Sheepshead Fishing-The Ultimate Guide
It was a chilly morning in March and Capt. Mike slowly backed up the Lady Ann to the gas rig just outside of Mobile Bay getting me close to the legs of the large structure. I lowered the long gaff down into the water as flashes of silver caught my eye just 10-15 feet below the surface. I looked up to the wheelhouse and gave the captain the thumbs up that the rig was loaded with sheepshead, the target species on this trip. As I scraped the barnacles off of the rig leg the sheepshead came to the falling barnacles as if they had not eaten for days! This is a common tactic to chum up Sheepshead to create a feeding frenzy. Experiences like this are not uncommon while fishing the sheepshead spawn, but sheepshead can be caught year around. In this article we will talk about various ways to target sheepshead, the best sheepshead rigs, the best type of structure and the best techniques for all seasons of sheepshead fishing.
What is a Sheepshead?
Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) is a popular game fish found in the Atlantic Ocean along the east coast of the United States, including the Gulf of Mexico. It is a member of the porgy family and is also commonly known as the convict fish, due to its black and white stripes that resemble old school jailhouse attire.
Sheepshead are known for their unique human like teeth and strong jaws, which allow them to crush and eat a variety of hard-shelled prey, including barnacles, oysters, clams, and crabs. They are typically found around rocky or structure-rich areas such as rigs, reefs, jetties, and pilings, and can be caught using a variety of baits and lures.
Sheepshead are prized by anglers for their delicious white meat and challenging behavior, making them a popular target for anglers. They can grow up to 30 inches in length and weigh up to 20 pounds. In fact, the world record Sheepshead was caught in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1982 and weighed 21 pounds 4 ounces! Though most catches are typically between 3 and 8 pounds.
Black Drum vs Sheepshead
Black drum and sheepshead are both popular game fish that are found in the same regions as mentioned above. Although these fish share some similarities, they also have distinct differences.
Size: Black drum can grow much larger than sheepshead, with some specimens reaching over 100 pounds. Sheepshead, on the other hand will rarely get over 10 to 12 pounds.
Appearance: Black drum are typically silver or dark gray, almost black on occasion. They have a long, cylindrical body shape and even can have stripes, but the stripes are typically on the smaller drum, and are more spaced out on the black drum. A sheepshead will have much more distinct and more stripes.
Diet: Black drum feed on a variety of prey including shrimp, crabs, and small fish, while Sheepshead are known for their unique human like teeth and strong jaws, which allow them to crush and eat a variety of hard-shelled prey, including barnacles, oysters, clams, and crabs.
Fishing: Both black drum and sheepshead are popular targets for anglers looking for a tug. However, sheepshead are generally considered to be more challenging to catch due to their sharp senses and cautious behavior.
How to Identify A Sheepshead
Sheepshead have a distinctive appearance that makes them easy to identify. Here are some key features to look for when you need to identify a Sheepshead:
- Black and White Stripes: The most distinctive feature of Sheepshead is their black and white striped pattern, which runs vertically along their body. These stripes are thick and can be irregular in shape, giving the fish a unique and recognizable appearance.
- Convex Forehead: Sheepshead have a slightly convex forehead, which gives their head a distinctive shape. The forehead is also slightly sloped, which gives the fish a streamlined appearance.
- Spines and Dorsal Fin: Sheepshead have sharp spines on their dorsal fin, which can be dangerous if mishandled. The dorsal fin is also set back towards the rear of the fish, which gives it a distinctive profile.
- Teeth: Sheepshead have strong, flattened teeth that are perfect for crushing hard-shelled prey like barnacles, crabs and clams.
Where Can You Catch Sheepshead?
Sheepshead are typically found in the southeastern United States. Some of the popular locations to catch Sheepshead include Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana,South Carolina, North Carolina as well as Florida. They are abundant in the waters around Florida, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. A Sheepshead will be located near structure the vast majority of the time. Some of the most popular structures to fish around to find convicts are rocks, wrecks, piers and bridge pylons. These fish will also congregate around the gas and oil platforms where these structures are present in the appropriate depths.
