Everything you need to know about Sheephead!
The Sheepshead Primer
by Capt. Russ Roy (April 2008)
Sheepshead, also called “sheepies” or sometimes “‘heads” are one of the most common inshore fish in Florida. They are easy to identify: look for the black and white horizontal stripes and the prominent teeth and “grinders” behind them. Small black drum (puppy drum) also have the stripes, but not the teeth. Drum also have barbels on the lower jaw; sheepshead don’t. Spadefish also carry the stripes, but have a less chunky body shape and much smaller, brushlike, teeth. Once you have caught, and unhooked, a sheepshead or two, you will be able to identify them easily.
Where and When
Sheepies are common inshore, typically found over rocky, hard bottom, especially when there are oysters present. They will also be found near sea walls and pilings when these are covered with barnacles. They eat mostly crustaceans and mollusks, using their teeth to crunch through the shells. They slurp up the gooey contents and spit out the shells. Because their bite is “light” and quick, they are rarely caught during normal fishing. While they will hit an artificial, this is very unusual. Most anglers get them as bycatch when they are fishing for redfish with shrimp. I average about one sheepshead a year caught while fishing this way. Sheepshead are active during a wide range of temperatures and can be caught anytime during the year.
Most anglers target sheepshead during their spawning season, when they are much easier to catch, especially the bigger ones. During February and March, breeding age sheepshead will move out to deeper water (from about 8 to 50 feet) and school together in groups. They will cluster around some kind of structure like the Steel Tower at the end of Sea Horse Reef, or around an artificial reef or a channel marker. The, typically smaller, males will arrive first, then the larger females during March. (This will depend to some extent on water temperature, and to a larger extent on Moon phases. New and full Moon periods are good, certainly because of good tidal flow, and maybe also because the fish can coordinate better– most fish don’t have calendar watches.)
How to Catch
A quality redfish or trout rod will work for sheepshead. Faster action is better and spooling with braid will help feel the bite. I usually fish with my right index finger on the line and set the hook quickly whenever I feel anything! The fight will be vertical, with the fish turning sideways and boring back down. Keep a tight line because they have such a tough mouth that the hook will often not penetrate very well and it can be thrown. For terminal tackle, two approaches can be used. A bare jig head on the end of some 12 to 20 lb fluorocarbon leader will work. The jig head should have a wide gap with a sharp and stout hook. You can also use a slip sinker rig with the sinker right up against the hook. Again, use a stout, sharp hook with a wide gap, around a 5/0 size. Spawning sheepshead will mill around the structure, mostly staying up current of it. In shallow water they will even come up to the surface, but usually they will be closer to the bottom. You want to adjust the size of your jig head or your slip sinker so that you can suspend your bait in the tidal current at about the depth where the fish are. (Sheepshead show up pretty well on a depthfinder and can be located with it. If you don’t mark them on the structure, don’t fish there very long unless you start catching them– try another spot.)
Live shrimp will work well for bait. Don’t put on too large a piece; you don’t want a fish to pull off the bait without even getting the hook in its mouth. Fiddler crabs will also work, and if you can’t get either of these, frozen shrimp is better than nothing. Sheepshead can be attracted by chumming so you can use some crushed barnacles, crab, shrimp heads, etc. It also helps for boats to “raft up” together for sheepshead, as the multiple baits in the water will help attract the fish. (Since the fish fight vertically, another boat close to you won’t be a problem as it might be with kings or Spanish.)
What to Keep
The bag limit (as of 2008) is 15 per person per day, and fish must be 12″ in length or more. Sheepshead are hard to clean and even a five pound fish does not have a lot of meat on it compared to a redfish or a grouper. This is a real good place to practice catch and release. They are good to eat, so if you want to keep a few for supper, stick to ones that are at least five lbs. But the best thing to do with smaller ones is release them to grow. Sheepshead fishing is best done in calm weather because the light bite is hard to feel, so a good trip plan is to have some fun with sheepshead and then head out for grouper (or vice-versa). If you’re an inshore rig, you can easily work in spawning sheepshead with redfish.
Contributed by Capts. Sanford Boye and Russ Roy (2008)
- Steel Tower (N28 58.525 W083 09.241)
This spot now sees a lot of pressure but the sheepshead are still there. The water is 15-20ft deep with downed debris running to the North of the existing tower.
- GOFC Artificial Reef #2
Patch 1 (N28 58.930 W083 11.937) Patch 2 (N28 58.957 W083 11.962)
- There are many rubble piles at the site, most of which hold sheepshead. You will find more structure if you work the area while looking at your depth finder. Also the sheepshead move around between the piles so if you are not directly on top of one you might still find that the fishing will be good.
- Hedemon Reef (N29 17.074 W83 15.543)
A large shallow sandy patch with some weed areas. This used to be marked with a large concrete piling, but this has been knocked down by storms. The fish will be scattered over the reef, and very spooky during low tides due to the shallow water. Anchor up and get some bait in the water to attract them.
- Dixie County Reefs (N29 19.232 W83 22.050)
There are a number of reef patches in this area. The best way to check this permitted area out is to go on a calm day with good water clarity so you can see the piles on the bottom. Take numbers on all you can find. Slow cruising using your bottom finder to spot the piles, and the sheepshead, is another way. Water is about 22 ft deep.
- Horseshoe Beach Reefs (N29 19.809 W83 26.200)
There are about 200 tons of concrete blocks, limestone rock and railroad ties scattered in this area which is about 25 feet deep. The technique above is a good one to use here as well. During sheepshead season on a good weather weekend, both of these areas will have lots of boats on them.
- Reef H (N29 18.436 W83 30.160)
This is one of the “Lindberg” reefs, named after Bill Lindberg, a researcher at U. Florida Fisheries Dept, to study whether or not artificial reefs would encourage more reef fish, especially grouper. This reef is made of patches of 16 large concrete cubes laid out at the points of a hexagon. Water here is about 40 feet deep and some of the patches typically hold more sheepshead than the others.
- Steinhatchee Artificial Reef (N29 39.480 W83 37.490)
This is a reasonable large artificial reef that is very good for sheepshead. Just look for the boats as you approach the number as it is very popular.