Sheepshead heading in to spawn
Spring has come early to the Alabama Gulf Coast this year. Anglers need to take advantage of the furious sheepshead bite right now.
As everyone can see by the azaleas blooming and redbuds popping, spring has come early to the Alabama Gulf Coast this year.
That is probably going to mean that anglers need to take advantage of the furious sheepshead bite right now because it might not stretch into April as it has in the past.
The sheepshead is an odd-looking fish species that moves into the coastal zone in the early spring to spawn. All you have to do is a get a good look at their mouths and you’ll know where they got that moniker.
Anglers will find sheepshead around any hard structure along the coast from rock jetties to wood pilings, petroleum platforms and oyster beds. They feed on any crustaceans and will chew barnacles off of structure that has been in the water long enough.
The most common bait used for sheepshead is shrimp, whether live or fresh dead. Many anglers will use fiddler crabs because they stay on the hook a little better, but sheepshead are masters at stealing your bait. So take plenty of bait when you go sheepshead fishing. Hermit crabs, with shells removed, also work well for sheepshead. If you can’t find any shrimp or small crabs, head to the nearest seafood shop and purchase some oysters. Cut the oysters into chunks and slide the meat onto the hook.
And use a small hook, a No. 2 or No. 4, in bronze or black color. Any shiny hook will spook the sheepshead. I prefer a Kahle hook because it results in better hook-ups than traditional J hooks. Some people use small treble hooks, but I find them difficult to retrieve from the fish’s mouth.
When you drop your bait down beside structure, it won’t take long to find out if the fish is there. If you know the fish are there and you don’t get a bite within a couple of minutes, you’ve probably been robbed of your bait.
When you do get a hook in a sheepshead mouth, you don’t want a limber rod. I prefer medium to medium-heavy rods with 15-pound test fluorocarbon line because of the barnacles. When your line is under tension fighting a fish, one touch from a sharp barnacle can slice through the line. Fluorocarbon has better abrasion resistance than traditional monofilament line.
The current will help you choose the size of the lead weight to use. If you can’t keep the bait in the target zone, pick a bigger weight. And be prepared to lose some tackle. It’s going to happen when you’re sheepshead fishing.
For years, sheepshead was considered a “trash” fish, but word has spread that this fish, although not easy to clean, is delicious table fare. Now that the fishing pressure has increased, a 10-fish daily bag limit per person with a 12-inch minimum size is in effect.
If the fish are biting well, I don’t even think about putting a 12-incher in the ice chest. I don’t keep anything smaller than 15 inches because it takes that size fish to yield a decent fillet.
You can prepare sheepshead fillets in a variety of ways, but the preparation I always fall back on is a quick dusting in your favorite fish fry mix and then a dunk into hot (350 degrees) peanut oil. The delicate flesh is flaky as well as tasty.