I’m starting to get excited. It’s almost that time of year for the return of those notorious bait-stealing fish we call sheepshead. I know it’s a little early, but they were in thick early last year and I’ve been getting good reports and seeing a few. So I’d like to share some of my favorite baits and gear along with a few tips to target these tasty critters.
The sheepshead we catch in Southwest Florida gather up to spawn in our Harbor every winter. This striped critter got it name because its teeth resemble that of a sheep. If you were freshwater fisherman up north, you may remember a fish from back home called a sheephead. That’s a freshwater drum, and it’s not the fish we’re talking about. Our sheepshead (notice the extra “S”) is a member of the porgy family and can reach sizes up to 20 pounds, though 2 to 4 is more typical.
When the water starts cooling in mid-October, my favorite place to look for sheepshead is the nearshore artificial reefs. These fish usually stage on the reefs first before they move into the Harbor. A good example is Mary’s Reef, which is only 3 miles out of Boca Grande Pass. Coordinates are readily available on most charts and pre-programmed into many GPS units.
This fish’s favorite foods are crustaceans and mollusks: Barnacles, small crabs, oysters, shrimp, etc. My favorite bait is fiddler crabs. You can also use shrimp, but be aware that all the small fish on the reef are more prone to hit the shrimp, so you’ll probably go through a lot of bait. Crab-flavored Fishbites is a productive artificial bait.
When I’m fishing the reefs, I like 20-pound braid with a 5-foot 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and a half-ounce 1/0 jighead. The reason I like the jighead is because the weight is attached to the hook, so as soon as the fish hits you feel it. That’s very important with these fish, because if you’re not quick to set the hook, guess what? Your bait is gone.
My favorite rod and reel set up is a Penn Clash 3000 on a 7.5-foot Star Stellar Lite 6-12. This rod has a fast tip which allows you to feel the bite. Drop your bait directly into the structure, and when you feel a tap, set the hook.
As soon as the fish move into the Harbor, I start looking for these toothy fish around the Placida trestle, the old phosphate docks, and the private boat docks around Boca Grande. Now when these fish move into these areas, I like to position my boat upcurrent from the structure so my bait will drift under the structure I’m targeting.
I prefer a braid that floats so I can let it lay on the surface and watch for the line to twitch. As soon as it does, I reel the slack and set the hook. I’m still using a the same setup I described earlier, except now I’m casting to the structure instead of dropping down vertically.
Make sure you target all areas of the dock. Start at the back corner and work all the way out to the front, even casting out in front of the dock. Be sure to let your bait drift all the way under the dock before reeling in.
Later in the season, sheepshead will move into the canals in the Punta Gorda area. Fish them here just like any other docks. When I’m searching the canals, I like to target the docks with the most barnacles. If you own a dock, you can scrape the barnacles off and use them for chum. Obviously, don’t scrape anywhere you don’t have permission. They’ll also show up around the U.S. 41 bridges, El Jobean and Alligator Creek Reef. Vertically present your baits to the fish in these areas.
If you have any questions, remember I am available at Fishin’ Frank’s. And remember to get your kids hooked on fishing so they won’t be able to afford drugs.
Capt. Steve “Pegleg” Phillips owns and operates Southern Charm Charters, with his wife Heather as occasional first mate. If you’re wondering why his friends call him Pegleg, stop in at Fishin’ Frank’s and meet him. For charter info, contact him at 678-787-4750 or through his Facebook page at https://bit.ly/2vesgVn.