St. Petersburg Times
tampabay.com

The sheepshead can be found in most gulf waters, inshore most of the year. February through April, they move to the gulf’s coastal waters to spawn. Inshore, look for them around bridges, sea walls, rock piles, channel markers and docks. Offshore during the spawn, they hang on the reefs and rock piles near the shore. Females start spawning at 4 years and spawn several times during the season, laying an average of 7,000 eggs per spawn.

GRAPHIC BY AMANDA RAYMOND • PHOTO BY MICHAEL RONDOU • TEXT BY DOUG HEMMER

RECIPES Sheepshead are somewhat difficult to clean, but it’s worth the effort. They are one of the best tasting local fish. When filleting, clean the sheepshead as you would a redfish or snook. Avoid the rib cage.
CAPT MEL’S BOILED SHEEPSHEAD
Cut fillets into chunks.

Boil them quickly in water seasoned with crab boil.

Remove them from the water and dip in drawn butter and lemon.

Tastes like lobster.

RITZ FRIED SHEEPSHEAD
1 cup milk
2 egg yolks
1 cup of seasoned flour (add salt and pepper to plain flour to make seasoned flour)
1 box Ritz crackers
2-3 lbs. sheepshead skinless fillets
1 qt. vegetable oil

Heat oil to 350 degrees in large pot. Whip the egg yolks into the milk, add salt and pepper to the flour and crush the crackers to a fine powder for breading. Cut the fillets into 2-inch-wide strips and drench them in flour until they are covered. Dip the strips into the egg and milk mixture. Then, place the fillets in the cracker crumbs and pat them with crumbs until they are covered. Drop them into oil and fry to a golden brown.

SHEEPSHEAD (Archosargus probatocephalus)
ALIASES Convict Fish, Bait Stealer
EATS mussels, crabs, shrimp, worms, barnacles, sponges and grass.
LAST SEEN Inshore waters or gulf coastal waters.

Regulations
Anglers say, ‘set the hook before they bite.’

Sheepshead have big teeth that look human and can crush barnacles and crabs with little to no trouble. With their big buck teeth, the ‘bait stealer’ can nibble a bait off your hook without you knowing.

MINIMUM SIZE is 12 inches, measured from the most forward point of the head to the rear center edge of the tail. Common weight is 1 to 7 lbs.
THE LIMIT is 15 fish per person per day. The fish must remain in whole condition until landed ashore (head and tail intact). Harvest is prohibited using any multiple hook with live or dead natural bait.
THE WORLD RECORD was 21 lbs., 4 oz. caught in 1982 in New Orleans by Wayne Desselle.


Tackle

HOOK: No.1 to 1/0. Short-shank hooks are the strongest.

LINE: 10-30 pound Braided lines help with abrasion, sensitivity and setting the hook.

LEADER: 20-40 pound

ROD: Medium action, 6-1/2 to 7-1/2 feet in length

WEIGHTS: Depends on the current and area. Use just enough weight to keep the bait in place. If you’re fishing from bridges or channel markers in a strong current, you may need a 1/2 to 3-ounce weight to keep the bait from drifting away from the piling. As the current slows, switch to a heavy split-shot. When the tide is slack, use a small split-shot or free line. Sea walls, docks and rock piles are best fished with the lightest weight or a free line.


Bait

SHRIMP Live or frozen shrimp can be found at most local bait shops. Live shrimp works best, but frozen shrimp can be used if live shrimp aren’t available.

ASIAN GREEN MUSSELS This exotic mussel came from southeast Europe in the ballast waters of cargo ships that dock in Tampa Bay. They can be found on bridge and dock pilings, channel markers, sea walls and shallow rock piles. They have a shiny dark finish and a dewdrop shape. You’ll need to shuck them to get the meat for your bait.

OYSTERS Use the meat inside the oyster. At low tide oyster bars are visible near mangrove islands. They can also be easily found on bridge pilings and rock piles.

CLAMS Known locally as littleneck or cherry stone clams, they can be found on the grass flats during medium to low tides. Most anglers find them by feeling on the bottom with a bare foot while wading. This often results in a cut foot, so clams are seldom used as bait.

FIDDLER CRABS Look on beaches for dime-size holes that indicate the presence of these little crabs. They can also be found under mangrove trees that grow off large bodies of land in areas like Fort Desoto.

PARCHMENT WORMS Known locally as ‘tube worms,’ they can be found littering the gulf beaches after a strong storm. They live inside a long white tube and can be coaxed out with a thin wire. They bite when handled, so the tube worm is seldom used as bait.


Technique

BRIDGES: Bridges can be fished using barnacles, cut shrimp, oysters, mussels or fiddler crabs. Always use barnacles as chum, regardless of which bait is used. Scrape the barnacles off the pilings toward the end of the tidal flow. There are more accessible barnacles at the end of the outgoing tide; higher tides tend to cover most barnacles. The movement of the tide will allow the scraped barnacles to drift back toward the other pilings, which should attract sheepshead to the area. As the tide slows, the barnacles will fall closer to the boat. The sheepshead will follow the chum, ending up under the boat. Use a small split-shot when the tide is moving. When the tide goes slack, switch to a free line or a very small split-shot.

DOCKS: Dice a few handfuls of fresh shrimp and toss them around the docks pilings. The smell will lure the sheepshead into a school and start them feeding. Set a small chunk of shrimp onto a No.1 hook and, using a free line, cast through the feeding area. When your line moves, set the hook.

ROCK PILES: Use the same technique as dock fishing, but stand upcurrent of the rocks. The shrimp will drift back to the front of the rocks and lure sheephead to your side of the rock pile.

SEA WALLS: This technique can be somewhat more difficult. The angler needs to locate the sheepshead along a sea wall without being seen by the fish. In most cases, he is fishing from land. Use a good pair of polarized glasses, and lean over the sea wall. Look for sheepshead feeding on the wall. Cast a free-lined chunk of shrimp as close as you can without spooking them.

Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, rodnreel.com, Tampa Bay Estuary Program, IGFA. Recipe by Captain Mel.