Sheepshead are tough fish to catch. The average angler probably feeds 20 for every one he hooks, so don’t get frustrated if you’re having a hard time with them. Everybody does — at first. Let’s look at some things that may help you get the pointy end into more sheepie lips.
REALLY BAD ADVICE: You have to set the hook before a sheepshead bites. Nah — that’s a load of bunkus. Sometimes you’ll hear this from other fishermen, and they’ll have an explanation that it’s the only way to hook one in the lip. But people trying to follow this advice end up fishless and baitless almost every time. Instead, you’re better off keeping a taut line and not overreacting. When you feel a tap, just reel. If you feel weight at the end of the line, lift the rodtip and reel more because you just hooked one.
YOU DON’T NEED FIDDLER CRABS: I know a lot of good fishermen who would disagree, but let’s examine where fiddler crabs live: On the sand. Sheepshead don’t go onto dry land to chase them down. Now, they do eat other types of small crabs that live in the water. But they also feed on lots of other things, like aquatic worms, barnacles, small oysters and other hard-shelled critters, any of which can be used for bait. As fiddler crabs get harder to find and more expensive to buy, maybe consider switching.
A BETTER BAIT CHOICE: Shrimp are high on the list of a sheepshead’s favorite foods, and they’re far easier (and cheaper) to get than fiddlers. Live shrimp are readily accepted and work very well when you choose the smaller sizes at the bait shop. If you keep getting robbed, try a piece of peeled shrimp meat about the size of your thumbnail. Let it dry for a few minutes before putting it on the hook — it will be tougher to steal.
USE THE RIGHT HOOKS: Small hooks will generally catch more sheepshead. I can’t really explain the mechanics of why they work better, but years of collective experience show it to be true. I have two favorites: The No. 2 Mustad 92671 gold, which I have used for many years, and the Owner Mutu Light offset circle in a No. 2 or 4. You like a different hook? OK. I won’t argue. Use what you like — as long as it’s working for you. If you’re missing fish, try one of my suggestions and see if that helps.
KEEP THAT LINE TIGHT: I have found a porgy rig (whether tied into the line or rigged with a three-way swivel) to be far more productive for catching sheepshead. When you’re fishing this way, you have constant tension on the line and you can feel every tap and nibble. The traditional sliding sinker rig works just fine for getting the bait down to the fish, but there’s enough slack that your hook can easily be stripped before you have a chance to react.
WHERE YOU FISH MATTERS: Why is it so much easier (for me, anyway) to catch them around mangroves and oyster bars than it is to hook them around pilings and docks? It seems to me that their aggression level is much higher when they’re eating around the oysters or mangrove roots than when they’re nibbling barnacles around the pilings. Maybe when they’re not cruising pilings they’re forced to compete more with the snapper and other fish, so they have to eat faster. I’ll need some underwater footage to really figure this one out.
GET IN CLOSE: If you’re not occasionally getting hung up in the rocks and shells, you’re probably not fishing close enough to the structure. Sheepies like to be right up in the stuff, since that’s where they’re feeding. Sure, you’ll see some in more open water, such as on the grassflats (where they sometimes tail just like redfish, believe it or not) and in the surf. But for the most part, you need to get your bait where it’s in danger of getting snagged. This is another reason to use that porgy rig.
Armed with these tips, you’re going to become a sheepshead slayer overnight. Well, probably not. This is a fish that takes practice and experience, even when you understand what they’re doing and what you should be doing. Try to remember that every bait they steal just means they’ll be that much fatter and more delicious when you finally do catch a few. Good luck!
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.