play these fish too hard when they are hooked like this. They are hooked in the soft part of the side of the mouth, and too much pressure will make the hook pull. Just play the fish, and enjoy the fight - because they really do fight! And don't forget the net. These bruisers get up to 10 pounds or more, and there is no good way to get them in the boat on light line without a net.

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