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Big Bend Florida Sportsman Guide

Fishing Tactics


By Capt. Ken Roy

Itís that time of year again. Inshore water temperature is down in the lower 50ís, too low for a good Grouper bite. Now you have three options. Stay home and watch TV and do "honey doos," run way off shore to deeper water in search of Grouper, or get out and catch a bunch of Sheepshead.

Sheepshead donít seem to be affected by the low water temperatures we are experiencing right now. Sheepshead are headed to offshore rocks, wrecks, and artificial reef for their annual spawning activities. At this time of year, they bite with little caution and arenít too choosy about what they eat. Crabs, sea worms, sand fleas or fresh shrimp all seem to get the same number of bites so I always opt for shrimp because they are easy to get and easy to use.

Perhaps the easiest fishing of all will be at the older artificial reefs. There may be a thousand or more Sheepshead congregated over one rubble pile. I have seen hundreds around the Steel Tower off Cedar Key and CFBC Marker #3 off Yankeetown. Then there are the secret spots like the old tripod marker lying down off Yankeetown and several little known shallow water wrecks. Some old trap piles load up too. The trap piles are closely guarded secret honeyholes. Some of the spring holes will have Sheepshead, big Mangrove Snapper and an occasional Grouper that will bite in the warmer water but, with the low water temperature this year, donít count too heavily on Grouper for a whil! e.

I generally use baitcasting tackle or spinning rods. Twelve to twenty pound test line is adequate for any Sheepshead because they fight fair, not trying to head into a hole like Grouper. Yes, you are cut off occasionally but it is most often an accident where you hook a Sheepshead after your line has drifted behind some object that is covered with sharp marine growth like barnacles. The lighter tackle makes Sheepshead fishing a lot of fun for everybody. Last year one of my clients caught a Sheepie that weighed 14#10oz. That sucker was a handful on light spinning gear.

Rigging is mighty simple too. I use just enough sinker to hold my bait near bottom without letting it drift too far behind the boat with the current. Sinker weight will vary with the current flow. On slow tide days around the First Quarter and Last Quarter Moon I can use 1/4-1/2 oz. As the tide picks up speed around the New and Full Moon, I sometimes have to use as much as 2 oz. to keep my bait close to straight down. Egg sinkers are the sinker style of choice. I simply slide an egg sinker up my line and crimp a "Wavy Grip" sinker below it to serve as a stop rather than using a swivel. I do not see any reason to use a leader. Sheepshead have crushing teeth rather than cutting teeth so a leader is not really needed.

I generally use a #1-1/0 Mustad Sheepshead hook. These hooks are short shanked, heavy wire hooks, designed to withstand the strong jaws and crushing teeth of Sheepshead. I tie the hook to the end of the line with a simple Clinch Knot. It doesnít get any easier than this.

The rigging I have described thus far differs very little from what everybody else uses for Sheepshead. Some folks opt for a swivel and leader but that complicates the rig, slows down re-rigging in case of a break-off and adds an unnecessary expense. Here is where I do something that I have never seen anybody else do. I buy 1/2" hot orange "Craft Pom-Pom" balls and run my hook through them then glue them in place with "Super Glue." These "Craft Pom-Poms" absorb some of the shrimp scent and Sheepshead hang on longer, allowing you to set the hook to set easier.

I always peel my shrimp and cut it into chunks rather than pinching or tearing it. A piece 1/2-3/4" long is adequate. I cut a dozen or so live shrimp at a time so that it stays fresh. Simply hook a piece on and drop it to the bottom and reel up a couple of feet. Place the rod in the holder. Forget what you heard about Sheepshead being sneaky biters. With the Pom-Pom Ball, they hook themselves darn near every time with the rod in the holder.

You will need a dip net for the larger Sheepshead. Smaller ones are simply lifted aboard. Their scales are hard enough that gaffing isnít easy unless you make a small gaff with a super sharp hook.

Sheepshead are the best eating fish we catch around here. It is mighty easy to fill a cooler this time of the year but stop to consider that the fish you are targeting offshore are there to spawn. When you kill one, you also kill untold thousands of potential Sheepshead. The limit is 15 Sheepshead per person and I personally think that this is far too many. Five should be a gracious plenty. Catch a hundred if you want to but release them for tomorrow.

Sheepshead fishing is fun fishing. The work comes when you start to fillet them. I filleted 39 once last year along with 9 Grouper. That took a mighty long time. You wonít keep limits but once if you have to clean them yourself.



sheepshead fishing tactics from big bend florida sportsman guide

Family Sparidae, PORGIES
Archosargus probatocephalus

Description: basic silvery color; with 5 or 6 distinct vertical black bands on sides, not always the same on both sides; prominent teeth, including incisors, molars, and rounded grinders; no barbels on lower jaw; strong and sharp spines on dorsal and anal fins.

Similar Fish: black drum, Pogonias cromis; Atlantic spadefish, Chaetodipterus (black drum have barbels on lower jaw, sheepshead do not; vertical barring on sides of black drum and spadefish disappear as fish mature; spadefish have small, brush-like teeth).

Where found: INSHORE species around oyster bars, seawalls and in tidal creeks; moves NEARSHORE in late winter and early spring for spawning, gathering over debris, artificial reefs and around navigation markers.

Size: INSHORE, 1 to 2 pounds; OFFSHORE, common to 8 pounds.

*Florida Record: 12 lbs., 2 ozs.

Remarks: feeds on mollusks and crustaceans such as fiddler crabs and barnacles; famed nibblers, prompting the saying that "anglers must strike just before they bite."

* The Florida records quoted are from the Department of Environmental Protection's printed publication, Fishing Lines and are not necessarily the most current ones. The records are provided as only as a benchmark.


Min. Size Limits: 12"

Closed Seasons: None.

Daily Rec. Bag Limit:  15 per person per day.

Remarks:  Measured from the most forward point of the head to the rear center edge of the tail.