Look for sheepies around hard structure.
The tide was moving strongly out to the Gulf, and the rocks of the jetty were slippery with the slopping of the waves and the green slime growing on the rocks.
I had to concentrate on keeping my feet secure on the wet boulders, and this meant I couldn’t focus full attention on more important things, like trying to catch the fish that regularly stole my bait.
Finally, as my rebaited hook once again sank into the clear green waters with safely-placed footing, I put my mind on the matter at hand—catching fresh fish for supper. As my shrimp sank in the current alongside the long line of rocks in the water, I saw the line hesitate in its fall. I felt the slightest little tug. I had all slack out of the line. I raised the rod tip. The line tightened and the battle began.
After some good back-and-forth pulling and with a bit of drag-squealing from my reel, familiar and expected black-and-white bands began to show up in the water. Then a broad-sided fish of perhaps five pounds thrashed on the surface. I eased the fish up and over the lowest boulder where I could carefully grip the fish with pliers before dropping it into a five-gallon bucket for safe-keeping.
When I worked the hook free from its jaw, the fish grinned up at me with a mouthful of teeth that would make a kid’s orthodontist start thinking about next year’s vacation.
No doubt about it. I had found the sheepshead, and chances were good I was going to have a wonderful fish supper tonight.
Springtime is a great time to get into this sheepshead fishing thing.
What are These Strange-Looking Fish?
Sheepshead are a very common fish in Alabama’s inshore waters all year long. Sheepies are just about the biggest member of their species, the same species that includes pinfish, pigfish, and other much smaller inshore fish.
In spring, these fish gather to spawn offshore and then return to their inshore hard-structure haunts. Some of the biggest sheepies of the entire year are caught in spring as these fish travel to and from their spawning waters. They are as large as 10 pounds are caught every year in Alabama waters. These fish put up a tremendous battle before coming in.
These Fish are Easy to Recognize
Sheepshead are distinguished by their massive and very human-looking teeth and their bold black-and-white stripes.
They are also distinguished by the unofficial names and labels given them by frustrated anglers who experience how easily sheepies remove baits from hooks without becoming hooked. When it comes to stealing bait, sheepies are world-class thieves.
Even with all of their bait stealing habits, they are lots of fun to catch.
Anglers with a sheepie—five pounds or better—on the line will have a hard fight. These striped fish use their broad sides and powerful bodies to resist being brought in.
However, once one is caught, it provides some of the mildest and best-eating fillets to be found in any fish. These are some seriously good-tasting fish.
Where are These Rocks?
Two things that go together on the Alabama Coast are rocks and sheepshead.
Sheepies love to live around rocks. Anywhere an angler can see rocks, there’s a good chance that sheepshead will be close. Combine lots of rocks with good tide movement and six feet or more of water depth, and you’ve found sheepshead heaven.
Both of these huge rock structures were deposited to control erosion from strong currents, and the massive boulders have provided perfect living quarters for sheepies and the small creatures they feed upon.
Along both shores of Mobile Bay and throughout the Intracoastal Waterway system, anglers can find many very productive rock structures. The rock structures around the mouth of Bon Secour Pass where it meets the ICW and Mobile Bay have given up loads of sheepshead through the years.
“Some big and extremely smart sheepies call the pier home, but anglers have to really earn a mess of pier sheepshead.”
It’s not hard to find rock structures in coastal Alabama, and they all have potential to be a great habitat.
Another coastal location that doesn’t have rocks, but does have hard structure is the underwater parts of the fishing pier at Gulf Shore State Park. The support pilings for the wonderful fishing pier attract massive schools in late winter and spring. Anglers can frequently see the banded fish as they work the sides of the concrete pilings.
Some big and extremely smart sheepies call the pier home, but anglers have to really earn a mess of pier sheepies.
These fish see every kind of rig and bait, and they soon become quite educated about free food offered from above. Anglers who can catch a mess of sheepshead from the fishing pier are, no doubt, master anglers.
What Kind of Bait?
Once anglers locate rocks with good current, the real work begins. Trying to catch sheepies with the wrong bait is totally frustrating. These fish are highly particular about what they eat, and they have excellent eyesight and sense of smell. Fooling them requires considerable skill.
Sheepies are shellfish eaters. They love to crunch barnacles, snails, crabs, shrimp, and other small shellfish. With their prominent and strong teeth, they can daintily pick off their preferred hard-shelled prey from any hard structure.
