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Understanding Winter Sheepshead

Phillip Gentry

fisherman with sheepshead


Anglers familiar with coastal fishing around the eastern, southern, and Gulf of Mexico states are more than familiar with sheepshead. Often dubbed “panfish of the sea,” sheepshead are readily available to anglers fond of fishing structure in the estuaries, bays, harbors, and waterways where the fish reside, particularly during the summer seasons and have salvaged many a fishing trip when redfish, trout, or flounder were not in the mood to bite.

Two features make sheepshead easily recognizable, the first being bands of dark stripes against a silverly white body and the second being a mouth full of almost human looking teeth, albeit in bad need of a good dentist. These two elements have also garnered the fish the handle “convict fish” because of the striped uniform and the teeth used to pick hooks clean with little or no notice given to the angler above.

Fishing for sheepshead during the winter was relatively unheard of as little as two decades ago. One reason is a lull of recreational anglers to the coast in cooler months and the other is these fish migrate out, although not all at the same time, to gather and eventually spawn on deepwater structure during the winter.

The surgence of artificial reef programs in many southeastern states has helped foster a wintertime fishery for sheepshead that is, frankly, much better than most of their spring, summer and fall venues, if the weather cooperates.

sheepshead fish teeth

Sheepshead are prolific spawners and will do so during a general 12- 14-week period ranging the first of January to mid-March, depending on the locale. As inshore waters cool, sheepshead will travel out to nearshore reefs, wrecks and bottom structure in a pre-spawn migration. During this time the hormonal levels and aggressiveness of the fish are heightened, which many believe makes them easier to catch as their pick-pocket style of bite turns a little more defined.

In 2012, Federal fisheries management councils opted to remove sheepshead from federal regulation regarding creel limits and sizes, which were formerly mixed in with an aggregate grouper/snapper complex. State biologists believed since the fish spent the vast majority of its life inside state waters that each state could better manage its own population.

Fishing for winter sheepshead is most effectively done in the classic bottom fishing style where the boat is positioned directly over the top of the structure where sheepshead are holding and lines are dropped vertically. Although there is a recent trend in developing artificial baits for sheepshead fishing, the lion’s share of fish are caught using live bait.

sheepshead bait crab


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While sheepshead will eat a wide variety of baits ranging from invertebrates, clams, shrimp and even small finfish, the number one bait is crabs, particularly fiddler crabs. During the days of federal management, circle hooks were a requirement for sheepshead fishing but under states control, almost all have dropped that requirement. A size #2 hook up to a 1/0 is the most common used with styles ranging from mosquito hooks to Aberdeen, but all falling within the “J-hook” category.

The best protection against bait stealing is to use a short leader between 6-18 inches and insert the tip of the hook through the crab’s abdomen until the point barely penetrates the crab’s shell on the other side.
On a tight line with appropriate weight to counter depth and current, maintain contact via a tight line with the weight on the bottom. Any movement or vibration through the line should result in an immediate hookset, which is best done with the reel rather than the rod tip.

sheepshead under water

Sheepshead are not thought to be line shy and 10- 20-pound tackle is sufficient to handle sheepshead. Braided line is the preferred main line owing to the line’s greater sensitivity and durability over monofilament. A short length of abrasion resistant fluorocarbon line works best for the leader, which should be monitored and changed every few fish or so or anytime a hook fish or hang-up results in the line making hard contact with structure.

Winter sheepshead tend to range a little heavier than in the summertime where a 15-inch, 2- 3-pound fish tends to be the average. On their winter pre-span and spawning aggregates, sheepshead may average from 4 to 9 pounds with a few specimens, which can live as long as 25 years, topping the 10-pound mark.

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