By: Chris Rapchick
One of my personal favorite species of fish to pursue is the Sheephead, also known as the Archosargus probatocephalus to the more scientifically inclined folk. I highly enjoy fishing for these fish as they are very elusive and have rightly earned the nickname of Convicts for their sneaky and deceptive reputation. The Sheephead
is a saltwater fish that can grow up to 30 inches in length and lives in the coastal waters of Nova Scotia all the way down to the South American coast of Brazil. They are absent in the Bahamas and the surrounding region and are most prevalent from the Gulf of Mexico up to the Mid Atlantic Coast of the United States.
Sheephead have a very distinct profile with a beautiful black and white vertically striped pattern along with dark, spiny dorsal fins and a strong mouth full of large, blunt teeth specifically designed for crushing and devouring the hardshelled animals they eat. These conniving creatures feed on small crustaceans and bivalves such as clams, oysters, shrimp, sand fleas and various crabs including the blue, stone and fiddler varieties, so these are generally good choices to use as bait. My personal favorite has always been fiddler crabs topped with a garnish of oyster for added enticement, but we’ll get into that shortly.
These fish are generally found around structure covered with the oysters and barnacles on which they feed. I usually like to focus on old docks, piers and rock jetties as they tend to be covered in the oysters and barnacles, as well as baby stone crabs, making them a prime habitat for the fish. Once I find the appropriate structure, I use an old shovel, garden hoe or heavy pipe to crush and knock the food off of the structure to chum up the water and bring in the fish.
These fish can also be found in near-shore waters during the colder months when they head out to deeper water to spawn. Good bottom structure in near-shore waters includes shipwrecks, natural and manmade reefs and other random live bottom. I have always had the best luck fishing in 5-15’ of water so I generally do not go much shallower or deeper than that unless I am bottom fishing for other species as well in these near-shore waters. Once I have found the right structure, it is time to get rigged up and ready for fun.
My gear for these fish consists of a 7’ medium weight rod with a fast action for sensitivity and strength and a medium sized spinning reel spooled with 20 lb braided line. The 7’ rod gives me the distance I need to keep my boat off of the rough structure, saving it from expensive and ugly scratches and gouges in the gelcoat while still giving me the strength I need to horse the fish out of the water and away from the very sharp oyster shells. As always though, rod length and action is always a personal choice. I am a strong believer in spinning reels as I have tried and tried but cannot perfect the art of the conventional reel. I do understand the usefulness of conventional reels in applications that require the extra line capacity and a heavy duty drag capability. I prefer the braided line as it stretches less and is much more abrasion resistant than monofilament and fluorocarbon. Braided line is also much thinner, giving the ability to have a much higher tensile strength than a monofilament of fluorocarbon line of a similar diameter.
The tackle used to fish for Sheephead varies from person to person but I have always had the best results with a 25 lb fluorocarbon leader about 12-18” in length and a small 1/0 or 2/0 Owner All Purpose Bait hook at the end. The fluorocarbon leader is more abrasion resistant than monofilament and is more translucent than braided line. The hooks can be any brand and size as long as they are small, sharp and very strong as I have had Sheephead bite straight through light hooks. As far as the weight goes, I like to use reusable 1/8th or 1/16th oz. lead split shot as I can tailor the weight of the line to the swiftness of the current, depth and desired sensitivity by adding or subtracting the number of split shot on the line. When I fish the deeper or faster moving waters, I use lead egg sinkers ranging from ½ to 2 oz. I tend to find that the more weight I use, the less sensitive the line is, inhibiting me from feeling the very light bite of the Sheephead. This is why I like to use as little weight as I can while still getting the depth and maintaining the parallel of my line and the structure.
As for bait, the Sheephead feed on bivalves and crustaceans so these are excellent choices. I have heard of anglers catching these fish on shrimp, clams, baby stone and blue crabs, and even collard greens as the greens resemble seaweed. All of these are good choices, however I have always had the best luck with fiddler crabs. I have often topped them with oysters, which was the bait of choice for my personal best Sheephead of 6 ½ lbs. Fiddler crabs are very easy to procure by going to your local tackle shop and buying a pint or three, depending on your ability to avoid getting robbed by the Convicts. I like to catch my own fiddlers by walking into the saltmarsh at low tide and chasing them around, scooping them up with my hands and depositing them into a bucket with some extra mud and grass. On a good day, I can get three pints in about half an hour saving myself upwards of $30 and the time and gas to go to the tackle shop.
When it comes time to actually catch the fish, I poke the hook through the belly of the crab, pushing it up through the back so the tip of the hook is slightly exposed. You should always have twice the amount of bait you think you will need because once you get into a mess of Sheephead, the last thing you want to do is run out of bait!
Everyone has their own technique for catching these fish as they are very crafty and can be finicky depending on the tide, amount of food in the water, water temperature, barometric pressure, etc. My personal favorite way to fish for them is to find some good structure, with a moving but not extremely fast current, chum the water, drop a hook down and wait. When I drop the line down, I try to keep it as straight up and down as I can, getting it as close to the structure as possible while not getting it stuck on the oysters and barnacles. I drop the line all the way down until I feel the bottom, then raise it up a few inches slowly bobbing my rod up and down in order to feel the bite.
The bite of a Sheephead is very slight as they use their teeth to crush the crab then devour it once it is in pieces and off the hook. The hardest part about Sheephead fishing is not finding the fish; it is knowing when you have found them. These are some very sneaky fish and will steal your bait leaving you bobbing an empty hook up and down without you ever realizing it. An experienced Sheephead angler will tell you that the best piece of advice for a successful catch is to “set the hook before they bite”. Once you start pulling up empty hooks with just bits of shell hanging on by a thread, you will understand the wisdom of this advice.
Sheephead are crafty fish, and can be a very discouraging species to target until you get the feel for the bite. It can be rather disheartening to come home with an empty bait bucket and only one or two fish in the cooler, however, do not fret as you are gaining valuable experience and knowledge each time you go out. One last tip of advice would be to record the details of every trip in your Fish Journal noting the tide, location, water temperature, weather conditions, time of day, and as many other particulars you can get. Having all of this information will help you to notice trends and be able to determine when and where to fish depending on the conditions. As with any fishing venture, patience and persistence is key as they are a very tricky fish to learn to catch.
Good luck and remember to “set the hook before they bite!”