The Fishin’ Report: Big, offshore sheepshead don’t mind the cold

This nice, offshore sheepshead was taken while fishing on a past trip with Capt. Josh Fritz, who is targeting the species on rocks in 8 to 12 feet of water off Hernando. The big spawners will be there through February and into March.

“To everything there is a season,” and the time for sheepshead procreation is now.

Capt. Mike Senker, who fishes out of Hernando Beach, is zeroing in on the big spawning fish offshore. They’ll be on the rocks in 10 to 30 feet of water through February and into March. Most of his fishing has been around the 20-foot depths.

Bottom feeders that they are, it’s important to get live or frozen shrimp to the rocks. Because they are recognized as one of the better bait thieves, Capt. Mike says anglers need to be on their toes, as too slow to set the hook means a bare hook is all that’s left on the end of the line.

The offshore sheepshead gathering now for the spawn are not the average 10- to 12-inch fish around inshore oyster beds, pilings and docks, but the jumbos up to 8 pounds or better.

Gearing up for sheepshead is basic: a J-hook in #2 to #4 sizes on the end of a 12- to 18-inch mono leader of 20-pound test will help prevent cut-offs on the sharp edges of the rocks or the structure of reefs where sheepshead like to hang out.

A bit of weight is needed, but most pros only use just enough to hold the bottom in current, which could be anything from a small split shot or two, to a couple of ounces when the tide runs strong. Shrimp is the top bait around these parts, but some anglers like fiddler crabs when they can get them.

Capt. Josh Fritz, another longtime Hernando guide, is on the sheepshead now, concentrating on rocks in 8 to 12 feet of water off Hernando, fishing spots that typically hold gag grouper in warmer months.

“They sheepshead bite is on,” said Capt. Josh, adding that’s a good thing, because water temperatures plunging like they have over the past week means fishing for other species — inshore or offshore — is tough.

Capt. Josh has been putting his anglers on some big sheepshead. Their cold-hearty nature is evidenced by his most recent trip to the rocks off Hernando Beach, which revealed a water temperature of 54.1 degrees. “That’s pretty cold, but the sheepshead don’t mind it like some fish do.”

Fritz and Senker do catch a few other species this time of year while sheepshead fishing, including mangrove snapper. Fishing 20 feet of more also can produce hog snapper on the sheepshead rocks. All take shrimp very well.

Guide bites

Capt. Josh Fritz (352) 345-9304: Capt. Josh says the only real game in town offshore is the 10- to 12-foot depths for spawning sheepshead and possibly mangrove snapper. Inshore, things have been tough due to the cold water. Fish are back in the creeks and hanging over warmer, dark bottom trying to absorb the sun’s warmth. He’s finding them, but they are slow to bite. Slow down artificial baits to a crawl or don’t count on any species giving chase. Reds, which are among the most cold-resistant of the inshore fish, are the best bet. Warming this week should improve the inshore bite by the weekend.

Hernando tackle shop roundup

Daddy D's Bayport Bait (352) 556-2163: Daddy D’s Dustin reports the fishing has been slow, as the cold weather and wind have kept a lot of anglers sidelined. The few reports that have been coming in have been from anglers fishing mangrove lines with live shrimp when the tide is up. Reds have been the primary catch. Sheepshead fishing has been fair around inshore rocks, oyster beds and dock and bridge pilings. Live shrimp and fiddler crabs have been the best baits. The trout bite has been decent at the Jenkins Creek pier.

Dixie Lee Bait (352) 596-5151: Eric says his anglers have been struggling due to the cold-water conditions slowing down the bite. His offshore regulars report they’ve been focused on mangrove snapper and big, spawning sheepshead on rocks and structure in 20 to 30 feet of water. Live shrimp has been tops. Inshore, there have been some good reports of redfish catches, though most have been undersized. The number of small reds being encountered is good news, though, as this bodes well for the future redfish stocks of larger fish. The trout fishing has been good at Jenkins Creek, with anglers using live shrimp on the incoming tides at the pier making some nice catches of large fish.

Pasco/Pinellas tackle shop roundup

One Stop Bait and Tackle (727) 842-5610: It’s been a tough week for anglers, though warming weather this week is expected to fire up the fish. Joe reports many have been sitting things out, with most of the better action reported by those fishing the Anclote power plant outfall canal, where the water has been periodically warmer due to warmed cooling water being pumped into the canal from the plant. Pompano and permit have been a primary target, with Doc’s Goofy Jigs tipped with shrimp working well. Trout have been numerous, but not the main target due to the season on them being closed. There are lots of ladyfish and jacks. Canals in Gulf Harbors have been producing sheepshead and mangrove snapper. A resident of the subdivision reports he’s still catching some Spanish mackerel on the flats there. He’s been drawing the fish in by soaking a chum block over the side of the boat and drifting for them.

The Tackle Box (727) 819-3783: Buck says anglers need to stick to the creeks — particularly creeks with springs — and warmer backwaters where there are deep holes present until a warming trend gets the fish moving and feeding again. The cold water has them in a semi-dormant state and they are not in the mood to feed. One angler reported doing well fishing for trout in a backwater area, and he was using artificials. The trick was slowing down the retrieve to a mere crawl to give the less-than-energetic fish some incentive. Other options are live shrimp. Pinching off the tail is a popular winter trick, as it keeps the shrimp from getting away from a pursuing fish. “Anything you can do to make it easier for the fish to bite is what you have to do now,” says Buck.

J&J Bait and Tackle II (727) 940-7928: James reports his anglers have been doing well on pompano and permit at the Anclote power plant outfall. They are taking some trout, as well, though they must be released due to a closure on the species. Live shrimp has been the tops natural bait, though the pompano take Doc’s Goofy Jigs of or pompano jigs well. Tipping the jigs with a bit of shrimp sweetens the offering. A few anglers are reporting that despite the cold water on the flats, there still are some Spanish mackerel around the Anclote area.

Tarpon Trading Company (727) 937-1488: Larry says anglers fishing around the U.S. 19 bridge in the Anclote River have been taking some reds and a few small snook. Jacks and ladyfish are there in big numbers. The Anclote power plant outfall is giving up permit and pompano, along with trout, jacks and ladyfish. A couple of the guys from the shop have been having fun with 10- to 15-pound tarpon gathering with the manatees in warm Spring Bayou near downtown Tarpon Springs. They take live shrimp. The only offshore report came from an angler fishing 60 feet of water on structure, where a number of large amberjack were landed. They had video of huge goliath grouper coming to the surface to gobble up a couple of the AJs before they could be boated.