On the Water: Sheepshead more active when the temperature cools
This is peak season for the one fish around Pine Island and Southwest Florida that thrives during the cooler winter months — the sheepshead (Archosaurs probatocephalus). Sheepshead are easily identified by their broad body with telltale black vertical stripes that many have renamed the convict fish. They have almost human-like teeth that would give a dental hygienist nightmares. That mouth full of teeth is used for crunching crustaceans, mollusks and barnacles.
When we think of sheepshead and where to find them inshore, it’s hard not to associate them with oyster bars, or anywhere oyster and barnacles are likely to grow. Oyster bars aren’t the only place to look; sheepshead are structure oriented and prefer a good tide flow. Put those two together and there are endless places around our inshore waters to target. Structure with a good growth of oysters and barnacles should not be overlooked. Areas that should pop in your mind with that combination are bridges, piers, docks, jetties and any other submerged obstructions inshore and along the beaches. Downed or submerged trees or large branches are a good possibility. They also congregate along shorelines, drop-offs, depressions and creeks. Nearshore artificial reefs out to about 40-foot depths are also prime areas to target when weather allows.
Sheepshead are equipped with a mouth full of teeth, however they are not sharp and very seldom cut through a leader. Their teeth are for crushing hard objects, not catching fast moving bait fish. A small, thin, sharp hook is preferred to consistently get the hook to penetrate between those teeth. And even then, a little luck comes in handy.
On my boat we rig one of two ways. First, with a #1 or 1/0 circle hook tied to 2 to 4 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader with either a small sliding egg sinker or split-shot sinker. Use just enough weight to get it to the bottom. When you fish around oyster bars and structure, you will get hung up a lot, if you go with as little weight as possible it will help to reduce hang ups.
Fresh shrimp is the go-to bait. Many hard-core sheepshead anglers use various other, sometimes secretive baits, but we are going to stick with shrimp. Shrimp are readily available, and they catch fish. Either a small shrimp threaded up the hook shank, hooked live or if the shrimp are large, cut them accordingly. The smaller the piece you can get away with the better your hook-up success will be. Sheepshead are notorious bait stealers, so bring a lot of bait.
Second, very productive, and my favorite, is a jig head rigged with a live shrimp. Inshore we may use from an eighth to a half-ounce depending on depth and current. Pinch or bite the tail off and thread the shrimp tail first up the shank of the hook bottoming out at the head of the jig. A very slow bouncing retrieve works best but it can vary from day to day — don’t be afraid to experiment. But remember, they feed off the bottom, a quick suspended retrieve will go untouched. We usually fish both styles (circle hook and jig head) and see what works best; it changes from day to day and location. I have tried all the different colored jig heads and they all catch fish, but one color may out fish the others on any given day.
For tackle, a light to medium light action rod with a fast tip is best — you really need to feel the light tap when they pick up the bait. A bait caster or spinner with 10 to 20-pound line, monofilament or braid, is all that’s needed. I use 15-pound braid, this really allows the anglers to feel the pick-up. Sheepshead aren’t as aggressive as snook or grouper when hooked, they put up a great fight but seldom make a hard effort to dash under rocks or pilings and cut you off, therefore a light rig is fine and a lot more fun.
While targeting sheepshead from a boat obviously gives you more options, you are still in luck if you are stuck fishing from shore. Southwest Florida has several public fishing piers and bridges that are fish magnets. The Bokeelia and Sanibel fishing piers plus the Matlacha Drawbridge are great locations to wet a line from land. It’s common to fish from piers and bridges while boats are anchored up fishing the same structure you are standing on. Feeding fish will be crunching goodies from the pilings or structure — you need to fish as close as possible to get their attention.
February is the peak month for hooking into the biggest sheepshead of the year in Southwest Florida. If you put in some time to learn the tricks to locating and hooking sheepshead, you will be on your way to some good fishing. And for your reward, they are some of the best eating and tastiest filets you will find.
If you have a fishing report or for charter information, please contact Gulf Coast Guide Service at 239-410-8576 (call or text); on the web at www.fishpineisland.com; or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Holiday gift certificates are available.
Have a safe week and good fishin’.
As a lifetime resident of Matlacha and Pine Island, Capt. Bill Russell has spent his life fishing and learning the waters around Pine Island and southwest Florida, and as a professional fishing guide for the past 23 years.