How to Catch Sheepshead
Capt. Patric Garmeson is an expert sheep herder and until just recently he held the Alabama state record sheepshead that weighed in at 13lbs 14ozs. On Episode 263 of the Alabama Saltwater Fishing Report podcast we did a deep dive and really picked Capt. Patric Garmeson’s brain about how and where to catch these delicious, fun fighting fish.
Q: Why is the late winter and early spring the best time of the year to be focused on sheepshead in numbers and why are they easier to catch?
A: That is strictly because of the spawn. Most of the all the sheepshead that you find in in in the spring are going to be in really high salinity waters. Sheepshead need a higher salinity than say a speckled trout to spawn, probably around 20 parts per thousand. Sheepshead are aggregate spawners so they all want to group up together. So that is what drives this spring migration. They’re going to find some sort of structure that’s going to be able to hold a lot of food where the sheepshead can graze and feed on crabs and oysters and barnacles and basically anything crunchy is their food of choice. And, they’re feeding a lot. And they’re in such great numbers that they’re actually competitive over what they are eating. So there’s almost a race to eat anything that looks like food.
Q: These fish can be caught all year along our Gulf Coast. You mentioned focusing on piers, pylons and things like that. What are some other pros and cons that you think about whenever you’re targeting those structures in shallow water or deep water that’s going to deter you away from that spot or make you hone in on a spot?
A: One we get over this spring spawn, during the rest of the year a-lot of my fishing will be in shallower water. Shallow structures like dock pilings and I like fishing around rocks and jetties as well. A con of fishing the rocks is that you can stay hung up if you’re not good at feeling your way through the rocks. But, on the pro side of fishing around jetties, sometimes you can actually use a cork and float your bait near or just above the rocks. A lot of times they’ll actually cruise on the sandy or muddy bottom that’s on the edge of the rocks.
And if you find that to be the case, you can fish your bait just outside of the rocks, and catch your fish out there and never even get into the rocks at all. Another thing about the rock piles is I think the sheepshead are moving from pile to pile and they’re not just staying fixed in one specific area. So you’re not having to get your bait in and amongst the structure always being vulnerable to being broken off.
Best Sheepshead Rigs and Techniques for Success
Q: When we talk about Sheepshead, we talk about Carolina rigs and also jigs. What are your favorite rigs for sheepshead in any given situation?
A: On the situation of these spring fish, we’re fishing the natural gas rigs in and around the mouth of Mobile Bay and even out into the Gulf. Predominantly, you have tall vertical structure that you can be fishing a platform at 18 feet of water to as deep as 60 feet of water at other locations. Generally, I want to target the fish that are somewhere between the surface and probably 20 feet deep. So utilizing as light of a split shot weight as I can use to achieve a slow sink will let that bait drift past the fish that so they are able to go and grab it before it sinks out of their range. The light split show paired with that 1/0 or 2/0 Kahle hook that I mentioned is my go to set up.
Sheepshead are not a predatory fish waiting to ambush something like a speckled trout, it is about letting something drift past them that they think is food. You want to be able to present your bait as slow as possible. You do not want to throw too much line out because if you have too much slack, you will not feel the bite and you will gut hook more fish that way. So if I notice that is happening with a customer, if they’re struggling to feel the bite, a lot of times I’ll go up on the weight and go to a larger split shot where they can fish more vertically and be able to feel that bait.
And if that’s the case, then what I like for them to do is start out real shallow and just keep opening the bail of the reel, letting out three or four feet of line, close the bail and let it tighten up, open the bail, drop another four to 6 feet and just kind of fish your way down and and they’ll get bit on the way down. If by chance they make it all the way to the bottom. Then I just tell them to slowly reel it back up and if there’s fish around, I should be able to get one on the reel back up.
Q: We are talking about fishing for sheepshead on these rigs off of Dauphin Island and South of Fort Morgan and as you know if we get a hard incoming or falling tide, we can get a ton of current making it hard to fish. What do you do in that situation?
