Cold weather that manages to find its way through three layers of outdoors gear tends to keep anglers cooped up in their garages. It’s always a good time to spray the saltwater of your outfits, put a fresh stack of line on your spool and plan a fish-finding strategy.
Not so if you’re a sheepshead fanatic.
The convict fish are just starting to pile around inshore structures in good numbers as they prepare for their main spawn in March. The sheepies will be hanging around oyster beds, docks, bridge pilings and even mangrove lines on high tide.
Sheepshead prefer shrimp, crabs, mussels and barnacles.
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The best all-around bait is shrimp. It’s never a bad idea to pinch the tail off the shrimp, which should be small to match the sheepshead’s small mouths. Likewise, small hooks, around a No. 4, are necessary.
A key to hooking sheepshead is to be patient with the bite. Sheepshead are notorious bait-stealers, and their bite can be mistaken for pinfish bites. Pinfish will steadily pick the extremities off a shrimp, which feels like a steady repetition of bumps. A sheepshead bite is quite different.
“I was watching them in clear water one time,” said Capt. Terry Frankford, “one came looking at it and nudged it. Another came over and nudged it a bit. Then a third came over and took it.”
Another way to see if you’re fishing for sheepshead, and not being toyed with by pinfish, is by looking at your shrimp after a couple bumps. A sheeps-head is more likely to cut the shrimp in two.
A good way to hook the shrimp is to run the hook through the bottom of the shrimp, so that the barb comes out the head, in line with the barb of the shrimp.
Depending on the size of fish that are around, a 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader should be added to about 10- or 12-pound test line. Consider using a small split shot to keep your bait in the target zone.
Sheepshead also tend to be turned off by rotted shrimp, so the fresher the better. But don’t get rid of dead shrimp. Split them into four pieces and use them as chum on the next spot.
Another common way to get sheeps-head is to scrape the barnacles, or mussels, off piling with a hoe and save the barnacles for bait. A boat is not necessary; in fact, you’ll just spook the sheepies if you pull up to a shallow dock.
A plain jig with a gold hook, with a pinched shrimp, also can be tossed into any of the above areas.
Species found in the same areas, such as redfish, mangrove snapper and black drum, could hit the same rigs.
Artificials are not advised for sheepshead, however a D.O.A. shrimp can do the job. Capt. Ray Markham also has caught sheepies on a Carolina Lures Yummy Sand Flea, a crab imitation.
Fly-fishing with any fly that resembles a crab, shrimp, etc., is a better option than an artificial.
The minimum size limit for sheepshead is 15 per angler daily, at least 12 inches in total length. These limits, and the fact that their meat is white and tender, make for a heck of a fish fry.
Nick Walter, outdoors writer, can be reached at 745-7013.