How To Catch Sheepshead (Plus PDF Cheat Sheet & Catch Card)
By: Joseph Simonds on January 14, 2019
It’s sheepshead time!!!
After Luke and I posted the “Bowfishing For Sheepshead” video, one of our members named Daniel Flinn reached out saying he’s had an unbelievable month catching sheepshead with rod and reel.
So I asked him if he would mind sharing what he’s doing.
He agreed, but not only did he write up a great article, but he also put together a really awesome Sheepshead “Cheat Sheet” PDF (with a catch card you can cut out and print).
Sheepshead Cheat Sheet Guide
Food Quality: 4/5
- Offshore around structure and artificial reefs in the summer
- Nearshore around structure such as rocks, marker posts, debris from Nov – Feb
- Inshore around piers, docks, posts, sunken structure, seawalls, and bridges in the cooler months
- As soon as the water begins to cool, usually from November to late February, you’ll see sheepshead migrate inshore
- When the tide begins to move, they will feed more consistently
- Light spinning or bait casting tackle preferred
- Medium to stout 6 to 7-foot rod
- 12-20 lb braided line
- 15-20 lb fluorocarbon leader
- # 1.0 circle hook (go small on the hook – many anglers love the #1 Octopus hook by Gamakatsu)
- Enough weight to keep the bait near the structure
- Carolina rig with a short 6-7-inch leader
- Fiddler or other small crabs
- Pieces of oysters and clams
- Live or dead shrimp threaded on hook
- Sand fleas
- Keep line tight
- Pay attention to small taps. They suck the bait in and spit out the hook quickly
- Use the bottom half of the shrimp
- Position bait close to the structure
- Check rig often with small movements. You will often have one on and not be aware
- Avoid large bait. They have small mouths
- Scrape away barnacles with a flat hoe to chum and drop a line into the mix
- Use slow-moving jigs tipped with bait
- Avoid soft tipped rods as the sheepshead bite is very difficult to feel
- Keep rod tip up and make sure drag is not too loose. They can wrap around structure very quickly
- They prefer crabs and barnacles at the beginning of the season
- They will take shrimp mid to late season
- They will move into local docks as the water cools and stay there until it begins to warm up after February.
- Check with local marina personnel who can tell you where anglers are finding them
- Watch for boats lined up at docks or pilings during the season
- Talk to other anglers. Sheepshead spots are not kept so secret as spots for other species.
|Structure: docks, piers, marker posts, rocks, artificial reefs||Preferring small crabs, barnacles and oysters over shrimp||Carolina Rig with short leader. Keep line tight to feel small taps. Bait close to structure|
|Bait: oysters, barnacles, clams, shrimp, sand fleas||Larger ones are staying in colder, deeper water||Smaller hooks, smaller bait pieces due to small mouths|
The Rise Of The Sheepshead…
by Daniel Flinn
Who in the world ever thought to name a fish after a sheep?
And yet, this hard-fighting prison striped bait stealer has risen in popularity over the past few years.
But that wasn’t always the case…
In the not so distant past, Gulf Coast anglers eschewed the sheepshead as unworthy of keeping, relegated to the category of “trash” fish.
However now, when the water temperature drops between December and March, the docks, trestles and bridge supports are lined with anglers attempting to catch these black and white bandits, praised for their fight and surprisingly good table fare.
Make no mistake about it, these wily fish can suck the bait right off the hook leaving the angler fishing on credit.
Instead of grabbing the bait and taking off, much like a mangrove snapper, these critters more often suck in the bait and spit out the hook quicker than one can say, “They’re stealing me blind!”
So in order to get these fish from hook to table, anglers must consider four things:
- Where to find them
- What rig is best
- What bait to use
- How to clean them.
Where To Find Sheepshead
Sheepshead spend most of the year out in the deeper, cooler water.
When the temperature begins to drop, they move closer to shore and can be found wherever oysters, barnacles, or mussels form.
- Artificial reefs
- Bridge supports (and old railroad trestles like the one above)
- Even marker posts.
They usually stay very close to these structures and can be seen in clear water circling the supports, randomly chewing off and crushing oysters or barnacles with their mighty teeth.
Seasoned sheepshead anglers position themselves so that their line drifts into, not away from structure.
They can be found several miles offshore as well as under docks in as little as three feet of water.
Best Sheepshead Rig
Anglers seeking sheepshead prefer a medium-stout 6 to 7-foot rod and a reel with 15 to 20 lb. braided line.
A Carolina rig with a #1 hook seems to work well as it generally places the bait down near the bottom where most of the sheepshead hang out.
When in doubt, go smaller on the hooks.
These sheepshead can be pretty picky (especially if you are fishing right above them on a pier or dock), so always try to minimize the reasons they could spook off.
The weight will depend on the tide, but it should be enough to keep the bait near the structure.
For more about sheepshead rigs, check out this article about the top sheepshead rigs, their pros and cons, and when to use them.
Best Sheepshead Bait
At the beginning of the colder weather, they prefer fiddler crabs, oysters, barnacles and clams.
Sand fleas are like candy to these fish.
As the winter progresses, they will begin accepting shrimp, but with one caveat.
Old-timers who’ve been catching these tasty fish for years will offer this advice: break off the shrimp’s head, thread the hook through the tail, hiding the hook, and use a fairly short leader.
Keep your line tight and lightly check your bait with a very slight pull.
Remember, their black and white prisoner-like coloring should remind you that they are one of the best bait stealers out there.
If you feel several taps and then try to set the hook, it’s usually too late.
When hooked, sheepshead are clever at wrapping line around the structure causing you to use a few choice words while you spend more time rigging than fishing.
Usually, it takes only one tap, or the line slowly moving to signal fish on.
Once you hook a sheepshead, keep your rod tip up and try not to allow it to take out enough line to wrap you up.
As far as artificial lures go, they usually won’t hit fish or shrimp imitations, but they love lures imitating fiddler crabs.
Before keeping your sheepshead, check the size and number limit for your area.
Don’t be alarmed at the pearly white chompers these fish use to crush their bait, but if you like your fingers, keep them away from those teeth!
How To Clean Sheepshead
Cleaning sheepshead is not for the faint of heart!
If you prefer nice filets to fish nuggets, you’ll need to pay attention to the large rib cage close to the head.
Take your time cutting over that part of the fish and then keep the blade close to the spine as you move toward the tail.
Leave the tail connected to the filet and cut at about a forty-five-degree angle, letting the blade move along the skin to keep all of the meat.
Run your finger along the filet to find the remaining small bones and cut them out with a v-cut.
Below is a quick video of a quick way to clean sheepshead (with a normal fillet knife), and you can also learn how to cook sheepshead here.
Today, sheepshead are no longer considered consolation fish.
They are hard fighting and great to eat.
Anglers can catch them offshore, inshore, and from fishing piers.
They’re great fun for adults and children alike.
And now you know why, during the winter months, all those anglers are lined up right next to the dock posts, trestles, and other structures.
Sheepshead Catch Card (click here for free download)
Hope you enjoyed!
What are your favorite tips for catching sheepshead?
Let me know in the comments.
P.S. If you want more in-depth information and on-the-water footage about catching sheepshead, check out our sheepshead mini-course (note: this is for Insiders only)
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