Ever notice how some guys catch lots of sheepshead and others just catch a couple here and there? Ever wonder why that is? You may not believe it, but there is definitely a fine art to consistently putting good numbers of the infamous bait-stealing sheepshead in your cooler.
Sheepshead are not truly considered a gamefish like a snook or redfish, probably because of their relatively smaller size and the fact that they don’t rip off 20 yards of line after you sink a hook in ‘em. But in the winter months, I’ll bet more anglers fish for sheepies than both snook and redfish combined.
And why not? They’re a blast to catch, you can keep enough to feed your whole family (eight per harvester per day), and they’re absolutely delicious! I personally would take a plate of fried sheepshead over redfish, snook or grouper any day of the week, no matter how you cooked them up.
The biggest drawback to these delicious striped porgies is that they’re a pain in the butt to clean — that, and the fact they can sometimes cause people to use inappropriate language as they try to set the hook over and over and lose bait after bait. Trust me, they are some bait-stealing fools.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people use a standard fishfinder rig when trying to catch sheepshead. The fishfinder rig is a lead weight above a swivel with 18 to 24 inches of leader and the hook below. The reason this rig is not so good for sheepshead is that you really can’t feel the fish chewing on your bait.
Sheepshead don’t grab a bait and take off with it like a lot of other fish. They just swim up lazy-like and start chewing on it. By the time you feel him chewing, he’s already stolen your bait. Just watch a sheepshead around a piling chomping on the barnacles — he just sits in one place and chews away. That’s what he is doing to your shrimp, crab or sand flea.
I attach my baits to quarter-ounce jigheads. I prefer shrimp over any other bait, but that’s just because I like to make fishing simple. I bite the tail fan off and thread the shrimp on the jig tail-first, with the hook coming out where the legs are. This kind of hides the jighead in the shrimp, which I feel is a more natural presentation.
Fishing with a jighead allows you to feel the bite immediately. The trick is to not set the hook as soon as you feel the bite. Instead, pull back slowly until the rod starts to bend. If you set the hook right off the bat, you’ll just pull the hook out of his mouth, leaving the bait behind. Pulling back slowly makes the sheepie follow the bait, and seeing as he doesn’t want dinner to get away he will take a more aggressive approach and actually attack the bait — then it’s, “Fish on!”
Jigheads ain’t cheap, so you can also make your standard hook into a jighead by attaching a small splitshot weight just below the hook’s eye. Attach your bait just like you would on a jighead and hold on.
Another rig that works pretty well is the knocker rig, which is a small egg sinker that is placed on the main line above the hook. The sinker will rest on your hook when you cast, but when you reach bottom the sinker will stay on the bottom and you can let out line so your bait floats away from it. This also makes for a direct fish-to-rodtip connection, which allows you to feel the bite better and will allow you to catch more fish instead of just feed them.
Capt. Mike Myers, owner and operator of Reelshark Charters, is a full-time Charlotte Harbor guide, and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Having fished the waters all along the Southwest Florida coast for more than 40 years, he has the experience to put anglers on the fish they want. His specialties are sharks, tarpon and the nearshore Gulf waters. For more info, visit ReelShark.com or call Capt. Mike at 941-416-8047.