A: I actually had this situation the other day. We were fishing on the east side of the channel and the current was ripping on the east side. It must have been going two or three miles an hour. We went up to the biggest split shot we had and the bait was still skiing up to the surface. We were catching some Spanish mackerel that way, but we weren’t really able to present bait the way the Sheepshead were biting. So, we made a move and went to the west side of the channel, and the current was totally different, a lot lighter and a lot more forgiving and easier to fish.
That’s one thing you can do is just move locations and possibly get into some lighter current. If that’s not a good option for you, and you feel like you’re around some fish, then you may have to go to with a heavier egg weight and more of a Carolina rig where you have some weight to hold your hold your bait more vertical.
Cane Poling for Sheepshead-The Ultimate Challenge
On Episode 244 of the Alabama Saltwater Fishing Report we talked with Capt. Branden Collier and he has been mastering a new and exciting way to target sheepshead around shallow water mostly when the sheepshead are not spawning, but he has also had success with the cane pole on deep structure during the spring spawn as well. He has made several large Calcutta or Cane Pole Style fishing poles and has been targeting sheepshead this way with success. This was a really fun interview and this will certainly be a fun style of fishing for the more adventurous fishermen out there! You can listen to that interview below.
Q: We asked Capt. Branden to tell us a little bit about this style of fishing and how he came about trying this method
A: I’ve got a buddy on Dauphin Island and he’s got a bunch of bamboo. And I just had a random idea to go cut some down and we’ve got some some structure around the Mississippi Sound that I thought would be perfect for using these bamboo poles to catch these fish. And so I ended up getting two or three of the cane poles and some are thicker than others and one has a little bit more action and flex for fishing different structures and applications.
I tie some monofilament line on the poles and I rig them up just like I would with a rod and reel for normal sheepshead fishing. Grab some crabs and I’ve been doing really well on the cane poles. I have not been catching small sheepshead either, I have been catching some 17-19 inch fish. And it’s really fun. And it’s crazy, because the structure that I’m fishing is really hard to actually use a rod reel so it is better to use the cane pole for fishing this structure, and it is more fun!
Q: What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of fishing for sheepshead with a cane pole?
A: Well, the main obvious disadvantage is, you don’t have a drag system! But I try and compensate for that with just putting the heat on the fish and you get some good stretch with that monofilament line. So just been kind of yanking them out of the structure as fast as possible and just kind of throw him in the boat. I actually caught a big black drum that was about a 27-28 inch drum on this pole a couple of weeks ago, and that kind of caught me off guard. I found out the hard way that when you don’t have drag those suckers are strong! Since then, I have added a large cork to the end of the pole, so if I hook something really big I can just throw the pole in the water and chase the cork.
Q: With the Calcutta Pole, are you fishing subsurface structure or stuff that protrudes the surface? Do you have a cork setup or are you using a jig head or a Carolina rig?
A: The structure that I’ve been fishing is concrete structure. And I’m fishing really shallow water between a foot and a half to three and a half foot of water, so really shallow. So and I have a rig setup with just a split shot, and 1/0 Gamakatsu hooks, that’s the hooks that I use when I’m targeting sheepshead. And I just kind of bounce around all these structures with a fiddler crab. And I will say the hard thing about the cane pole is feeling the bites when you’re sheepshead fishing there are real subtle bites. So you have to pay attention to watching your line jump a few times and then wait till you feel the weight on the end of that pole and then set the hook, give it all you got and try and get him out of the structure.
Q: How are you finding these fish, are you using your electronics or are you just bumping around from structure to structure until you find the sheepshead?
A: I don’t really use the sonar in the shallow water. Actually, I don’t use it at all when I’m sheepshead fishing not this time of the year or in the shallow water. These fish are pretty predictable, especially from October to February just find structure. You’re looking for jetties, anything concrete, docks, pilings and bridges.
Best Bait for Sheepshead
This is continued from the same interview with Capt. Patric Garmeson:
Q: What is your favorite sheepshead bait for the spring spawn, and just in general?
A: My favorite, just because of accessibility is live shrimp or fresh dead shrimp. Most every bait shop when they have bait, are going to have those. Now, if you go to the bait shop and somebody’s got some fiddler crabs, they are very, very helpful. Using fiddler crabs for bait will slow down the bycatch like pin fish, little spade fish and other bait stealers. I like the shrimp because I can keep them alive in the live well.
