The sheepshead is a member of the Porgy family and is rather unique since unlike most fish species, it has teeth that look incredibly like human teeth. Their teeth are what distinguishes them from the juvenile black drum which sports the same white and black vertical bands as they do. Although most sheepsheads are around the five to seven pounds range, there are some which can grow up to more than ten pounds and reach up to 20 inches in length. Sure, this may not sound like a trophy catch for most, but they do make for a great table fare (thanks to its shellfish-dominated diet) which is enough reason for anglers to go sheepshead fishing (so get your fish fillet knives, ready folks). If you’re wondering how to catch sheepshead, then this guide is for you.
1. Know Where to Find Them
As it is with fishing for other species of fish, the best places to catch a sheepshead are those where their food is present. A sheepshead’s diet is composed predominantly of crabs, shrimps, barnacles, and other crustaceans. The large and sharp teeth allow them to chomp and crush through the shells. That said, you’ll want to visit those places where these crustaceans can be found.
Sheepsheads are also structure-oriented fish, especially since structures are where crustaceans can be commonly found. So look for rocks and boulders, as well as pilings since barnacles grow on their surfaces. Pay a visit to docks, piers, and marinas as well since these offer plenty of structure. Check out oyster reefs and mangroves as well. Some sheepsheads also travel to shallow seagrass flats and sand flats and even inshore beaches while looking for crustaceans to chomp on.
Sheepsheads can also be found lounging within the estuaries and bays along the coastline especially in the warmer months of the year. When the spawning season comes, mature sheepshead will move out of the estuaries and towards their offshore spawning grounds to mate.
2. Know When to Go
Although Sheepshead is readily available throughout the year, most anglers find that the months of winter and early spring provide the best opportunity for landing these fish (so be sure to bring your fishing jacket with you). Unlike other fish, Sheepshead thrives well in cold waters.
3. Bring the Right Fishing Rod
Sheepshead has a very gentle bite which can be pretty hard to detect. This is why you’ll want to make use of a spinning rod or baitcasting rod with fast action as this will allow you to detect those subtle bites and give you enough hook-setting power. As for power, choose a rod with medium power as this will give you enough backbone to lift these hard fighting fish out of the water. Some anglers use fly fishing rods when fishing for sheepshead, especially when they’re fishing in shallow grass flats, oyster reefs, and inshore sandbars. In any case, make sure your rods are suitable or rated for saltwater fishing. Saltwater fishing rods are treated to withstand the corrosive effects of saltwater which could affect the line guide and compromise the integrity of the line that passes through them.
4. Pair It with the Right Reel
Since you’ll be using a spinning or baitcasting rod, you’ll obviously be using a spinning or baitcasting reel. A medium spinning reel or baitcasting reel with a low gear ratio and can hold 10- to 14-lbs test line is generally enough for a good day of sheepshead fishing. The low gear ratio will give you enough leverage to lift the fish out of deep structures and reeling the bigger sheepsheads.
5. Use a Strong, Invisible Fishing Line
Different anglers will have different recommendations as to which fishing line is best for sheepshead fishing. Some will say that monofilaments and fluorocarbon lines are best, while others say that braided lines are better. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the argument.
Fluorocarbon and monofilament fishing lines are generally preferred because they are less visible to the fish. Braided lines on the other hand are great for fishing around structures and areas with heavy cover, which is where sheepshead are generally concentrated or distributed.
So if you have to choose, go for a monofilament or fluorocarbon line in the 10- to 12-lb test line. This will make your line invisible to the fish yet strong enough to hold even the larger sheepsheads. If you’re going with braided fishing lines, look for one in the 12- to the 20-lb range. This will give you enough sensitivity to feel the sheepshead bite and will not stretch under load.
6. Use a Fluorocarbon Leader
If you’re using a braided fishing line, you’ll need to pair it with a 20-lb. fluorocarbon leader. It could be anywhere around 10- to 15-inches long. Fluorocarbon fishing lines are nearly invisible to the water and will help prevent spooking the sheepshead with your more visible braided line.
7. Use the Right Hook
Both J-hooks and circle hooks work well for sheepshead fishing, though there are things you need to consider when choosing which hooks to use including strength, size, and sharpness. Because of the structure of the sheepshead’s mouth, you’ll want t a hook that is strong enough to handle their powerful jaws and large teeth. It should also be small enough to fits in the fish’s relatively small mouth. Most importantly, the hook you use should be razor-sharp to penetrate the fish’s bony mouth.
8. Go with Live or Dead Baits
Most anglers will go with live or dead baits when fishing for sheepsheads as they are more effective than artificial lures. To entice sheepsheads, your best bet would be fiddler or mud crabs, shrimps, or even barnacles. Most of these can be bought from your local bait or tackle shop except the latter. For barnacles, you can scrape them off a piling during low tides. When putting your bait on the hook, try to conceal as much of the hook as possible leaving only the tip exposed.
9. Don’t Forget the Landing Net
Sheepsheads are known to be capable of breaking the line or shaking the hook out of their mouths, so using a landing net helps to keep them from wriggling around too much.
10. Wear You Fishing Gloves
One of the most distinguishing features of a sheepshead fish is the sharp and heavy spines on their dorsal and anal fins. This is why you’ll want to make use of a landing net when lifting the fish out of the water. Wearing a pair of thick fishing gloves is also recommended, though doing so may affect your fingers’ dexterity. In any case, it’s better to be safe than sorry. It should also help keep your hands warm when fishing for sheepsheads during winter.
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Sheepsheads are generally plentiful and you should have no trouble fishing for them provided you have the right set of fishing gear and apply the correct fishing style and technique on how to catch sheepshead. Their tasty meat which can be cooked in many ways will make sheepshead fishing and staying out in the cold weather worth it.