© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002
You'll find convicts hanging around the bay bridges. You'll find them lurking around the local fishing piers. Sheepshead are the convict fish because of their distinct black-and-white-striped sides.
Winter in west central Florida is the perfect time for sheepshead fishing. Roe-laden females converge on just about every barnacle-encrusted piece of structure and are easy pickings for landlubbers.
Well, somewhat easy.
Sheepshead may be plentiful, but they are by no means easy to catch. They can suck the bait off a hook without an angler feeling it.
One of an angler's best advantages is a braided fishing line. Barnacle-laden structures can cut monofilament lines. Braids, on the other hand, are more abrasion-resistant. Braided lines will saw through barnacles. The only concern is when the line goes up against the sharp edge of an oyster shell. That will do it in, but it will do in mono more quickly. Another reason braids are superior is they do not stretch. Thus the sensitivity is greater, which means an angler will be able to feel the sheepshead's famous light bite. Finally, the diameter of braids is much smaller than mono, but the line has greater strength. A 30-pound braid has a diameter equivalent to 8-pound mono. For example, a reel with capacity for 8-, 10- or 12-pound line can handle up to a 30- or even 50-pound braid. With heavier line it is easier to yank fish away from structure.
Circle hooks are another benefit for sheepshead fishing. Small yet strong circle hooks are readily available. Regular or J-style hooks have to be set by a quick yank on the rod to get a positive connection. When a fish inhales a circle hook, it usually ends up in the gullet area. When the rod is lifted, the hook slides, and it is that change in angle that makes the circle hook work. Most fish are hooked in the corner of the mouth, making removal easier.
One of the best tools for finding sheepshead is an underwater camera system. It's portable so you can carry it to any bridge, pier or seawall. It comes with 120 feet of cable attached to the camera lens so it can be lowered to where the fish are holding. The camera lens is weighted and has a stabilizer, so it will stay in place while checking out the area or bottom. Its wide-angle lens captures fish doing what comes natural, and the 3-by-4-inch monitor screen is bright and contrasted, making it easy to view. The unit also comes with a sunscreen, making viewing easier on sunny days. Another accessory is an extendable pole on which to mount the camera. Lower it to view whatever interests you.
None of this is any good without the right bait. Sheepshead will hit a variety of baits, including shrimp, crabs, mussels, barnacles, tube worms and oysters. Most can be harvested easily at low tide on most mud flats.
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