What's Biting: Bandit Fish
Coming to a rock jetty, or piling near you: an early spring fishing bonanza that involves a toothy species with a variety of nicknames. The sheepshead is arrayed with vertical black stripes, which is responsible for its convict fish nickname. The sheepshead's ability to steal your bait with aplomb leads to the bandit fish moniker.
What's great about the sheepshead is the species is plentiful in Alabama coastal waters this
time of year. From late winter through March (sometimes April, depending on the water temperature), sheepshead forage on anything crustacean that lives or hides around jetties, pilings, or petroleum platforms.
[caption id="attachment_6461" align="alignright" width="285"] Sheepshead[/caption]
I never leave for an inshore fishing trip in the early spring without some type of natural bait because other species, like speckled trout (spotted seatrout) and redfish (red drum) may not be biting. The most common bait used for sheepshead is shrimp, whether live or fresh dead. When I spot any type of inshore structure this time of year, I'll drop a hook baited with shrimp near the structure to see if sheepshead are hanging around.
Sometimes shrimp are hard to find, but the alternatives make excellent bait. Fiddler crabs work really well for sheepshead. Hermit crabs, with shells removed, also work well for sheepshead. If all else fails, go by the seafood shop and buy some oysters. Cut the oyster meat into chunks and slide the pieces onto the hook.
Like I said before, sheepshead have a way of stealing your bait without you knowing it. If you don't get a bite within a couple of minutes you better reel in because you probably don't have bait left on the hook. To combat bait theft, try to hide the hook as much as possible and use smaller hooks, like No. 2 or No. 4 in bronze or black. If the water has some color, you can get away with a little larger hook, but make sure you don't use any shiny hooks. I usually use 15-pound test line because of the barnacles, which can slice through your line with just a touch if there is tension on the line. Choose your lead weight according to the prevailing current, but go as light as water conditions allow.
When you hook a sheepshead, you're going to need a medium to medium heavy rod to be able to put some pressure on the fish and get it out of the structure.
Make sure your tackle box is loaded with extra hooks, lead weights and spare line. When you're sheepshead fishing you're going to lose some tackle.
After many years without regulation, the word has spread about this inshore fishing opportunity. The increased fishing pressure caused the Alabama Marine Resources Division to institute a 10-fish daily bag limit per person with a 12-inch minimum size.
If 12-inchers are the only ones biting, that's fine. However, if I have a choice, I don't keep anything under 15 inches. Sheepshead aren't that easy to clean, and you'll find you need a larger fish to yield a decent fillet.
Although sheepshead was once considered a less-than-desirable species, the delicate flesh is tasty when it's fried in your favorite batter. If you're making a pot of seafood gumbo, throw a double handful of sheepshead chunks into the pot. Another way sheepshead is utilized is to boil the fillets in a pot of water with crab and shrimp seasoning. After the fillets have cooled, flake with a fork and make a faux West Indies salad. It's delish.