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Lifting for Sheepshead
written by Ron Brooks

Knowing just a few tips can help put some of these tasty fish on your table.
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Heads are going to be found literally anywhere there are oysters, barnacles and bottom structure.

Convicts, bait stealers and sheepshead — these are just a few of the printable names for perhaps the hardest fighting fish, pound for pound, along the East Coast. Unprintable names for these fish abound from frustrated fishermen.

All along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts from Texas to Cape Cod, sheepshead have earned a reputation for being hard to catch. Many an angler has given up in disgust trying to catch a fish that they usually don't even feel bite the hook!

While it is true that sheepshead are harder than the average fish to catch, knowing just a few tips can help put some of these tasty members of the Porgy family on your table.

Where to Find Sheepshead

'Heads are going to be found literally anywhere there are oysters, barnacles and bottom structure. They feed on crustaceans, such a small crabs and shrimp. That means almost any pier, bridge or oyster bar can be home to a school of these professional bait stealers. Rock or wooden jetties that protect inlets from tidal silt are among the most productive areas, and these structures can be found in or around most inlets up and down the coast.

Like many other species, sheepshead do a bit of migrating throughout the year. After spending the summer months in the bays, creeks and oyster filled estuaries, 'heads will begin to move offshore toward some closed-in coastal structure. Man made artificial reefs become very productive during the late fall and early spring months. The spawning season is in late winter and early spring, and it is during this time that monster sheepshead — those in the 15 pound range or larger — can be caught.

When to Fish

From November to March, sheepshead anglers can be seen dabbling fiddler crabs or small shrimp in and around rocks, along a jetty or near a cut alongside an oyster bar. Some anglers catch their limit, while others leave shaking their heads, wondering why they didn't catch a fish.

So the question that needs answering is: Just how can every angler be successful catching sheepshead? The answers have to do with bait presentation and movement.

The Bite

Sheepshead will generally not strike a bait hard and run off with it. If they did, they would be much easier to catch. Rather, they tend to stay in one place in the water, mouthing the bait, using their grinding molars and sharp front teeth to crush the bait right off the hook. They can perform this feat while you wait for a bite, and you will never feel them! Never that is, until you begin to feel for their bite.

One adage that has been around for years says that you must set the hook before you feel the sheepshead bite. That may sound silly, but it has a bit of logic. Normal fishing techniques have you waiting to feel the fish bite. With sheepshead, you need to find the bite. That means you need to be moving the bait ever so slowly to see if a 'head has your bait in his mouth.

Where to Fish

Sheepshead reside in and around structure. Many anglers frustrate themselves by not fishing the structure properly. Casting across structure and fishing on an angle to the bottom will almost always end up with the hook or sinker lodged in the structure. The trick you need to remember is to fish as straight down over the structure as you possibly can. Drop your bait directly beneath the boat or alongside the pier or the bridge piling, and stay on top of the fishing site. Bottom rigs that are reeled straight up from any structure have a far better chance of not hanging on that structure on the way up.

Some of the better 'head anglers use long cane or fiberglass poles and fish out of a small boat. This lets them cover a lot of territory with their bait, yet stay right on top of the structure. Jetty anglers — whether fishing from the jetty or from a boat — often prefer these poles over any other for sheepshead.

So we know that these convict fish eat crabs and shrimp, and we know where they hang out. Let's see if we can catch one!


The lighter the line, the better off you will be. Heavy line with large swivels will often keep a wary fish from sampling your bait.

What Tackle to Use

Use the terminal tackle found on a standard bottom rig: an egg sinker above the swivel and a leader below it, tied to a #1 or 1/0 hook. Use the smallest weight that will take your bait down. In swift current that could be as much as one ounce on 8-pound test line.

Speaking of line, the lighter the line, the better off you will be. Comparison fishing with heavy line versus lighter line has proven to many anglers that lighter line catches more fish. Fish can see, and a heavy line with large swivels will often keep a wary fish from sampling your bait. This is particularly true with the larger sheepshead. Remember, they didn't get to be that big by being stupid. Big fish are wary fish and catching them requires some degree of stealth.

Long leaders are one of the sheepshead angler's worst enemies. The length of leader below the swivel is crucial to feeling the fish bite. On a long leader, fish will pick up the bait and swim with it and you will never feel them. A 12-inch leader is all you need. Some anglers use no leader at all and allow the small egg sinker to ride right down on the hook. Some also use a quarter- or eighth-ounce jig head on a 1/0 hook. Both options work very well.

Bait Choices

Fiddlers are the preferred bait and can be purchased at many area tackle shops along the coast. Catching your own is an option, but it is time consuming and not always productive. In the colder months, fiddlers will be in short supply. When the temperatures drop, they tend to dig deep into the sand and are difficult for the commercial bait catchers to find. If fiddlers are scarce, opt for small live or very fresh dead shrimp. Pay the extra price to have some small shrimp handpicked. Most bait shops charge to hand pick large shrimp. For sheepshead, the smaller, the better.

 

Location

Where do I fish? In any of the coastal areas from Texas all the way around to North Carolina, you can spot sheepshead anglers. They are in the small boats right up next to the jetty rocks, docks or the bridge pilings. They follow the rule that says fish where the fish reside! Structure! Find the structure and the fish will be there somewhere.

Some jetty situations can be dangerous for an anchored boat. So, when you set up next to them, make sure you don't get too close. That's why so many anglers like the long cane poles. They can drop right down to the fish while anchored safely away from the rocks.

Once in position, whether in a boat or from a dock or jetty, allow your baited hook to drop straight down from your rod or pole. Once it reaches bottom, either reel or lift the bait off the bottom about 2 feet.

Now comes the tricky part. This is where most anglers miss the fish. If you let that bait sit there in one place, the sheepshead will crush it off your hook without you noticing. The trick is to lift up on your rod or pole. Gently lift your rod tip a foot or so about every 15 seconds. On one of those lifts, you will feel some pressure that is holding your rod tip down. If you hold that pressure you can sometimes sense the fish swimming with your bait. Either way, when you feel the pressure, continue to lift higher and begin to reel. When the fish feels the pressure of the hook, he will turn, and at that point you will make a hook-up.

Fight the Fish Carefully

The battle is only half over at this juncture. The inside mouth of a sheepshead is as hard as a rock. Hook penetration inside the two rows of teeth is almost impossible, especially on light line. This fishing method will almost always hook the sheepshead in the lip structure or the side of the mouth in front of the teeth.

Light line plays an important part here. Anglers with heavy line tend to muscle the fish to the surface. That usually means lots of lost fish where the hook pulls out of the softer lips. Lighter line necessarily means a lighter drag and less pressure on the fish. The hook stays in and the fish can be easily netted.

Bottom Line

More than one frustrated angler has become a successful "convict catcher" using this method. Light line, short leaders and lifting to feel the fish — all together these tactics can help you overcome previous failures. Once you learn the feel of a fish swimming with your bait, the rest can become second nature. A limit of sheepshead in you box will be proof!

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