Even though it’s cold on the coast during January, those black-and-white bait stealers are ready to rumble.
The wind was chilly and my feet, still wet after I missed a step launching the boat earlier, we’re starting to complain. The misty rain soaked everything not covered, and water dripped off the bill of my cap. It was cold but I didn’t even notice when, for about the fifteenth time that morning, my rod was forced into a sharp curve and my line hissed through the water as a strong fish tried to bull its way to freedom.
None of the unpleasant weather conditions were even felt as I fought this powerful and determined adversary. The pressure of the rod and the drag of the reel finally began to wear it down, and then roiling water showed I had the fish to the surface. Unmistakable broad black-and-white stripes flashed in the water, and a fine five-pound sheepshead made a final run—into the landing net.
I admired the fish, worked a bit to unhook it, and since I already had three similar-sized sheepsheads in the ice chest, I let this one go. I had plenty of fish for a great midwinter fish fry, and letting this one go was just the right thing for me to do.
Even though it was a cloudy, windy, chilly, wet day, I felt just fine. After all, this is the fun of January sheepshead fishing
How to Catch the Cold Weather Sheepish
When we go cold-weather sheepshead fishing, the first and most important step in the process is finding bait. I suppose sheepshead have been caught on artificial lures, but I never have. For most Gulf Coast anglers, live bait is the key to successful sheepshead fishing. January sheepie trips are no exception.
Anglers may have to call several area bait-and-tackle shops to find one that has live shrimp in January. Shrimp can be very hard to come by in cool weather. The netters have trouble locating enough shrimp at this time to make going out after them profitable.
A very good and reliable alternative for sheepshead anglers is to find some fiddler crabs. Many area bait-and-tackle shops have fiddlers for sale, but fiddler crabs can often be located along the shoreline around grass and under solid rubble.
“A very good and reliable alternative for sheepshead anglers is to find some fiddler crabs.”
Anglers in desperate need of live bait can survey a shoreline with grass or oyster shells and slowly walk the shoreline and look for fiddler crabs that run away upon approach. Very often, especially after the sun gets high, fiddlers will congregate under pieces of wood or storm debris just above the water line.
Rigging for cool weather sheepshead fishing is easy. I use just enough weight to sink my live bait quickly to the bottom. Depending on the current, this can be as little as ¼ oz, or in strong tide conditions, it might take a full ounce of weight. The hook is very important. I have caught lots of sheepies on small circle hooks, but my all-time favorite sheepshead hook is a # 2 kahle hook. When a kahle hook grabs a sheepshead, it doesn’t let go.
It never hurts to use a two-foot piece of 20 lb fluorocarbon leader when the sheepies are being leader-shy.
Finding the depth that sheepshead are holding at is a day-to-day thing. On some bright and sunny days, the sheepshead may be 20 feet deep or even deeper on bridge pilings and drop-offs near rocks. On other days—cloudy and dark days especially—the sheepshead may be found in much shallower water. We just have to scout around to find where the black-and-white bait stealers are and how deep they are.
Sheepshead has the reputation of being very sneaky nibblers of bait and of being hard to hook. This is usually true. But during the coolest weather when I’ve fished for sheepshead, the fish seem to lose their normal level of caution and bite as aggressively as redfish. On certain days, the sheepies seem to be in a race to see which fish can eat up the offered bait first. These are very good days, by the way, and they don’t come along every fishing trip.
Anglers in January should not give up on a sheepshead fishing trip if the weather forecast is not the best. Some of the very best sheepshead fishing days I’ve ever had were truly vile days, weather-wise. Chilly breezes and cold rain don’t bother the sheepshead at all. I think the lower light levels of cloudy and rainy days make sheepshead feel more willing to bite, and they will often move into shallower water on cloudy days.
One of my favorite dark-day sheepshead spots is only five feet deep, but on cloudy days this spot is loaded with cool-weather sheepies.
So, when the day is dark, cool and wet, that might just be a good day to put on foul-weather gear and warm socks and head to the nearest sheepshead structure.
