Sheepshead or the “convict fish” are some of the most fun to catch 3-4 pounders on the southern coast of North America. Even though they don’t grow much in size, they put quite a fight when hooked, which puts them somewhere near the top of preferred game fish in many areas. Here are a few aspects regarding the places they prefer, their habits, the most used fishing techniques to catch them, and of course, a few suggestions regarding the most appropriate tackle and bait for these beautiful and also tasty fish.
Sheepshead Habitat and Habits
Sheepshead’s prime diet consists of small crustaceans such as crabs, shrimp, mussels, clams and oysters. However, at times they may also grab small fish or squid. Their mouth is adapted to crack the shell of crustaceans, being padded with numerous flat teeth. Considering this aspect, evidently they can typically be found within the close vicinity of various natural or artificial structures, such as reefs, navigation markers, piers, shipwrecks, irregular rocky formation bottoms, close to clams, mussels or oyster beds.
Although they normally don’t prefer the deep waters, during spawn they gather into larger groups and move out to the offshore areas to breed. Their spawning time, in other words early spring, February and March, is the best time to catch prize sheepshead.
One of the specific aspects about the fishing of sheepshead is the fact that they have a “light” and quick bite, sometimes difficult to distinguish. That’s why it’s important to keep the line tight at all times, otherwise there’s a good chance you won’t feel the bite.
They are known for cunningly stealing the bait from the hooks, especially when fishing with soft, live baits. When fishing with fiddler crabs, they often nibble on the hooked crab’s legs, without grabing the whole crab, leaving a legless torso on the hook. When hooked, they put quite a fight and try to move around or hide within the structures close to them, often being able to break the line. That’s why it’s best to bring them up as quickly as possible, or at least pulled away from the bottom.
Methods for Catching Sheepshead
The most common method to catch sheepshead is bottom fishing with live bait, from piers, from a boat, or surf fishing with surf rods. They are rarely interested in lures, but they can also be caught with heavier crankbaits imitating shrimp.
If you’re fishing from a boat, near bridge pylons, packed with barnacles or mussels, it’s a good idea to scrap some of them into the water, to ring the dinner bell for the sheepshead, sort of speak. Also, in this case, when you hook one, try to pull it away from the pylons, because they typically would want to wrap around the pylons which can lead to a broken line.
Bait and Lures
Since their favorite food consists of crustaceans, that’s exactly what you should serve them for bait. Mussels, clams, oysters, shrimp or small fiddler crabs are great choices. In case live bait isn’t available, you can use dead bait too, but make sure it’s very fresh.
Tackle for Sheepshead
Rods. Although they are not particularly heavy fish, they do know “how to weight heavy” when caught, as they have a very muscular body. That’s why it’s best to go with medium, or medium heavy rods, 7-8′. Shakespeare Ugly Stik medium, or medium-heavy, rods are never a bad choice for sheepshead, great quality / price ratio.
Reels. If you’re going for sheepshead, you should be looking for a reel between 2500 – 4000, spinning or bait casting. A few recommendations to look at would be a Daiwa Ballistic 2500H, Daiwa Exceller 2500H, Shimano Sahara 3000 , or a baitcaster like a Dawia Luna 103 or a Penn General Purpose.
Line. The fishing line for sheepshead should vary depending on the place you’re fishing. Deeper water, and stronger current calls for heavier line. You should never go with line lighter than 20lb. pound test. In most anglers go with 20-40lb. test monofilament. I prefer 30lb. test line fluorocarbon. Also, if you’re fishing in places with plenty of structure, you might want to go with braided line, as it’s much resistant to abrasion.
Leader. It’s a good idea to cap your line with a 3-4 footer 10-20lb. test braided line. Also, the basic Carolina rig, with a 1/2 oz. sinker, or up to 2 oz. in case of stronger current / tide, is one of the best choices.
Hooks. Sheepshead fishing requires medium size, strong and short-shanked hooks. Keep in mind that these fish have mouths packed with plenty of flat, hard teeth and they can easily chew through thinner hooks. Owner J hooks, in sizes from 2/0 to 4/0 are an excellent choice.