Sheepshead - Archosargus probatocephalus
Also known as: Baitstealer, Convict Fish, Sheepshead Seabream, Southern Sheepshead
Sheepshead are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia south through the Gulf of Mexico. This fish is a nearshore species that is commonly found along structure such as rocks, pilings, piers, jetties, mangroves, as well as at the mouths of tidal creeks. During the late winter and early spring, this fish will venture offshore to spawn. When not spawning, the sheepshead will seek out warmer areas of water and may even venture into freshwater rivers during the winter months. Juvenile fish can be found in tidal flats and over dark, mud bottoms where the water is quickly warmed by the sun.
The name ‘sheepshead’ is derived from the mouthful of massive, protruding teeth, which resembles those of a sheep. These teeth also distinguish the sheepshead from a juvenile black drum, which shares a similar coloration pattern. Sheepshead have seven vertical and very prominent black stripes which stand out against a dull white, gray, or yellowish background. The body of this fish is oval shaped with a blunt snout and small mouth. The dorsal and anal fins have very sharp but short spines and the pectoral fins are relatively long. The tail is shallowly forked.
The teeth of the sheepshead include well defined incisors, molars, and grinders. There are incisor-like teeth in the front of the jaw and there are molars in the back of the jaw. These heavy, strong teeth allow the sheepshead to crush and grind the various shellfish that this species feeds on. This fish will also use its impressive teeth to scrape barnacles from pilings and rocks. An effective method of attracting sheepshead is to scrape barnacles off of pilings and rocks to chum the waters while targeting this species.
Although the sheepshead can reach a maximum size of almost 30 inches in length and weigh over 20 pounds, most fish are in the two to eight pound range with average lengths of 15-20 inches. An excellent eating fish, they can be caught on light spinning or bait casting tackle using shrimp, cut bait, clams or squid. These fish pick up baits very gently so when fishing for sheepshead, anglers need to be sure to respond to even the slightest knock on their lines.
Piers, Docks and Pilings
Call it structure. Wherever there’s structure there’s food, shelter, and fish. Weeds, grasses and other food sources can attach to anything. Docks and piers provide shelter from the sun and a nice resting spot for both big and small fish.
In coastal areas, closer to shore, the ocean bottom may have sections of exposed rock, coral or debris. These areas of uneven bottom provide a great ambush spot for predatory fish as well as crevices for smaller fish to take shelter. Fish live at all depths in coastal water and many stay close to the bottom. Many feed near cover, such as a rock or a coral reef, where they can ambush prey. Other fish roam at all depths of the water column, searching for an easy meal.
Most saltwater anglers fish in coastal waters because there are dozens of different fish species there, and these areas are often very easy to access. Many marine fish migrate up and down the coastline seasonally. Smart anglers monitor water temperatures, winds, currents, seasons and tides to determine which species they should target.
Sand and mud bottom tidal flats are very shallow areas that are typically a few inches to a few feet deep and are sometimes even exposed at lower tides. These flats are commonly found in many estuarine areas and are highly productive for fishing. These areas are protected from wave action and are often comprised of mud or sand transported by tidal channels.
Jetties and Breakwaters
Waves crash up against jetties and breakwaters, and create ‘holes’ as the wave recedes and carries sand out with it. Since the hole is deeper than the ocean floor, it attracts small shellfish and baitfish looking for calmer water and a place to hide. These hiding spots create ambush spots for predatory game fish. Man-made structures like jetties and breakwaters also give shore anglers better access to deeper waters.
Many fish are nocturnal feeders and become more active after the sun sets. When fishing during the night hours, natural baits, such as cut bait and live bait are great choices. Be sure to let the baits soak, and be patient for a bite.
Bays and Estuaries
If you’re fishing in a bay or estuary, you better have a big tackle box. These bodies of water contain a mixture of fresh water and salt water. They also contain a mixture of freshwater and saltwater fish. Bays and estuaries can be fished from shore or from a boat. Estuaries are locations in which the mouth of a river meets the ocean. Estuaries support saltwater fish such as tarpon, snook, redfish and striped bass. Other saltwater fish like shad, herring, salmon and sea-run trout can also be found in estuaries because they need to find saltier or fresher water when it’s time to mate. Freshwater fish like largemouth bass can also survive in the salty waters found in estuaries.
