On the water: Sheep hunting at its peak | News, sports, jobs
February is peak season for one fish that thrives in our waters during the cold winter months. Sheepshead (Archosaurs probatocephalus).
The sheepshead is easily recognized by its broad body with telltale black vertical stripes which many have renamed the convict fish. They are equipped with teeth that are almost human-like and would give dental hygienists nightmares. This mouth full of teeth is used to grind crustaceans, molluscs, barnacles, etc.
When we think about sheepshead and where to find them on the beach, we look around oyster bars or anywhere oysters and barnacles are likely to grow. Oyster bars aren’t the only place you should look; Sheep are structure oriented and prefer good tidal flow. Put those two things together, and there are countless places across our inshore waters to target.
The well-developed structure of oysters and barnacles should not be overlooked. Areas that should come to mind with this combination are bridges, piers, jetties, jetties, seawalls and other submerged obstructions onshore and along beaches. Fallen or submerged trees or large branches are a good possibility. They also congregate along beaches, cliffs, depressions and streams. Inshore artificial reefs and hard bottom in Gulf waters at a depth of about 40 feet are prime areas to target when weather permits.
As previously mentioned, the sheepshead is equipped with a mouth full of teeth, but they are not sharp and rarely cut through the leader. Their teeth are intended for crushing hard objects, not for catching fast-moving baitfish. It is preferable to use a small, thin, sharp hook so that the hook can constantly penetrate between those teeth. Even then, a little luck will help.
Many anglers rig one of two ways. First, using a No. 1 or 1/0 circle hook tied to two to four feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader with either a small sliding egg sinker or a split sinker. Use enough weight to get it to the bottom, when you fish around oyster rods and structure you will snag a lot, if you go with the lowest weight possible it will help reduce hang ups.
Fresh shrimp is the favorite bait. Many hardcore sheep anglers use various other baits, sometimes discreet, but we’ll stick with shrimp. Shrimp are readily available, and they catch fish. Either tie a small shrimp to the shank of the hook, tie it live, or if the shrimp are large, cut them accordingly. The smaller the piece you can get away with, the better your delivery success, and sheepshead are notorious bait stealers, bringing in a lot of bait.
Secondly, very productive, and my favourite, is the shrimp-rigged head. At the beach we may use from an eighth to a half of an ounce depending on depth and current. Pinch or bite the tail and hook the shrimp tail first into the shank of the hook all the way to the head of the jig. Slow recovery works best but may vary from day to day, so don’t be afraid to experiment. But remember, they are bottom-feeding, and the fast suspended retrieve will not be compromised. We usually fish both styles (circle hook and jig head) and see what works best; Locations change from day to day. I’ve tried all the different colored jig heads, and they all catch fish, but one color may catch other colors any day.
For fishing, it is best to use a light to medium rod with a fast tip, you really need to feel a light click when it picks up the bait. All that is needed is a baitcaster or spinner with 10 to 20 pound line, monofilament or braid. I use 15-pound braid, and this allows the anglers to feel fresh. Sheepshead are not as aggressive as snook or grouper when hooked, they put up a great fight but rarely make the hard effort to dart under rocks or props and cut you off, so a good light rig is much more fun.
While targeting sheepshead from a boat gives you more options, you’re still out of luck if you’re stuck fishing from shore. The bridges at Matlacha and Bukeleja Fishing Pier are popular hangouts. Sheepshead feed on the good stuff from props or structure, and you should hunt as soon as possible to attract their attention. You can often see them feeding up and down the props.
This is the best month to hook the biggest sheep of the year. If you take the time to learn the tricks to locating and tying sheepshead, you’ll be on your way to a good hunt. Your reward is that it is one of the most delicious fish in the water.
Stay up to date on fishing regulations by visiting www.myfwc.com. Also download the Fish Rules app on your phone. It has current regulations and seasons with pictures to help identify the fish.
Have a safe week and good fishing.
As a lifelong resident of Matlasha and Pine Island, Captain Bill Russell has spent his life fishing and learning the waters around Pine Island and Southwest Florida, and as a professional fishing guide for the past 23 years.
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