The bait thieves are out, and they are out in full numbers. Sheepshead are everywhere, and this is the time of year to catch them. There are a lot of different tactics and baits you can use for catching sheepshead. With the water temperature down around 65 degrees, these fish are fired up and on a feeding frenzy.
Where’s the best place to to find sheepshead? Almost any canal will have them, as long as there are docks and lots of barnacles. But you are going to find a lot more large fish towards the Intracoastal. Most of the big ones live offshore and move in this time of year and gather up. You can catch big sheepshead in the Harbor too, but you’ll have to weed through a lot of shorts.
Sheepies also hang out around all our inshore reefs, but a lot of the time you will have to get through all the other fish to get to them. Since sheepshead mostly crunch barnacles and oysters, they’re not the fastest predators. More aggressive fish like snappers and grunts will often quickly pounce on baits meant for sheepshead. That’s not a bad thing — those fish are fun to catch and also good to eat — but it can add to your frustration when you’re trying to catch big stripey fish.
Once everyone realizes the sheepshead bite is on and the docks start getting too much pressure from fishermen, I love targeting big ones on oyster beds. Not many people fish oyster beds for the sheepshead, but these fish love hanging around them.
My bait of choice is shrimp — not a whole shrimp, but just enough to go on my hook. I find that if I put a whole shrimp on the hook, they usually grab the part where the hook isn’t, and then it’s all-you-can-eat buffet for them. So I put on a shrimp chunk just big enough to cover the hook.
Fishbites, which is a natural bait substitute that doesn’t need refrigeration, works very well for sheepshead. The bloodworm and shrimp flavors are my favorites. Cut little pieces or strips and fish them in the same areas that you would throw shrimp — you’ll be surprised how well they work.
I don’t like to time them or try and set hook on them. I just wait for the line to start tightening up. When the line is getting pulled, then I get them. You’re still going to miss some fish (they’re really, really good at stealing bait), but it will help get a better hookup ratio on them.
Fiddler crabs work very well too, but I prefer shrimp. Fiddlers have hard shells, and the way sheepshead eat them is different than the way they eat shrimp. My method doesn’t work as well with a hard-shelled bait, so you can keep ‘em.
Lot of anglers prefer to use small hooks for sheepshead. I use a 1/0. Yes, it’s a lot harder to hook the sheepshead, but when I’m targeting them we’ll catch a lot of other fish — redfish, snook, black drum — and a No. 4 hook just won’t hold up to those fish as well. Remember where there are sheepshead, there are other bigger fish, and it pays to be ready for them. Lately we have been catching a lot of redfish mixed in with the sheepshead.
I try to use the smallest weight that will keep my bait where it needs to be. If you use a weight that’s too big, you won’t feel the hits as well. I’m always changing my weights to suit the current flow wherever I am.
Get out there and take advantage of them being around in large groups right now. Don’t get mad at them for eating all your bait — it’s going to happen. Just use less for them to grab on to so they’ll be more likely to get the hook. And please remember that the bag limit on sheepshead is now eight per person, not the 15 it used to be.
Capt. Karl Butigian lives, breathes and eats Florida fishing. He owns and operates KB Back Country Charters (KBBackCountryChartersFishing.com) on the waters of Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. To book a trip or for info, call him at 941-565-7325.