It’s rare that I write a column about a single fish species. In most of my writings I include several, especially when there are so many different varieties to go after in Southwest Florida. But this time around I want to talk specifically about sheepshead.
Our area had one of the most devastating red tide events we’ve seen in many, many years, just over a year ago. It caused the closure until May of 2020 of three much sought after species: snook, redfish and seatrout. The first two, snook and reds, have actually rebounded quite well and I believe the shutdown of harvesting them by anglers has been very positive. The seatrout population seems a bit slower to recover, yet it is most certainly doing better that it was just a few months ago.
Seatrout is a mainstay for anglers in the winter months. It’s generally easy to target, even by novice anglers, and provides a decent fight and can be prepared a number of ways for the dinner table. The seatrout closure this winter puts a bit of a pinch on inshore anglers, thus my article focusing on the lowly sheepshead.
Actually the sheepie, as locals like to call it, is anything but lowly. It can be quite the fighter when hooked and is one the best bait stealers of all fish. It’s also delicious. I’d put its delicate white flaky meat up against other more revered fish species like snapper.
Large sheepshead start moving nearshore and into our bays for spawn in early November. They’ll usually hang around until the waters start to warm back up in early March. Their diet consists mostly of small crabs, shrimp and barnacles. They’ll also eat tiny oysters. The best bait is a fiddler crab. Those are the small nickel sized crabs seen scurrying on mud flats as they try to get back to their holes in the mud when startled. Catching them can be quite the task, but not impossible. You just need to be quick.
Don’t worry, live shrimp works almost as well, but unfortunately is much easier for the sheepie to steal. About that bait stealing thing. They are really good at it. I’ve tried all kinds of methods to lessen the loss of bait, but it boils down to being diligent and setting the hook at just the right time. If you feel a bite set the hook earlier rather than later. My youngest daughter used to say, “Count to three and go on two.” From the mouth of babes…
Locating sheepshead isn’t all that difficult. They can be found under docks, along seawalls, near oyster bars and in deeper holes along mangrove shorelines. They also populate our nearshore fishing reefs found just a few miles off the beach. I like using a small hook, 1/0 will work, and a split-shot for weight. The fishing rod should have a fast tip to help set the hook. Keep the leader at about 20 pound test. This may seem a bit heavy for the task, but this will keep the break-off numbers down a bit when fishing around those sharp oysters.
The minimum size for sheepshead is 12 inches length overall and the bag limit was recently changed to 8 per person, per day. There is no closed season for sheepshead.
About the size limit. There isn’t much meat on a 12 to 13-inch sheepie, so I personally toss them back and only keep those over 14 inches. Once you start cleaning your catch you’ll totally understand why the smaller ones get released. Nothing dulls a fillet knife faster than the tough skin of a sheepshead.
Captain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman, retired spin & fly fishing guide and host of REEL Talk Radio on ESPN 99.3 FM every Saturday morning. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association.