Holiday colors for anglers are black and white—the colors of sheepshead.
It was a day of bright sunlight, chilly wind, and clear water at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Gulls and other water birds screeched. Big gas rig service boats passed by my anchored boat from time to time on their way to make deliveries.
My rod tip barely bounced as something below gently attacked the live fiddler crab I’d tossed near a wall of big rocks. But then the line came tight and hard, and my rod bent in a dangerous bow as something strong below the surface seemed determined to separate me from my fishing equipment.
After a very spirited battle, another fat five-pound sheepshead rolled up from the deep water adjacent to the rocks of the near-shore structure. It joined a few of its friends in my ice chest.
Although some of our favorite coastal fishing quarries—the mackerels in particular—have pretty much abandoned Alabama waters by December, sheepshead are just starting to get hot, and December is one of the best months of the year to get in some great sheepshead fishing.
How to Catch December Sheepshead
Our buddy Yano Serra of Coden, Alabama, guides and fishes Mobile Bay and its surrounding waters year-round. He offers some advice when it comes to catching December sheepshead. The first job is to find good bait when fishing sheepshead. Sheepshead are live-bait eaters, so live bait is the ticket.
Shrimp is the classic inshore live bait, but live shrimp can be hard to find. Captain Yano says, “Many bait shops will have imported live shrimp from Florida. The problem with these shrimp is that they come from water with higher salinity than Mobile Bay water, so they die quickly when exposed to Alabama water. I always use plenty of water from the bait shop in my live well, and I turn off the freshwater pickup for the live well. This helps keep the shrimp alive.”
Other reliable live baits are fiddler crabs and tiny baby stone crabs. These can be found in culled oysters where the crabs live in the crevices of the oyster shells.
“Hermit crabs are my bait of choice for winter fishing sheepshead,” Yano says. “They have to be cracked out of their borrowed shells with a hammer and piece of steel before they can be used, but sheepshead love them.”
Yano recommends sheepshead seekers use a medium-heavy rod with 15-20 lb braided line. He likes Power-Pro. Sheepshead are notorious for being the softest biters in the Bay, and the non-stretch braided line makes detecting their gentle bites easier.
A foot or so of 20 lb fluorocarbon leader completes the standard sheepshead rig.
As far as hook and weight setups go, Captain Yano recommends anglers pay attention to the current and rig accordingly. If the current is very light, use just enough weight to take the bait down. The lighter the weight used, the more effective an angler can be when it comes to detecting the light sheepshead bite.
Captain Yano says, “I use just a ¼ oz or less shot about a foot above the hook. I use a #4 Owner hook. I also use a slip-cork rig when I’m fishing around the rigs or bridge pilings where the water may be deeper. The slip cork allows me to slowly lower my bait to find the depth the fish seem to be holding at.”
Although when fishing sheepshead, they are sometimes caught in shallow water, anglers will do better to start a sheepshead search in water at least ten feet deep. “Remember, in December, the water will be chilly, and the fish will usually be in deeper water,” Yano adds.
Where to Find December Sheepshead
The most crucial component of fishing sheepshead in December is finding them. Sheepshead love to concentrate near a structure, an especially hard structure like bridges and gas platforms, but they also like rocks and dock pilings if the water is deep enough. Jetties, breakwaters and other artificial rock structure underwater can be very good for winter sheepshead.
“Sheepshead will gather around the pilings, and the oyster bars on both sides of the bridge can be very productive.”
Anglers can have some very good luck fishing around the old Sand Island lighthouse where the large boulders used to hold the artificial island together run into the water. Sometimes, sheepies stack up in large numbers here. Another good thing about fishing the Lighthouse is that no matter what direction the wind is coming from, anglers can get some shelter from the waves on the downwind side of the island.
Anglers can find some very good sheepshead-holding structure in the pass where Mobile Bay empties into the Gulf. It may take some searching with the fish-finder, but sunken barges, ballast rock piles and other stuff on the bottom can be very productive.
Of course, lots of the gas rigs in Mobile Bay can be absolute sheepshead magnets in December. Captain Yano advises us to “Fish around the platforms in Mobile Bay. Some of these get really good in December. You may have to chum the fish up, but they are there.”
He also favors Dauphin Island Bridge. “Don’t neglect the structure of the bridge,” he says. “Sheepshead will gather around the pilings, and the oyster bars on both sides of the bridge can be very productive. In fact, the biggest sheepshead I’ve caught came from the shoals right beside the Dauphin Island Bridge. It weighed eleven pounds.”
Basically, anglers new to the sheepshead game will have to spend a little time exploring to find spots where the December sheepshead concentrate. However, any place where the water is around ten feet deep and has some sort of hard structure is a good place to try.
What if They Won’t Bite?
Sometimes, for whatever reason, sheepshead just get lockjaw and won’t eat. Anglers can even see the bait-stealing stripes swimming around near their favorite underwater structure, but they won’t take a bite of anything. This can be frustrating, but an angler can do something about it.
Sheepshead responds well most days to a bit of chumming. If an angler has a five-gallon bucket of cull oysters and a short length of 2 x 4 stud, a very effective sheepshead chum can be quickly created.
Smash the oysters and shells together in the bucket with the board and then dribble the crushed pieces into the water near the structure where the sheepies should be. Quite often, this little trickle of flashing shell fragments and tiny bits of oyster meat drifting through the water is enough to trigger a really hot sheepshead bite.
Another traditional way to chum sheepshead is to simply scrape barnacles off the structure itself—bridge and pier pilings are great for this—with a small spade or garden hoe. This small amount of free food sinking through the water can get the stubborn sheepies going at times.
Captain Yano says, “Another good source of quick-and-easy chum to fire up a sheepshead bite is to go to a commercial crab processing shop. Several are in Bayou La Batre and surrounding areas. And pick up a bunch of crab waste from the cleaning process. The processing plants will be happy to give you the shells and waste parts for free. Put these shells and other parts in a Chum-Churn and use it to crush up the crab parts. Let this chum line of crab parts run down-current, and if sheepshead are around it won’t be long before they show up.”
Captain Yano adds, “There is one problem with this kind of chumming. A lot of the time, along with the sheepshead which comes to the chum line, some pretty big redfish will come to investigate too, and they aren’t shy about taking a live shrimp or crab on an angler’s hook.”
This sounds like just the kind of problem I need.
A Little Caution is Needed
Anglers who go fishing around Dauphin Island and the other parts of Mobile Bay in winter need to be on the watch for weather changes. What started as a gentle breeze early in the morning can turn into a gale later in the day. Anglers need to have warm, water-proof clothing on the boat. Of course, good personal floatation devices should also be worn.
Currents in the Pass and over the Dixey Bar can be quite strong, so sheepshead anglers need to keep an eye on that situation, too. A little current is a good thing, but a really strong tide can present navigation problems.
Finally, anglers need to be aware the water levels are generally lower in winter than summer levels, so flats and bars safely underwater back in July may be shallow enough to run a ground on in December. Be vigilant when running at speed.
A Fine Way to Spend a December Day
So, while some folks will be thinking about Christmas trees and presents and flashy decorations in December, the ones fishing sheepshead will be looking for our own kind of December presents. You know, decorated in black and white. These presents won’t be under a Christmas tree. They’ll be around some type of hard structure near Mobile Bay. But we won’t have to wait till Christmas to enjoy these gifts—any nice day in December will work just fine.
Important Contact Information
Captain Yano Serra
Speck-Tackle-Lure Inshore Charter Fishing