Sheepshead on fire
Alabama Gulf Coast Fishing
Normally by the middle of April, the speckled trout bite has settled into a predictable pattern that gives anglers a great chance of success.
Not so this April. The cold winter left water temperatures along the Alabama Gulf Coast at unusually low levels, and the normal fishing patterns are late for speckled trout especially.
But boy is there ever a silver lining. Actually, it’s a silver and black lining that is the color pattern on an early season favorite – sheepshead.
Under normal conditions, the sheepshead would have already spawned in the nearshore waters and scattered, but lower water temperatures has prolonged the fish’s habit of hanging around structure that will hold barnacles or other marine creatures.
Most often, you’ll find sheepshead around rock and concrete jetties and pilings. However, sheepshead can also be found around petroleum platforms, bridges, and oyster reefs. If there’s anything on the structure the fish can crack with there toothy mouths, they’re likely close by.
Here lately, fresh bait has been hard to find, but hopefully that will change soon. Live or fresh dead shrimp is the bait used most often for sheepshead. It’s always wise to carry shrimp when you venture into inshore waters. You might be fishing for other inshore species, but if you see any barnacle-encrusted structure or a rockpile, you might as well cast a shrimp-baited hook near the structure to see if any sheepshead are hanging around.
That happened to me a while back when I was trying to find speckled trout. The trout were being finicky, and I spotted a rock jetty. After no strikes on my trout lures, I grabbed a rod that was already rigged with a small hook and small lead weight. I took a piece of shrimp and tossed it onto the rocks. Seconds later, I was fighting a nice sheepshead. I repeated that until I had a nice box of fish. I lost a few hooks and pieces of lead along the way, but that’s part of sheepshead fishing. I’ve learned to use 15-pound test line, preferably fluorocarbon, around the structure. The fluorocarbon is stiffer but a lot more resistant to being sliced by the barnacles. I also use a No. 2 or No. 4 hook that is either black or bronze.
I cleaned those fish and fried them up for supper. After we finished, my daughters suggested I try to catch some more sheepshead the next time I went fishing.
Although a little harder to clean, more and more anglers are finding out that sheepshead yield a delicate, white filet that can be prepared in a numerous ways. A buddy of mine recently treated me with a faux West Indies salad that was delicious. He dropped the sheepshead fillets into boiling water with a little crab seasoning until the flesh flaked apart. After chilling the fish, he flaked fillets as a substitute for the crab meat. He mixed the fish with a chopped onion, chopped red bell pepper, oil, and cider vinegar or Italian dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste, and you’ve got faux West Indies salad.
Alabama has a 10-fish daily bag limit per person with a 12-inch minimum size, although I recommend anything smaller than 15 inches be tossed back to grow up. There have been some giant sheepshead caught this year, so hold out for a bigger fish.