Saltwater Fishing: How to Catch Sheepshead, with Video
How to catch sheepshead
I really enjoy saltwater fishing, but sometimes I found it frustrating. I finally learned how to catch sheepshead, and I came up with some good sheepshead fish recipes. I've tried catching these convicts for years, but until recently, I succeeded only in feeding them my bait. Many times when the water was clear, I could see these wily critters swimming around the pier pilings, nibbling on the attached barnacles. Even then, I couldn't catch one - they'd steal my bait every time. Not any more! Through trial and error, I learned how to catch sheepshead.
I'm referring to the Atlantic variety of sheepshead here - not the Pacific or California type. I've never seen the Western cousins, but the sheepshead on the eastern coast of the US are silver-gray in color, with black vertical stripes. Their most unusual characteristic is the mouth. It looks similar to a human's mouth, with a set of human teeth. The fish use these teeth to crush and grind bait like crabs, clams, and barnacles. The roof of the mouth is hard, too, to aid in this crushing ability.
Add those qualities together and you'll perhaps begin to understand why these wily fish are so hard to hook. They'll suck a bait into their mouths and remain very still as they crush the shell, often without even a hint of a tug on the line. When you decide to check your bait, you wonder where in the heck it went. Oh, these finned rascals are sneaky!
Sheepshead hang around piers, bridges, rocks, and oyster beds. They eat the barnacles that grow on pilings and rocks. Start your quest for convict fish at such places. Take along a rod with a flexible tip that's loaded with 15-lb line. The last two feet should be a wire leader or a braided mono leader because those teeth can slice right through regular line like a knife.
As far as hooks are concerned, sheepshead anglers disagree on the correct size and type. The general consensus seems to be a 1/0 or 2/0 semi-circle or sheepshead hook. Some anglers swear by using red hooks exclusively.
The weight you use depends on the current where you're fishing. You want enough to keep your bait down, but you don't want it so heavy that it becomes cumbersome or that it spooks the wary sheeper. If you're fishing where there's little current, a couple of split shot might work. I used a one-ounce egg sinker on my last fishing trip.
Few sheepie fishermen agree on baits, either. Some won't use anything but fiddler crabs, while others like to use small pieces of fresh dead shrimp. I've seen plenty of old timers scrape barnacles from pier pilings and attach them to their hooks using rubber bands. My good luck came about through the use of sand fleas. (Read my article about free bait, where I describe how to catch sand fleas. The link is below.)
I fish from a pier. On my most recent fishing trip, I used sand fleas - mostly because I had my grandson along to gather them for me. I hooked the sand flea on my hook and tossed my line under the pier, near a set of pilings. Next, I slowly retrieved my bait, kind of bumping it along the bottom. When I felt a tug, I didn't attempt to set the hook. I just kept reeling in my line. Voila! I caught a sheepshead. It was the first one I had ever caught, and I was excited, but I tried not to get overly excited. I knew it might not happen again.
I figured this was just dumb luck, but I decided to try it again, anyway. It wasn't long before I felt another tug and reeled in another sheepie. Later, I hooked one too big to get on the pier without a drop net, and by the time a pal dropped it into the water, the striped bruiser had broken my line. This one was huge! I'm glad I at least got to see it, even if I didn't actually get to land it.
The water was clear enough to catch glimpses of the fish feeding around the pilings, and there were several fishermen who were targeting the species. Some dropped their lines straight down by a piling and then reeled it up about a foot or so. They bent over the peir railing and bobbed their bait up and down, waiting for a sheepshead to bite. Yeah...I've tried that method, too, but I could never hook one that way, although they seemed to have no problem catching their limit with this particular method.
Another method for catching sheepshead is to create sort of a feeding frenzy. This takes a little work, but if you really want to increase your chances of landing convict fish, this might be your best bet. At low tide, wade out to the pier pilings. Take along a straight hoe or some other scraping device and a bucket. Scrape a good supply of barnacles off a couple of pier supports and put them in your bucket. At high tide, go back to the top of the pier and toss your baited hook near a piling. Drop handfuls of barnacles into the water, near your hook. Hopefully, the nearby sheepshead will work themselves into a feeding frenzy and they'll forget about being so careful. Obviously, the question of how to catch sheepshead has more than one answer!
As I said, the sheepshead skunked me for years, but maybe now I can start evening the score. They're still WAY ahead of me, though. As sort of a by-product of sheepshead fishing, you'll probably end up catching some black drum, too. These fish can grow to enormous sizes, over 50 pounds. Ones this size are fun to catch, but they're not good to eat. The smaller ones, called puppy drum, however, make for great eating. If you catch one that's five pounds or under in weight, it will be excellent table fare.
Once you catch yourself a mess of sheepshead, cook them while they're super fresh! Sheepshead are delicious. They're great prepared just about any way. Dredge them in flour or cornmeal and fry them, or grill them over charcoal. They can also be broiled, baked, or stuffed.
Read more about saltwater fishing:
- Saltwater fishing in the South
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How to Catch Sheepshead:
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