Anglers who use live shrimp and fiddler crabs often find great success with getting the sheepies to bite. Dead shrimp and squid are not nearly as effective as the live stuff.
Most coastal bait and tackle shops keep a good supply of live shrimp on hand by March, and fiddler crabs are often sold in the shops, too.
Anglers using live shrimp for sheepies will usually see the best results by using a smaller shrimp. Big ol’ jumbo shrimp will be welcomed by these fish. However, the big shrimp are very easy for the buck-toothed fish to just pick off the hook bit by bit. The little shrimp tend to be sucked down in one gulp, and this makes hooking easier.
Quite often, these fish frustrate anglers who spot them swimming around the nearby structure. This happens a lot in spring when the water is clear and the fish are being very picky about what they eat. The sheepies will be eating their choice of natural food, and ignoring the best offerings the angler makes.
However, sheepies can be very much influenced by chumming the area with crushed fresh oyster shells, handfuls of fresh shrimp shells and crushed blue crab shells. Some people even scrape the barnacles off the rocks with a long-handled shovel.
When the fresh chunks of shellfish start to sink, the sheepies often lose their sense of caution and bite eagerly.
How to Rig for Sheepshead
Anglers can catch big fish on just about any equipment. Both spinning and baitcasting gear works well. Any rig that handles 15- to 25-pound-test line will work. Reels don’t need a lot of line since sheepies typically don’t make long scorching runs when hooked. Instead, they bore deep down close to their home structure.
Either mono or braid line works, but many specialists prefer braided line because it shows the subtle bites of sheepies better. It’s also more resistant to abrasion from the fish pulling the line across the underwater structure.
Use just enough weight to carry the hook and bait to the bottom. Too much weight makes the bites hard to detect and not enough allows the current to sweep the bait away from the rocks where it needs to be. Each day on the rocks is different so anglers will need to experiment to find the best weight for that day.
Hook selection is crucial when it comes to catching these fish. Some anglers favor the more traditional “j” hook, but I can’t catch sheepies with that hook.
“If anglers aren’t snagging and losing rigs, they are not fishing in the right place or in the right way to catch big sheepshead.”
I prefer a Kahle hook in size 2 or 4. These can be found in all coastal bait and tackle shops. These funny-looking hooks seem to be bent out of shape but very often, sheepies hook themselves on Kahle hooks. It works like this: cast out, let the Kahle hook, bait, and weight sink while keeping the line tight. When the sheepshead bites, it will hook itself and start the fight; there’s usually no need to make a sharp hook set. A fairly light leader of 15- to 20-pound test fluorocarbon line works well.
That’s it. Selecting rigging for sheepie fishing is not complex.
The biggest thing to keep in mind when rigging up for these fish is to have plenty of hooks, sinkers and leader material. If anglers aren’t snagging and losing rigs, they are not fishing in the right place or in the right way to catch big sheepshead.
Anglers can expect to go through a lot of terminal tackle on every sheepshead trip. Those rocks that attract the fish also attract gear. That’s just part of the price anglers must pay to catch sheepshead.
The Hard and Good Parts of Sheepshead Fishing
Finally, when things all come together and a nice mess of fish is gathered up, perhaps the hardest part of the whole operation comes next.
Sheepshead are notoriously hard to clean. They have large, thick, tough scales, and their bone structure is different from most other fish.
Filleting these fish requires a very sharp knife with a flexible blade that can bend to follow the unusual bone pattern. Good, heavy-duty electric filleting knives are strongly advised, but even then, cleaning will be slow.
These fish have some of the largest and sharpest dorsal spines and fins of any fish. Anglers need to be careful when handling and cleaning these fish.
What makes all of the work and care when cleaning a mess of fish worth the effort is the quality of the fillets ready to eat after the work is done. Sheepshead provide some of the best eating anywhere. Light in color and texture, their meat is sweet and delicious. Chefs can prepare these fish in many ways, but my favorite is blackened sheepshead. A little bit of Tony’s seasoning, a super-hot dry skillet with smoke rolling off of it makes some great eating!
That’s why I spend a good bit of time along with other Alabama anglers in March fishing the inshore rocks for sheepshead and having a really great day outdoors. These incredible fish offer a significant challenge to hook and a lot of fun when hooked and great eating afterward.
That’s hard to beat!