What's Biting: Convict Fish Stealing Bait

Hopefully, ol’ man winter has finally loosened its grip on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and fishing success will bounce back to normal.

two men holding two sheepshead fish
Be prepared to lose some tackle during the day. That’s just part of sheepshead fishing.

The unusually long cold spell has kept water temperatures along the coast around the 50-degree mark, which doesn’t bode well for fishing success. The forecast for a warming trend should help the fishing tremendously, especially for the species that always show up in good numbers early in the fishing season – sheepshead.

The alternating black and white stripes of the sheepshead, a member of the porgy family, have led to the nickname of convict fish, and that can sometimes also apply to its ability to steal your bait.

With the warm-up, the fish should be showing up in good numbers into the jetties and pilings after the fish have been offshore to spawn. Anything that will hold barnacles is home to sheepshead. Rock and concrete jetties and pilings are the places where the fish are found most often. However, sheepshead can also be found around any petroleum platform, bridges, and oyster reefs.

The most common bait used for sheepshead is shrimp, whether live or fresh dead. I never leave for an inshore fishing trip in the early spring without shrimp because the other species, like speckled trout (spotted seatrout) and redfish (red drum) may not be biting. However, if I spot any type of inshore structure, I’ll drop a hook baited with shrimp near the structure to see if sheepshead are hanging around.

Fiddler crabs are another good bait for sheepshead, and some anglers use hermit crabs, with shells removed, for sheepshead.

As I mentioned before, sheepshead are particularly adept at stealing bait, so make sure you try to hide the hook as much as possible and use smaller hooks, like No. 2 or No. 4 in bronze or black. Shiny hooks are verboten. I usually use 15-pound test line because of the barnacles, which can slice through your line in an instant. Choose your lead weight according to the prevailing current.

When you hook a sheepshead, you’re going to need a medium to medium heavy rod, depending on your preference, to be able to put some pressure on the fish and get it out of the structure.

But be prepared to lose some tackle during the day. That’s just part of sheepshead fishing.

Alabama has a 10-fish daily bag limit per person with a 12-inch minimum size. However, I recommend anything less than 15 inches should be tossed back to grow up. When you clean the toothy critters, you’ll find you need a larger fish to yield a decent fillet. Most of the sheepshead caught will be in the 3-5-pound range, although you can get lucky and stumble onto a jetty that is loaded with 10-pounders. Getting those big ones in a net is a challenge, but well worth the effort, especially when it comes to table fare.

Although sheepshead was once considered somewhat of a “trash” fish, the delicate, white flesh is delicious and can be prepared in a number of ways. Of course, it’s hard to beat a quick trip into 350-degree oil after a roll in your favorite fish fry mix. For those who are watching calories, you can broil the fillet with a pat of butter and topped with onions. You can also use small chunks of sheepshead in gumbos.

Fact is, sheepshead are fun to catch, and with just a little effort the fillets become “what’s for dinner”.

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David Rainer Blogger
David Rainer (1 Posts)
David Rainer has written about the great outdoors on the Alabama Gulf Coast for more than 20 years. For 14 of those years, he covered the many fishing opportunities on the Gulf Coast as outdoors…