A lifetime of sheepshead fishing, everything I learned and all the experiences, lead me to that faithful moment, the moment I landed the Alabama state record sheepshead.
My dad introduced my brother and I to sheepshead fishing at a young age (exactly when I’m not sure). We would target sheepshead at the causeway fishing bridges both from the bridge and from a boat, Dauphin Island pier, Gulf State Pier, the Dauphin Island bridge and the Daphne pilings. The most common place you found us during the spring migration was the Dauphin Island pier.
Our trip to the pier usually included several stops to scavenge for bait. We would stop and look for fiddler crabs where my dad knew we may find fiddler crabs. We often would stop and throw a cast net and use a dip net in the canals for shrimp especially looking for seed shrimp. Our final bait stops would be the East end and near the D.I. airport looking for hermit crabs. Sometimes we would have to buy live and or dead shrimp but for the most part we would catch our own bait.
Targeting sheepshead from the pier as a child was always a little difficult due to not being tall enough to lean over the railing while standing on the pier planks. I think due to my brother and I being too small to fish like the adults we had to become really good at locating the fish quickly. Usually before we ever wet a line we would walk the entire pier looking through the rail looking down each and every piling to look for some fish feeding on barnacles. The practice of looking for my fish first is still in play for each charter trip. Sure there were some common areas that held fish better than others but always felt better if we could see some fish.
For the first several years of fishing from the pier it was only a pier with no additional structure. I’m not sure of exactly what happened but at some point they added rip rap along the base of the entire pier. This additional structure really helped to increase the sheepshead numbers each year.
It was around this same time that the gas rigs began to pop up in the gulf near our coastline. I may not be really accurate on my timeline but I remember people blaming the rigs for attracting more sheepshead and other pier species away from the pier.
Each day we found that the fish would always move to different areas of the pier. The water current would usually force us to fish on the down current side in the eddy behind the pilings, which is where we could best present our bait and use the lightest weight possible. We were rarely successful actually catching the fish we would see but the fish we could see were usually accompanied by other out of site fish. All of these tactics I still use today for landing sheepshead, including my Alabama state record sheepshead.
This brings me to one of my most memorable pier based sheepshead catches. The largest sheepshead I ever caught was an over 10 pound sheepshead that I caught on a DOA shrimp. Catching giant fish on a fake shrimp was crazy.
My early accounts of sheepshead fishing bring me to my latest and most memorable sheepshead fishing story, my Alabama state record sheepshead story.
On March 29, 2019 I have a single client fishing trip scheduled. This is a special trip to me because of who my client is. John worked with my wife for many years and chartered me to go catch a big fish. I believe his exact words were “take me out to catch a big fish for me to take a picture with.” The first thing that came to my mind was to go in the Gulf and target bull reds, snapper and sheepshead. Well, the sheepshead bite was really good leading up to this trip so I moved sheepshead fishing to the top of my list.
The morning of our trip the wind was blowing 8-10 miles per hour out of the East Southeast. This was a perfect wind for running from Dauphin Island toward the East of the channel Gulf rigs where I had my most recent success. The ride was nice in my 2400 Pure Bay Bluewave boat across the mouth of Mobile Bay and we slowed on Dixie Bar. I scanned the horizon for bull redfish activity but nothing stood out to me so we proceeded toward the East.
We arrived at the rig we last laid the smack down on the spawning sheepshead. One large boat was already tied to the rig on the downwind side. We approached the upwind side and I deployed the Motorguide xi5 trolling motor to use as our anchoring device. As I maneuvered the boat near the rig my eyes were fixed on my 12″ Raymarine Axiom downvision, sidevison, and chirp sonar screens. I was forced to look for the fish using my electronics on this trip. I like a green mirror, amber tinted sunglass lense, in my case I use Breakline Sunglasses, but today the sun was not up high enough for me to physically see the fish under the water’s surface. I began to mark/identify fish in the 10 to 20 foot range with downvision and chirp sonar screens. I felt these were likely sheepshead. Once I locked in on an ideal gps location, John chose a fish battling weapon.
All of our weapons are Lews CI400 reels paired on 7′ and 7’6″ Lews Inshore rods. Each of the reels are laced up with American Tackle Company Nano X 20 pound braid with 20 pound Silverthread flourcarbon line as our leader. All the rods were set up basically the same. Braid tied to an approximate 24″ flourcarbon leader using the Alberto knot which is a very slim knot that I trust on every fish we hook. On the end of the leader we use #2 Owner K-hooks and a #3-#7 split shot (lighter the better). Today’s bait was live shrimp from Shirleys Bait and tackle. The perfect gear for landing an Alabama state record sheepshead.
When sheepshead fishing, I look for the smaller shrimp in the livewell. You can horn hook your shrimp, tail hook or my favorite way is to bite the tail fin off and thread the hook up the tail meat of the shrimp and out the belly. A typical cast will be cross or up current/wind about 15 to 25 feet and close the bail. This will allow the bait to swing slowly through the water column and, in this instance, kept us in the zone where I saw the suspected sheepshead on the fish finder. On Johns first cast his rod loaded up with a heavy fish. This first fish broke or pulled the hook, either way it didn’t make it in the boat. Cast after cast John is hooking up and landing some and losing others.
Losing fish on 20 pound line is not uncommon but we get plenty of bites. I usually tell people to expect to lose five fish before landing one because sheepshead have weird shaped toothy mouths and are very strong. We were also fishing near barnacle covered gas rigs which can cut line very easily. Once most anglers get a feel for the bite and how hard sheepshead fight they then begin to land more and more fish.
