Snare the sheep

Published January 27, 2007

I was getting frustrated, and I wasn't alone. During a trip to the shallow rock piles skirting the Hernando County coastline, my boat mates and I targeted the hordes of sheepshead that had gathered for their winter spawn.

This scene attracts some of the area's biggest fish. That means a high level of sporting opportunity, but also a high level of experience.

With their incessant nibbling, sheepshead are challenging at any size. But these wily winter hefties were making me doubt my skill in the angling arts.

Armed with 7-foot, medium-action spinning outfits, we fished live shrimp on 2/0 hooks. To reach the bottom in 6 to 8 feet of water, we used ounce egg sinkers rigged above the swivel connecting main line to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.

This is normally an effective rig for sheepshead, but a peppy current was complicating the operation by rolling our weights into tight crevices that confiscated the whole deal more than once.

On top of that, the swift water was making it difficult to respond quickly enough to a sheepshead's quick-strike tactics.

My moment of epiphany came a few minutes after I had abandoned my sheepshead rig to probe the outlying waters for speckled trout. To fit this new focus, I tied on a 1/8-ounce jig with a soft plastic jerk bait.

I fared no better with this pursuit, but when my fellow anglers lucked into a sudden rally of sheepshead activity, I found myself unprepared to join the fun.

Not to be denied, I removed the jerk bait, slipped a shrimp tail-first onto the bare jig head and pitched it toward a promising corner of the rock pile. Almost immediately, I felt that familiar twitching and then a stiff tug. I responded with a sharp hook set and reeled the day's biggest sheepshead - a 5-pounder - into the landing net.

The key was keeping the bait and weight close together. This not only helped me avoid entanglement, it improved my response ability. When the fish pulled, there was no delay and I looked like I knew what I was doing.

I'd like to claim that as an original idea, but I'd be lying. Nevertheless, the next time sheepshead give you fits with a standard sinker rig, try streamlining your presentation.

Tip: Braided line helps, too. Optimal sensitivity ensures that you feel every nibble, while a braid's no-stretch composition means instant response.

Up the creek

If you don't feel like riding out to the rock piles, you can find plenty of smaller sheepshead in coastal creeks. The same rigs you'd use offshore work in the backwaters, but you can replace the egg sinkers with split shots for shallow habitat.

If you prefer artificials, 1/16- to 1/32-ounce jigs with dark colored tails do a good job of imitating the crustaceans that sheepshead seek. Small tube jigs excel here, as their fringed skirts resemble wiggling legs that make a sheepshead believe he's found dinner.

Oyster bars represent prime sheepshead feeding stations, and a stealthy approach will enable you to capitalize on the attraction. Anchor off the bar and fish around the structure, focusing attention on the areas adjacent to deeper water.

Sheepshead and other predators will move closer to oyster bars as the rising tide allows. If you're the patient type, you might consider nosing up to the structure and dropping anchor. As the tide advances, the fish should come to you.

Be careful when approaching shell bottom to avoid hull damage. Likewise, ramming your boat into the shells will damage the oyster colony and that's an environmental no-no.

With large oyster bars, or those mingled with rocky bottom, you can hop out and stalk your sheepshead on foot. Wading boots are all you'll need, as you'll rarely tread more than shin-deep.

Keep your movement low and slow to avoid spooking the fish. Fly rods work well in this scenario by enabling you to engage distant fish with a nearly silent presentation. Crab and shrimp patterns are the no-brainers for sheepshead.

Long spinning rods and light braided line - 8-to-10-pound - also allows for extensive casts, especially with small jigs. Cast a few yards past the fish, so the splash doesn't send them packing. Gently sneak your lure within range and hop it along the bottom to imitate a fleeing crab or shrimp.

Pain prevention

However you approach sheepshead, you'll want to handle your catch with care. Their reputation is far from brazen, but make no mistake - these fish can hurt you.

First, look at those stout teeth. They're nothing like the intimidating daggers lining the mouths of kingfish, Spanish mackerel or bluefish, but these little grinders are made for cracking shells, so they'll turn your fingers into hamburger if given the chance.

Avoid this by using needle nose pliers or long-handle hook pluckers to retrieve your rig.

The sheepshead's other hazard sprouts from its back. Stout, pointy spines resembling sharpened knitting needles stand erect when the fish is startled. Hapless handling will result in painful pokes, so watch how you grip your fish.

Lastly, even a deceased sheepshead can assert itself by presenting one of the sea's toughest hides. If you're used to the soft, delicate flanks of speckled trout, you're in for a rude awakening with sheepshead.

Some compare the task of cleaning these fish to cutting shoe leather. You'll need to sharpen your blade after each sheepshead, but this fish's mild, white filets justify the effort.