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Sheepshead take turn as the star of the season

By ED WALKER
Published January 13, 2007


A return to more typical January conditions has thrown a wet blanket on some of the exciting flats fishing experienced before the sudden drop in temperatures. Last week's offseason snook rally likely is over and the rare schools of winter sardines have moved offshore.

This does not mean there is no good fishing available. Anglers must simply adjust back to normal winter species and tactics.

One of the most notable targets this time of year is the sheepshead. This much maligned member of the drum family becomes more prolific along the coast and offshore from now until March. This is spawning season and the biggest of all the sheepshead come from under bridges and docks, far stretches of the upper rivers and creeks, and even brackish water.

At first they begin to congregate near the mouths of channels, canals or rivers. Then they move out to the open gulf where they stack up over rock formations and artificial reefs. As more and more potential spawners arrive at these locations the schools can become enormous.

It is not uncommon to see several hundred sheepshead of varying sizes milling around and suspended above a single piece of structure. Grouper fishermen often find themselves scratching their heads when they pull up to their favorite spot, mark a giant show of fish on the depth recorder but get no bites.

Since sheepshead seldom eat fish or squid, an angler can soak a live pinfish or cut bait in the middle of 200 of them and catch nothing. This is why grouper diggers should carry fiddler crabs or fresh shrimp when running offshore right now. When the depth recorder shows fish but they won't bite a grouper bait, sending a crustacean down might help fill the cooler. Crabs are the preferred bait since few other fish eat them. Shrimp are a distant second because while they do draw strikes from sheepshead, they get nibbled by grunts, spots and other small fish.

Tackle for offshore sheepshead fishing should be a 15- to 20-pound class rod and reel rigged with the smallest sinker that will reach and hold the bottom vertically. On most days this means 2 to 3 ounces. Leaders should be made of 25- to 30-pound test fluorocarbon and tied to a small, short-shank hook. Since the fish have relatively small mouths and are famous for the way they nibble rather than gulp their food, larger hooks are less effective.

Position the boat directly over the school of fish and lower your bait to the bottom. With the sinker resting on rock or sand, hold the line taut and set the hook at the first hint of a bite. If you miss, your bait is probably gone so reel up and try again. Once you get the touch, hooking them is fairly easy.

The daily bag limit for sheepshead is 15 per person with a minimum size of 12 inches. The minimum size limit however is seldom a factor when fishing offshore. Most of the sheepshead here are big. Six-pounders are common and some tip the scales past the 10-pound mark.

Once properly filleted, which can take a while, the meat is firm and white. On the bigger fish, trim off the red meat found on the skin side of the fillets before frying or blackening on an iron skillet.