Where to Find Cool Weather Sheepies
After we have a bucket of live bait, we can usually locate sheepshead around rock structure. Katrina Cut on the west end of Dauphin Island is a good place. Rock jetties on the ICW and the rock jetties at Perdido Pass give up lots of cool weather sheepshead. There are many rock jetties and breakwaters around Dauphin Island, and they all hold sheepshead at different times in January.
I prefer old dock pilings, which can be found up any of the rivers that feed into Mobile Bay. It’s really a lot of fun to take a small fishing boat or even a kayak in the tributary creeks and rivers of the Mobile Bay system and search until a school of hungry sheepies are located. Most of the time, if one sheepshead is caught others will be close at hand.
Fish River and Magnolia River as well as my personal favorite, Bon Secour River, are reliable sheepshead spots on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. On the west side, anglers should look at Dog River, Fowl River, and the Theodore Industrial Canal. These areas can be very good for cool weather sheepshead fishing.
A very good place and one of the easiest to access for anglers of all ages and mobility levels are the Fishing Pier at Gulf Shores State Park. Countless sheepshead are hooked and caught during cool weather when massive schools of sheepies congregate around the pilings of the pier.
One piece of absolutely necessary equipment for pier-bound sheepshead anglers is a pier landing net. It’s very difficult to try and lift a big sheepie up from the water to the pier deck above by using only the fishing line. Most fish, if treated this way, will get off. A pier landing net allows anglers to direct the fish into the circular net and then the whole thing—fish, net and all—is raised by the net’s rope to the pier above.
Folks new to the sheepshead game can walk out on the pier and look at what the successful sheepie anglers are doing and how they are fishing. In fact, most veteran pier anglers are very willing to offer advice and direction to new folks who politely ask for advice.
How to Clean Them
For many of us on the ‘Bama Gulf Coast, a mess of sheepshead is just about the best eating around. I love sheepshead fried or grilled. And blackened sheepshead is my favorite fish to eat. However, these delicious fish don’t give up those fillets easily, and the battle to get a mess of sheepies cleaned for good food doesn’t end when the fish is netted and dropped into the ice chest.
Just about the hardest part of dealing with a mess of sheepshead is filleting them. Sheepshead has a very strange bone pattern, which makes filleting difficult. Plenty of good meat is on a sheepshead, but it’s hard to clean neatly.
The biggest problem most of us have when cleaning sheepshead is dealing with the thick, extremely hard scales. Especially on the bigger fish, say five pounders and larger, the scales are very thick and difficult to cut through. For those of you who have never cleaned a mess of sheepshead, imagine a fish covered with dimes instead of scales. That’s what big sheepshead scales are like. Even the very best and sharpest electric fillet knife blades have trouble when it comes to cleaning sheepshead.
Our buddy Yano Serra has a great suggestion for those who have caught some big ol’ tough sheepshead and need to clean them. Yano has discovered that a pressure washer—like we use to clean our dirty trucks and boats—is a great aid to cleaning sheepshead. He tells us to attach the tail of the fish (either a strong clip or a nail driven through the thick part of the fish’s tail fin) to a board. Then use the high-pressure of the power washer to go against the scales. Direct the water from the tail toward the head. This high-pressure water will just lift the tough old massive scales up and blow them off the skin. When the scales are gone, the fish can be easily filleted.
Of course, no soap or detergent is used but Yano says this technique really makes the job of cleaning sheepshead easier and quicker.
Finally, anglers who get into a school of sheepshead can usually catch a lot of the fish in a short time. The Alabama limit for sheepshead is liberal—10 fish per day, 12-inch fork length—but unless a big family fish fry is planned, there’s really no reason to keep that many fish. Anglers should keep only what they can use fresh, and let the others go back to spawn and replace the fish taken.
Although January may supply us with some cold and nasty days, this just keeps the fair-weather anglers at home and allows us hardcore sheepshead anglers more access to the best fishing spots. So, let’s bundle up warm, take a thermos of coffee, and go catch some cool-weather sheepshead. They’re out there waiting.