By Buck Davidson
Those jailhouse stripes adorning our featured subject mark his character well. Meet the sheepshead - truly a bait thief of the first order. Old-timers will tell you that in order to hook a sheepie, you need to set the hook "just before he breathes on your bait." Maybe that's taking things to extremes, but frustration can definitely abound when you encounter a bunch of these delicious critters.
Sheepshead get their common name from the oddly shaped mouth and incisor teeth, which are somewhat reminiscent of a sheep's dental structure. Sheepshead use these choppers to rasp barnacles from their host structure; a practice which produces a characteristic grinding noise audible even above the waterline! Sheepies are seldom found far from barnacle-encrusted structures - a piling laden with these sedentary mollusks is the sheepshead's idea of a seafood buffet. Walk quietly along old seawalls or pier pilings on a still day, and you're almost certain to see sheepies feeding on the barnacles. Fiddler crabs, shrimps and small crustaceans are also eaten with great relish, but fish are rarely, if ever on the menu.
So if you can see 'em, and you know what they eat, you can catch 'em, right? Not exactly. Catching sheepshead can be tricky, sometimes requiring ah specialized gear. A true sheepshead fisherman seldom sets out without his/her trusty rod, reel, bait and shovel. That's right - a flatheaded shovel. Boat-borne sheepshead fishermen will ease up to a bridge piling and use the shovel to scrape barnacles away, creating a first-rate chum line under the bridge. If there are sheepies about, this will bring 'em running. Simply hook up a live fiddler crab or shrimp and drift it in the cloud of barnacle bits. Fiddler crabs may be gathered along the shoreline (they're tough to get during winter), and live shrimp are available at nearly every bait shop. Don't leave the fiddler in the water too long, since they're air breathers. Whichever bait you use, maintain a tight line and set the hook very quickly when you feel a tap.
If you're fishing from a pier, dock or bridge, try to allow your bait to drift as close to the structure as possible - without getting hung up. Sheepshead will wait for something to come sweeping past the barnacles and will grab it when it does. As soon as you feel the take - start reeling, or your line will get wrapped around the barnacles and sliced instantly - those things are sharp. Use a 20-30 pound leader to protect against those knifelike edges and the sheepie's crusher-plate jaws. It's best to use as little terminal tackle as possible, since you want the bait to drift naturally around the rocks.
Some fishermen prefer to keep a finger against their line as it comes off the bail - this again to increase the "feel" and minimize reaction time. A sheepshead can steal a bait in a hurry, and you've got to be faster then he is - or else it's back to the bucket for another shrimp. Sheepies put up a tremendous fight on light tackle, since they turn their broad bodies sideways against the line's pull. Reeling in a couple dozen of these fellas will definitely work out the wrists and forearms. Eight to twelve pound tackle is fine, with the aforementioned leader. Sheepshead can reach 15 pounds in weight, but most inshore specimens top out around 3 to 4.
Cleaning a sheepshead is a smelly experience (remember what they eat) and the bones are large but manageable. The scales are also relatively large, which makes cleaning small specimens a chore. Minimum legal size is 12 inches, but it takes some skillful knife work to get a good fillet off of a footlong sheepie. Try to keep only the 14 inch plus specimens if possible, and remember the 10 fish bag limit. Once the cleanings over, sheepshead cook up wonderfully and work well in a variety of recipes. They are a great "day-saver" when nothing else seems willing to bite, and are a common quarry during the cold winter days here on the Suncoast.