The big breeder sheepshead get romantic this month, and every year around this time anglers renew their love affair with these hard-fighting fish.
There’s no better time to catch the big ones than through the rest of the month and into early March, as the largest of the species are gathering on offshore rocks and structure for their annual spawn. Sheepshead in canals, creeks and around bridge pilings have been a primary target all winter, these inshore fish are much smaller than the big spawning fish.
While a fish of a pound or two might be average in the shallows, offshore fish to 8 or 10 pounds are not unusual. Those who’ve tangled with the smaller sheepshead know what tenacious fighters they are, but some are stunned by the pulling power of the big ones.
It’s almost like hooking into a gag grouper, some report, as the fish will head for rocks or other cover in the same manner. Tie into an 8-pound sheepshead and it feels a big like you’ve snagged the bumper of a south-bound Buick. Fishing guides like Capt. Josh Fritz, who specializes in big sheepshead every February, like stout, medium-heavy spinning gear to ensure the offshore sheepshead his anglers hook into make into the boat.
Fritz finds his sheepshead on shallow rocks northwest of Hudson, fishing many of the same spots where he caches shallow-water gag grouper in 8 to 12 feet of water. While sheepshead will take a variety of natural baits, including fiddler crabs and cut bait, live shrimp is hard to beat. Even big sheepshead have relatively small mouths, so a No. 2 – No. 4 J hook is all you need. Just enough weight to hold fast to the bottom in the current is used. Some anglers opt for a one-quarter or three-eighths-ounce jig head instead.
Once the bait is on the bottom, it’s a waiting game. If you aren’t on that game, be warned, you’ll be rebaiting your hook often, as sheepshead are skilled bait thieves.
The sheepshead bite is light, as they pick up the bait and begin working into to the back of their mouths where a set of crushers go about pulverizing it, and anglers often feel a disturbance of a nibble as opposed to a serious, thumping strike.
Set the hook when you feel that. Set the hook if you see your line slowly moving off. And don’t be shy about it, as the mouth is rather hard and bony in places and force is needed to bury the hook.
When fishing for the big ones around rocks, the drag should be clamped down well, as the first thing the fish will want to do in bury its head into structure, either wrapping or cutting off the line. A piece of 30-pound fluorocarbon or mono leader is good on the end of braided line to protect from break-offs.
Sheepshead are great sport, and they are pretty good on the table, so they often ride home in the cooler in February, when gags are out of season. A bonus when sheepshead fishing can be big mangrove snapper. Fishing beyond about 20 feet of water and hogfish might take the bait.
Sheepshead must be a minimum of 12 inches long to keep, and when going for offshore fish, it’s hard to catch one smaller. The daily bag limit is eight per angler and the season is open year-around.