Sheepshead Fish - How to Catch

October 15, 2020
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The sheepshead fish, also known as the striped bandit, is a popular wintertime inshore fishing species along the southern Atlantic coast. They eat oysters, clams, barnacles, and crustaceans, making them difficult to catch. They spawn during the cooler months, with larger fish being more prevalent during December-February. Aim for larger fish for better meat.

The sheepshead fish or striped bandit is a wintertime inshore fishing mainstay for many anglers along the southern Atlantic coast down around Florida and up into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a great eating fish, due primarily to a diet that consists of oysters, clams, and other bivalves, barnacles, fiddler crabs, and other crustaceans. The striped bandit nickname comes from their craftiness at stealing your bait. It has a hard mouth, with several rows of stubby teeth that have a strange human teeth appearance. They use their hard mouth and teeth to crush the shells of prey. It is the way they eat that makes them a tad more difficult to hook. They mash their prey with their hard teeth and then spit it out, before sucking it back in, and they will do this several times before engulfing the food. This process helps get rid of the hard shell that most of their everyday food has. So, when you feel that peck and go to set the hook and whiff, they have probably already spit your bait out. If you understand how they eat prey, you are well down the road to knowing how to catch sheepshead.

As fall transitions into winter and the water starts to cool, sheepshead will move onto structure to begin their spawn. The cooler the water gets, the more aggressive the fish seem to get. On the Gulf coast, December thru February are great times to bag this scrumptious fish. They are already showing up, but the bigger fish will become more prevalent as the water cools more. Pay attention to you moon phase, when considering going after this striped bandit. Bigger tidal movements really get the bite going, so look for big tides around the new and full moons.

Since sheepshead have a rather large boney rib section, you really want bigger fish to get enough meet to matter. I know in Florida fish have to be over 12 inches to keep, but you should really aim for larger fish, as you will not get much meat off a 12-13 inch fish.

Sheepshead are a structure oriented fish, very much like snapper. You will find them around bridges, pilings, dock, jetties, rock piles and reefs. They will hold really tight to whatever structure they are orienting to, so you will need to get your presentations in close. Different structure will aggregate different types of food. Within the realm of what sheepshead fish eat, like bivalves and crustaceans, such as shrimp, sand fleas, clams, fiddler crabs, and mussels, what is the best bait for sheepshead fishing? I have heard a lot of fishermen from various places talk about good baits, but the one common thread among all these baits is shrimp. Live shrimp will always catch sheepshead fish. The trick is you are going to have to get your bait close to the structure. If you are off a few feet, you may not get bites, unless the fish are really on the chew. Boat positioning and bait placement are essential points of focus.

You can easily fish docks, jetties and bridges from land, so a boat is not necessary. You just have to know where to present your baits, to take advantage of any water movement. Current and tides will move your baits, so make your cast with the idea that it is going to move towards where the fish are holding. In a boat, you want to anchor on the up-current side of the structure and not boat over or get too close to the structure. Use the current of tide to sweep your baits towards the structure and try not to let if drift over and past it. You can get hung up this way.

Going back to the way sheepshead eat, with the smash, spit, suck routine, you will have to let the fish take the bait before you go to set the hook. You will feel a peck, peck and then a little weight. At that point, crank down. Since this fish has a relatively small mouth, your hook needs to be on the smaller side. These fish are not upper water column dwellers, so you should try and get your baits down. Using some type of weight, like you would with a knocker rig or a jig head works well. You only need enough weight to get the bait down, so don't over do it. If there is stronger water movement, you may have to use more weight. Just remember, with more weight comes less sensitivity. You may not feel that pecking as much. An eight to a quarter ounce jig head is ideal.

If you want to learn in-depth techniques and more about baits, sheepshead rigs, tackle, conditions and how long to stay on a spot, check out our sheepshead fishing videos. We offer comprehensive instruction on how to catch sheepshead with some outstanding inshore fishing anglers.

Seth Horne


In The Spread

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