Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
After the first real winter here on the Gulf Coast in a number of years, temperatures soared to record heights within a few days. On fishing trips, it was hard to decide whether to wear shorts or a heavy coat. Now that the 80-degree days are expected to disappear for a couple of weeks, it’s time to start looking for the first consistent fishing action of the year.
The record warmth has caused a quick rebound of inshore water temperatures into the 60s, which means the sheepshead fishing should be on fire for several weeks.
Sheepshead spawn in the nearshore waters during the early spring before scattering. Before the spawn, the fish hang around inshore structure and feed on barnacles and any other crustaceans it can find.
Sheepshead are often found around rock and concrete jetties and pilings, but don’t forget about other habitat the sheepshead call home this time of year – petroleum platforms, bridges and oyster reefs. Sheepshead are blessed with some serious front teeth to chisel barnacles off structure and to crack the shells of anything it considers food.
Live shrimp and fiddler crabs are some of the favorite foods of sheepshead. Fortunately the bait shops on the Alabama coast have them in stock most of the time. Just in case, it would be wise to call ahead and make sure they have live bait in stock. If you can’t find live bait, fresh dead shrimp will work. If that doesn’t work, buy some oysters and cut them into pieces to use for bait. Just understand that sheepshead are really adept at stealing your bait, so oysters don’t last long on the hook.
If you toss a piece of bait, any kind of bait, into a likely sheepshead spot and don’t get a bite within a couple of minutes, you might as well reel it in because you have been robbed.
And always carry plenty of sinkers, leaders and hooks because you are going to lose some tackle when you’re fishing around barnacle-encrusted rocks, pilings or petroleum platforms. I start out with 10- or 12-pound line, but if I keep getting cut off, I’ll move up to 15-pound-test. Fluorocarbon line also handles the abrasion better than monofilament. When it comes to hooks, you can use anything from No. 2 to 1/0 hooks. Because of the structure and the sheepshead’s tough mouth, forget about using a fine wire hook. The hook has to be strong or you’ll end up being disappointed after setting the hook. As far as rods, a little give at the tip will keep the fish from ripping the hook out of its mouth, but you’re going to need a rod with backbone to be able to get the fish out of the structure as soon as possible.
Be aware that sheepshead obviously have large heads and you need bigger fish to yield decent-sized filets. And, sheepshead aren’t that easy to clean, but the delicate, white flesh makes it worth the effort.
Filets dredged in your favorite fish fry mix and dropped in 350-degree peanut oil is the easiest and possibly best ways to consume sheepshead. However, the delicious flesh can be used in a number of ways. You can make a faux West Indies salad by boiling the sheepshead with a little crab boil. After cooking, let the filets cool and then flake off in sizes that mimic lump crab meat. Mix with chopped onions, chopped red bell pepper, and either Italian dressing or oil and cider vinegar. Add salt and pepper and you’ve got a salad that will fool all but the most seasoned palates.
Alabama’s daily bag limit on sheepshead is 10 fish per person with a 12-inch minimum size, but I don’t recommend keeping anything smaller than 15 inches. Catch several big ones and save the little ones for next year.