If the shrimp are really big, we’ll take and cut them up into two, three and even four pieces. And put just enough shrimp on the hook to cover the hook essentially. And that’s that’s an effective way to make your shrimp go a lot further. It is not so much about the shrimp being alive, but fresh is very important. You do not want old or rotten shrimp.
Sheepshead Fishing Tackle
Q: Let’s talk tackle and rigging a little bit. What’s your favorite hook?
A: My favorite hook is a 1/0 or a 2/0 “K” Style hook. Owner makes a Kahle Style Hook that I really like. Mustad has one that is a Wide Gap that works well also. But what I have found is that the Owner hook with it being a little more square, it doesn’t bend as easy as some others. But if that 1/0 or 2/0 hook gets them in the corner of the mouth, it’s almost impossible for it to bend or straighten out on on a fish. I have found that hook to be very forgiving for someone who wants to set the hook hard and jerk on it like a normal hook set. And it also works for the person that doesn’t feel the bite at all, they just feel the tension from the fish and then they start reeling, it’ll set itself similar to that of a circle hook.
So it’s the perfect hybrid for pretty much any angler. We used to go with these little small J hooks and and you had to be real in tune to feel that bite then you had to really set the hook hard to get the hook driven in their mouth and you still would have fish pull off. Over the years of learning, this hook found its way into my tackle box and has been the answer to being successful while guiding people of all skill levels.
Q: As far as a rod and reel goes, sheepshead are notorious bait stealers, do you like a little bit of play in your rod, or a super stiff rod? I’m sure there has to be a happy medium, between having too much back bone and too much of a soft tip. What’s your go to rod and reel setup for catching sheepshead?
A: I just go with the fairly standard inshore setup of a seven foot three to a seven foot six, medium to medium heavy action rod. You need a fair amount of backbone to be able to load up on the fish for hook set purposes and also for having enough muscle to be able to get the fish turned and pulled away from the rig or structure that you’re fishing. That is what I use for guiding and personal purposes. We are not really looking for a bite on the rod tip, so I am not too concerned with the rod being too heavy or being super sensitive.
Sheepshead Size Limit
It is important to note that fishing regulations can change, and it is the responsibility of the angler to stay informed of the current regulations in their area. Violating fishing regulations can result in fines or other penalties, so it is important to know the rules and follow them carefully. Sheepshead Fishing regulations can be found in the links below. Be sure to comply with regulations in both State and federal waters.
Are Sheepshead Good to Eat?
Yes, sheepshead are considered a delicious and flavorful fish to eat. They have firm, white meat that is often compared to crab or lobster in taste and texture. Their diet of crustaceans, crabs barnacles etc gives their meat a slightly sweet and briny flavor.
How to Fillet A Sheepshead?
Sheepshead are also known for having a lot of small bones, so it’s important to fillet them carefully and remove all the bones before cooking. It’s important to make sure they are properly cleaned and cooked to avoid any potential health risks. Here is a video of Capt. Patric with Ugly Fishing showing you how to fillet a Sheepshead like a pro!
Sheepshead has a mild, sweet flavor and a firm, white flesh that is low in fat and high in protein. It is often compared to the taste of other popular white fish such as snapper or grouper. If you enjoy the taste of other white fish, it is possible that you may enjoy the taste of sheepshead as well. Ultimately, the best way to determine whether or not you like the taste of sheepshead is to try it for yourself! My go to guy for any recipe for wild game is Hank Shaw, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. This recipe for fried fish bites works very well with Sheepshead. I am not always in the mood for fried fish so this grilled on the half shell recipe from Hank is also delicious.
In conclusion, putting a few convicts in the box can be a challenging and rewarding experience for anglers of all skill levels. This species presents a formidable target that requires patience and skill to catch. However, with the right approach and techniques, anglers can enjoy a successful sheepshead fishing trip and bring home a delicious catch. From choosing the right bait to using the right gear and techniques, this ultimate guide has provided all the information you need to get started on your own sheepshead fishing adventure.
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