Weather can also affect the mix of fish in combined waters. Stormy weather pushes fresh water from the rivers closer to the ocean, causing freshwater to move farther downstream. Dry weather pushes salt water and saltwater fish further upstream into the rivers.
It’s only natural, baitfish and other marine creatures gather around piers and pilings because they’re looking for food and protection from currents. This attracts larger game fish species like snook and tarpon that feed on the bait surrounding these structures.
Reefs, Wrecks, and Shoals
Reefs, wrecks, and shoals provide some of the most productive fishing grounds. In fact, reefs hold a great concentration of biodensity and diversity. The reefs offer shelter to many bait fish that game fish prey on, and this occurs throughout the water column. One can bottom fish, jig, or troll a reef. All methods attract various fish that inhabit these areas. Chumming the water helps to concentrate the fish and bring them up from the bottom. Depending on your fishing method, you can catch anything from a grouper to a king mackerel.
Prominent in the state of Florida and other areas of the Gulf of Mexico, mangroves provide an important ecosystem for a variety of species. Mangroves can be found in sub-tropical zones in areas where saltwater meets land. Usually, mangroves appear in areas of heavy sand or mud deposits that provide a breeding ground for many organic bacteria. As this happens, a more complex food chain will develop. An additional benefit of mangroves is their ability to provide structure and protection for young fish. For this reason, many species use mangrove forests as a nursery habitat; however, small fish are not the only fish to inhabit this ecosystem. Many large predators make mangroves their home, preying on the small fish. To effectively fish a mangrove, fish the falling tide as bait and predatory fish are forced out of the roots of the mangrove system.
Bait casting is a style of fishing that relies on the weight of the lure to extend the line into the target area. Bait casting involves a revolving-spool reel (or “free spool”) mounted on the topside of the rod. Bait casting is definitely an acquired skill. Once you get the hang of the technique (check out the casting animation), you will be casting your lures right on target into the structures where fish are feeding and hanging out.
With bait casting, you can use larger lures (1/2 to 3/4 ) and cast them for longer distances. To get started, you’ll need a rod with good spring action, a good quality anti-backlash reel, 10–15 pound test line and a variety of specific bait-casting lures.
Bottom bouncing is done from a drifting or trolling boat, and it’s a great way to attract or locate fish during most seasons and times of day. Use a buck tail jig or natural bait and drag it along the bottom. The dragging motion causes the lure to bounce along stirring up small clouds of sand or mud. After a few strikes with bottom bouncing, you can drop anchor and apply other methods to hook the particular kind of species you’ve attracted.
To attract fish or get them biting again, you can throw “chum” into the water where you’re fishing. You can use ground-up bait fish, canned sweet corn, dead minnows in a coffee can (for ice fishing), pet food, even breakfast cereal. Or stir up some natural chum by scraping the bottom with a boat oar. Be sure not to over-chum. You want to get them interested in feeding; you do not want to stuff them before they get a chance to go after your hook. Chumming is not legal in all states. Check local fishing regulations to make sure you are not illegally stimulating the hunger of your future catch.
Drift fishing allows you to fish over a variety of habitats as your boat drifts with the currents or wind movement. You can drift fish on the bottom or change the depth with a bobber or float. Natural baits work very well but jigs, lures and scented artificial baits will produce good results, too. When drift fishing with multiple baits and rods, it is always a good idea to set out each bait at a different depth. This allows the angler to cover more of the water column.
Jigging lures, or “jigs”, are some of the most versatile lures in that can be used in just about any place you find fish. Jigs comes in all shapes, colors, styles and weights and can be fished in a variety of different manners so that they mimic baitfish. The two most common jigs are probably the bucktail jig and the vertical jig.
A bucktail jig will typically consist of a lead head, that can be a variety of different shapes and sizes, which is molded onto a hook and has hair-like material tied to the bottom of the jig head. This hair-like material is where the name “bucktail” comes from because many bucktail jigs are made using hair from a deer. The bucktail hair and jighead come in a variety of different colors. These bucktail jigs can be fished by themselves or they can be rigged with a rubber worm, live shrimp or other natural baits like strips of fish.
A vertical jig, or speed jig, is made of a long and slender piece of lead or metal that cuts through the water mimicking an injured baitfish. Vertical jigs will have one or more dangling hooks attached to a split ring which can be attached to the top or the bottom of the jig. Vertical jigs range anywhere from 1/8oz up to 14oz and are also referred to as “butterfly jigs.”