On this day John asked me to fish alongside of him because he was enjoying being on the water with me. We were hooking fish nearly every cast. Sheepshead fishing was wide open on this day. John broke a line and I handed him the rod I was using and I took his with the broken leader. This time instead of tying another Owner K-hook I looked on the Purebay console and noticed a hot pink colored 1/4oz Bomber jighead with a white Gulp shrimp that was rigged up the day before. The interesting part of this is that the gulp shrimp looked as good as the day before when I removed it from the Gulp juice container. I tied the jighead Gulp combo on the end of the leader line using a Palomar knot and I casted the lure into the middle of the rig. Approximately 25 feet from where I was standing the lure landed and I closed the bale on the reel. When the line came tight about 15 feet below the surface I felt the line immediately go slack. I wound down and set the hook on a good fish. The fight felt equal to that of about a 7 pound sheepshead. John is hooked up as well and he lands a smaller sheepshead and then asks if he should net my fish. I said no big deal I got it. I worked the fish toward the surface and then I saw a giant sheepshead is on the end of my line. I then changed my tune with John and I asked for his assistance. I was convinced this would be my personal best, and possibly an Alabama state record sheepshead.
Once the fish came to the surface a few times and dives back down, the fish began to lose strength and almost gave up as John slid the net under the fish. He lifted the fish into the boat and laid it on the floor. I took a look at this fish and I told John “Holy S$%&! that might be the State Record!” I then dug into the console for my 50 pound digital scale. I used the hook on the scale to lift the fish from the floor of the boat. The weight immediately exceeded 14 pounds and with every wave the boat went up and down over the weight on the scale bounced from 13 pounds, 8 ounces to 14 pounds, 4 ounces.
I now had a weird surreal moment rush over me. John was way more excited than I was at this point. I focused on the proper photograph layout for what was, in my opinion, the new state record. I had never tested the validity of the digital scale but I knew I had the winner.
Branden Collier had the current Alabama state record sheepshead of 13 pounds, 9 ounces which he set on April 1, 2015. From the time the report came out about Brandon’s fish I always had that record on my mind. Of all the records in the record book I always felt like sheepshead was an obtainable record for me. I’m not sure why, I just did. People don’t go out and catch 13 pound sheepshead all the time, not really anywhere, so I’m not sure why I thought I could put my name above Branden or even before Branden when the record belonged to Drew Parrish for a 12 pound, 15 ounce fish.
The whole moment was surreal to me. I looked at the fish and knew it was the record. I put the fish on ice. At this point we had not kept any fish. We were strictly catching, photographing and releasing fish. The fish was huge, unlike anything I had ever laid my eyes on.
Once I placed the fish on ice John and I went back to fishing and we continued catching sheepshead. The wind had increased quite a bit and was up to 13-15mph and the swells and wave action were working the Xi5 trolling motor too hard so we decided to pull the plug on sheepshead fishing. On the way back toward Dauphin Island I navigated in a zig zag fashion to look for redfish activity and the things I look for include birds diving, chirp sonar, slicks, or even copper colored water.
As we near Dixie Bar I see a flock of birds diving in 18 feet of water and I go over to take a look. As I slow down it appears we see some fish on the side vision. So I grab a couple 7′ rods rigged with 1/2oz jig heads and some of my old torn up Slick Lures threaded on the jighead hook. The wind quickly pushes of the area I thought I saw fish. I was about to circle around when I noticed a dark patch of water about 60 yards to the west. The dark patch turned copper in color as we approached and then in the waves we could see the individual fish.
“John there they are, your big fish!” I said. John made a cast that fell short so I launched a jig into the middle of the school. I quickly handed the rod over to John and told him to set the hook! Fish on baby! John got a big bull red, the Dixie Bar specialty. We circled back and caught a few more then headed toward Billy Goat Hole. We arrived at the dock and we were greeted by a friendly Alabama Marine Resouce employee who was conducting fish and anglers surveys. She asked if she could survey John and take a look at our fish. I told her “I’m pretty sure we have the Alabama state record sheepshead.” She got her scale out and weighed the fish.
The official, but not certified hand scale, read 14 pounds exactly exactly. The surrealness is running deep at this point. John thinks there is something wrong with me because I am so calm and emotionless. I assure him I am cool. We load the boat and head to the Marine Resource office on Dauphin Island. John follows me there. I loaded the fish into a tournament bag and packed ice around the fish. We arrive in the front office and the lady at the window asked if we had the state record fish. I said, yes ma’am!
Craig Newton AMRD biologist, whom I’ve known for over a decade met John and I at the door and invited us to the back. The scale was set to hundredths and displayed the weight as 13.90 pounds which was certainly more than the existing record. Craig then switched the display to pounds and ounces. The new displayed numbers were 13 pounds, 15 ounces and 13 pounds, 14 ounces. Craig waited till the scale settled on 13 pounds, 14oz which was officially 5 ounces heavier than Branden’s 2015 record of 13 pounds, 9 ounces.
Craig had biologist Kevin Anson agree that the fish was a sheepshead and then to assist him in the official length and girth measurements. It’s official but unofficial that I have the new state record sheepshead. The surrealness is fully set in now. John is excited and is asking me what the hell is wrong. Haha I am speechless basically. I carried the fish back to the boat and buried it on ice and then made my official statement through my business Facebook page! The excitement grew with each and every phone call, text message, email and message through Facebook and Instagram. Now I wait on my official paperwork stating I have the Alabama state record sheepshead.
I plan to have the fish skin mounted since I harvested the fish and I had to keep the fish frozen for 30 days per Craig Newton’s recommendations. The record should be safe till at least next year when the sheepshead spawn begins again.