Sheepshead are often seen circling the pilings of piers, docks and causeways, clearly visible to the frustrated angler who is dangling a bait inches from their indifferent mouths. It is not that this species is finicky; its feeding morphology simply prevents it from consuming many of the common presentations of baits used in these areas. In this article we will describe the best techniques for catching this tasty yet challenging fish.
The first factor that makes sheepshead one of the most challenging fish to catch is the structure of its mouth. The mouth of a sheepshead contains a pharyngeal plate specifically designed for crushing small, hard-bodied invertebrates such as oysters, clams, barnacles and crabs. Therefore, a small circle hook is required for a hook-set in their generally small mouths. The hook should also be the sharpest circle hook so it can penetrate their hard bony mouths. The second factor making sheepshead challenging is the way they approach their prey. Unlike other carnivorous species of fish, it does not strike hard and ask questions later. On the contrary, sheepshead will capture prey in their mouths and then slowly crush them until they are ready to be swallowed. What this means for the angler is that you will hardly feel anything when a sheepshead strikes. The technique to defeat this sneaky fish: After casting your bait within sight of sheepshead territory, slowly and gently lift the tip of the rod until you start to feel some resistance, which is likely a sheepshead already chewing half of your bait. However, if you try and set the hook here, the hook will not be within the inside of the mouth yet, so you must wait until you feel the resistance of the fish running. When you feel the fish run, provide resistance by lifting the rod tip sturdily, which will allow the circle hook to “set itself.”
When to and Where to Find Sheepshead
Sheepshead can be found year-long in Florida, mostly within the estuaries and bays along the coastline where they spend the spring, summer and fall. Each winter, sheepshead undergo an annual spawning migration, in which the large, mature sheepshead move out of the estuaries to their offshore spawning grounds, where they will aggregate in large numbers for mating purposes. Almost any area where you find small invertebrates you will find sheepshead. This includes natural areas such as oyster reefs and mangrove roots, as well as man-made structures such as pilings, piers, docks and seawalls. This is where oysters, barnacles, and bivalves attach themselves. Sheepshead may also be found swimming in the shallow seagrass or sand flats, as well as the near-shore beaches while searching for small crabs and bivalves.
Tackle for Sheepshead
The tackle used for sheepshead will differ depending on the area fished. Typically, lighter tackle will be used in those inshore areas where little current exists, or near structures with no break-off potential (such as a seawall). You can use the lightest line possible for more hook-ups, while the heavier tackle will be required in those areas with strong currents and deep structures. A light spinning rod-and-reel combination is the most practical choice for those inshore areas where the lightest line possible can be used. A casting rod may be in order when you are targeting sheepshead in areas susceptible to strong currents or high break-away potential such as pilings, piers and jetties. That is when you will need that extra leverage to avoid letting the fish pull you under the rocks, or around the sharp-edged structures. Although not a common technique, a flyrod is an excellent choice for the experienced fly fisherman wanting to add another species to the list. Any fly simulating a shrimp or crab will attract the eye of a sheepshead. Typically, the lightest line possible will lead to more successful sheepshead hook-ups, due to their keen eye in identifying the line. For inshore areas, use an 8-to-10 pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon line; in deeper waters and structures, use 20-pound test.
Bait and Lures for Sheepshead
The hands-down winner for sheepshead bait is the fiddler crab. There are three species of fiddler crab in Florida and all can be found within the estuarine shorelines where the sand or mud substrate meets the water. To locate a colony, look for hundreds of small penny-sized holes and hundreds of crabs. These small crabs can be captured by hand (quite exciting), or skillfully directed into a bucket on its side using two 2’x4’s to guide the crabs into the bucket. Of course, other crustaceans and bivalves are excellent sheepshead bait, and are always great to have for their diversity in keeping the fish biting. These baits include small (approximately ½-inch) pieces of shrimp, clam or squid. Unfortunately for the die-hard artificial angler, there are not many lures that are successful at catching sheepshead. Some soft plastics exist in the form of very small blue crabs, or even fiddler crabs, but do not come close to the effectiveness of the real deal. The sheepshead is simply too slow-moving and precise to be fooled by artificial lures.