There are certain men, women, and even what we would consider kids that have a certain gift when they're hunting fish. First of all, they're born hunters; they have a nose that smells things normal humans fail to notice. They see things. They hear things. When I want to talk about yoga, I talk to a man who's lived in the caves of the Himalayas. Arrowheads? A guy named Jim Bennet. When I want to talk about how to catch sheepshead or sheepshead fishing in general, I talk to David Rieumont. Captain David as his friends know him is a well-known local guide who – unlike many who consider themselves stars in their own minds – actually is one. David Rieumont is a professional that recognizes the challenge, sport, and pure fun of catching fish.
Once you know how to clean sheepshead properly (be aware of the barrel-shaped rib cage), this crustacean-eating beauty makes for table fare unlike most of the fish we catch. They truly taste like crab, with a somewhat stringy texture and are fit for royalty when simply baked. Here's a great sheepshead recipe we published last year.
Getting Ready for Sheepshead Fishing
It's getting cold outside. While you'll find yourself catching sheepshead all year near pilings, sea walls, and the other places they live, sheepshead are a species that change habitat depending on the season, have some unique behaviors, and provide a protein source that tastes much like the crabs and crustaceans they live on. When David takes his angler clients and friends on the water in cold weather, there's a good chance you'll find yourself battling some five-and-more pound fish.
If you want to learn how to catch sheepshead like Captain David Rieumont and a few other people we've come to know over the years did, the best way to get that good is to spend the same thousands of hours on the water, studying the fish, and eventually – but not immediately – catching them. But, you need a place to start: that's where Captain David's expertise that we're going to share with you in this article comes in.
Sheepshead Fishing Tips; Rigs
Most of this information is drawn directly from Captain Dave's outstanding site feature: the "Ask a Captain" section. Among the many hundreds of questions he gets and answers every month (you don't see them all, but he tries to answer almost every one) was one about catching sheepshead. It both inspired us to write this much-needed resource for our site, but it also gave us all the answers to just about any sheepshead question you could think of, starting with the three primary rigs he uses to catch them.
Here are Captain Dave's 3 favorite ways to catch sheepshead:
- Jighead with a live fiddler crab or live shrimp
- Freeline with a split-shot
- Dropshot rig
The first, easiest and perhaps the most effective way to learn how to catch sheepshead, is a jig head with a live fiddler crab or live shrimp. David says to remove the tail at the first "joint", put the hook underneath the tail and through the second (remaining) joint, and they will face up the way nature meant them to swim. This "hook-up-through the tail" is one of his three favorite rigs. The jig should bounce but not be swept away. That means it has to reach the bottom. His repertoire includes jigs from 3/16th to ½ oz with 1/8 serving well 90% of the time. The gap is important, with smaller gaps working better for sheepshead fishing. The hooks have to be razor-sharp to work on the sharp teeth of the fish.
The second rig is a standard freeline rig with a split-shot about a foot-and-a-half above the circle hook or even as low as the hook at times. The important thing is to cast the bait up in the tide, and let it bounce back while it hits the bottom. The size of the split shot is determined by that need to bounce naturally from the bottom and towards you in the tide.
The third rig the captain suggests for sheepshead fishing is the drop-shot rig. A drop-shot rig puts a special drop-shot weight on the end of your leader. First, tie a six-foot fluorocarbon leader to the braided line on your spinning rod. Next, pinch the lead to the end of the leader. Third, tie the hook to the leader with a Polomar knot. If you tie it right – which you have to do to make this work properly – the hook will sit against the leader and face upwards. Drop the rig next to a piling, sea wall or dock, and you will more-than-likely be catching some sheepshead.
Sheepshead Fishing Tips; Hooks and Terminal Tackle
When you're learning how to catch sheepshead, it's important that you know the type of hooks you need. If you use the wrong hook, you will miss a lot of strikes. Sheepshead have a parrot-shaped, very bony mouth that is filled with long, sharp teeth. They're designed by the Divine to crush sharp shells to reach the meat within: crabs, shrimp, barnacles growing on the sides of pilings – they're all easy prey to this species.
There are two basic kinds of hooks you can use: The first are normal, sharp hooks called Laser Points (the ones on the circle hook on the right). They're sharp as heck -- but not sharp enough for catching sheepshead. The points on the left are called "Cutting Edge". The edges of those "Cutting Edge" hooks are such that they slip between the resistant mouth structure and sharp and long teeth to get between them and firmly set. Using the correct hooks will surely improve the odds of you becoming good at sheepshead fishing.
Sheepshead Fishing Tips; Baits to Use
In order of importance, you should first buy or try to find fiddler crabs. You can catch them yourself anywhere water pours into the bay, on the sandy edges of the bay, around mangrove islands, and even on the beaches. If you don't feel like taking time out of your fishing, you can easily (and fairly cheaply) buy them at bait and tackle shops.
We often joked that if there was a sheepshead tournament worth entering, the secret to winning it would have to do with peeling shrimp. Peeling shrimp, you say? Yes, peeling shrimp.
Perhaps second only to the fiddler crab, sheepshead's favorite crustacean are the shrimp we all use for bait (same as the shrimp you eat, by the way). In case you haven't noticed, shrimp have skeletons that are on the outside of their flesh – in the form of a shell. If you peel that shell off, and expose the meat inside before you put the shrimp (frozen work fine for this trick) on the hook, two things happen: First, the shrimp smells better (to the sheepshead, anyway; maybe not to the public when the smell gets on your clothes). Secondly, and most importantly from the standpoint of winning the World Sheepshead Tourney next year: the soft meat better-hides the hook.
You can also use oysters, barnacles, and clams. Strips of squid will work too. They're not picky eaters – but will satisfy the pickiest eaters among our readers.
Remember, sheepshead eat barnacles, which indicates how tough their teethy mouths actually are. Imagine chewing on this for dinner!
Positioning the Boat and Dealing with Tides to Catch Sheepshead
The last thing we want to touch upon -- and many of these details will find their way into new and dedicated articles dedicated to how to catch sheepshead, and sheepshead fishing in general -- is the position of your boat.
This illustration from Captain David Rieumont shows you how to position your boat at a "typical" residential dock where you (typically) find oysters and similar structure. How you position your boat relative to that structure and the movement of the water around it can make a huge difference.
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