When fishing with jigs, it is important that the angler constantly jig the lure up and down by constantly lifting the rod tip up and down. A good method for jigging is to drop the jig all the way down to the bottom and with a very rapid retrieval, twitch the rod tip erratically until the jig comes to the surface and repeat. No matter which type of jig you are using, it is important to match the weight of each jig to the depth at which you are fishing. Deeper water will require heavier jigs to reach the bottom. It is also important to take the tides and current into consideration when choosing your jig weight.
We won’t say it’s foolproof, but spin casting is an ideal fishing method for beginning anglers. Spin-casting equipment is easier to use than bait casting. You can use it to cast both light and heavy lures without tangling or breaking your line. Basic equipment includes a 7-foot rod, a spinning reel and 6–10 pound test line for casting 1/16- to 3/4 ounce lures. You can use an open-face, closed-face or spin-cast reel for spin casting.
Still fishing is a versatile way to go. You can do it from a pier, a bridge, an anchored boat or from shore. And you can still fish during most seasons and during any part of the day. Your equipment and the size of the hooks and bait you use depend on what kind of fish you’re after. Your best equipment for still fishing is patience. You have to wait for the fish to bite. A great method for still fishing is to use one rod with natural bait that will soak or sit on the bottom as well as a casting rod with an artificial bait or lure. While you’re letting your natural bait soak, you can keep occupied and cover more ground while taking casts with a lure.
Bait & Lures
If clams or mussels are native to your area, you can use them to catch the native fish.To keep them fresh, gather the mussels and clams from shallow waters before or while you fish. Crack the shell open, cut out the clam or mussel and allow the bait to harden slightly in the sun so it stays on the hook. Tie mussels on to the hook with thread, taking care not to pull too tight.
Hard-shell, soft-shell and peeler crabs are all good bait for saltwaterfish. You can pull them apart or use them whole. To hook a whole crab,bore the hook through the shell like a drill. Work the hook through thepointed part of the shell on either side of the body. Hooked this way,the crab will live pretty well and provide some action to attract fish.
Using fish cut into pieces attracts fish in a different way than whole, live bait or lures. Fish that are attracted to scent are more likely to hit on cut bait. You can use just about any baitfish to make cut bait as well as other fish species. Before using any fish as cut bait, always make sure the fish you plan on using is a legal species and meets the minimum size requirement, if there is a size limit on that species. All size and species regulations can be obtained at tackle shops or your state’s fishing law enforcement website.
Jigs have weighted metal heads and a tail made of animal hair, soft plastic, feathers or rubber. Anglers sometimes add a minnow or piece of pork rind to the jig's hook. Jigs can be used to catch nearly every kind of freshwater fish
Saltwater Live Bait
Using live bait such as shrimp or various baitfish is a very effective method to use while targeting pelagic species of predatory fish. “Baitfish” is a term that refers to any saltwater schooling fish that serve as a food source to other larger fish. Species used are typically those that are common and breed rapidly, making them easy to catch and in regular supply. Good examples of marine bait fish are anchovies, ballyhoo (sometimes referred to as halfbeaks), herring, menhaden and scad.
Shrimp are the favorite meal of saltwater fish. You can use shrimp as bait when you're fishing from a bridge, pier, bank or boat. Different-size fish will hit on different-size shrimp.
Place the hook beneath the shrimp's head so the barb comes out on top, avoiding the black spot. Hooking the black spot will kill a shrimp immediately. Action is important for attracting fish.
You can also insert the hook from the top of the shrimp, work the point beneath the black spot and bring the barb out on top again. This method is considered best for bottom fishing.
A third method stops bait-stealing fish. Insert the hook from the tail of the shrimp and thread the body onto the hook, passing the barb beneath the black spot.
Tips and Tricks for Shrimp
You can keep shrimp fresh in a freshwater minnow bucket. No matter what you store them in, don't overcrowd shrimp.
Just about any fish that lives nearshore or in the open ocean can be caught using cut or whole squid. Use them whole by running the line through the inside of the mantle (the outside body shell) and hooking the squid in the head. The mantles of larger squid can be cut into vertical pieces for strip bait. You can use squid for trolling and for bottom and floating rigs.