By Paul Lewis
Toothy Monsters: The mighty Atlantic Sheepshead
For those who have read my recent articles, you know that when I’m not in our great PNW guiding for the myriad of species we have, I am blessed to travel the nation with my second job. Just like many of you, I travel with my rods and spend my off time exploring new and exotic species wherever I am located. In this month’s travels, I was in the gorgeous Southeast chasing around some seriously vicious looking fish: The Atlantic Sheepshead.
I grew up on the lake and learned to fish targeting perch and sunfish, so every summer I get the itch to go back to my roots and chase around some big old dinner plates. At the same time, however, I couldn’t make it back home and I was in a new area, so going to a lake and picking up a few bluegills felt like an improper use of an opportunity to explore a new area. Luckily for me, the Sheepshead is the panfish of the saltwater, so it was the perfect marrying of scratching the itch and exploring a new species. Before we dive into fishing, lets understand a little more about this unique species.
Whether you call it Convict-Fish, Sargo, Seabream, or Sheepshead, this fish is sure to turn heads. A gorgeous species of fish, the Sheepshead is defined by fantastic vertical stripes (convict stripes), big shiny eyes, and their round almost bluegill-esque body shape, but the most shocking feature about these beauties is their unbelievable human-like teeth! Seriously, this fish looks like it has grandpa’s dentures in its mouth. Their teeth serve a significant purpose, as they feed on mostly crustaceans including oysters, barnacles, clams, and crabs. Behind their row of incisors, they have crushing plates specifically designed to crack the shells of their food of choice, allowing them to eat the meat while discarding the shell. Sheepshead inhabit lots of the Atlantic, ranging from Nova Scotia all the way down to Brazil, however they are most common in the Southeastern United States. Due to their diet, they have fantastically sweet meat, making them a prized-catch for many anglers in the area. Sheepshead are unique, as they cover a vast area of the water, being found inshore as well as in offshore reefs. Essentially, anywhere their food can grow, they will be found.
Before setting out to chase these predators, I stopped by a local bait shop to gather some info. My goal was to target these fish with artificial baits because it’s about 95 degrees where I am, making it hard to keep live bait safe from the elements. However, the bait shop quickly changed my mind, as they said it is quite the waste of time. Their recommendation was using live crabs and a small hook. Sheepshead have a very light bite and are known as bait stealers, so stealth and quick reflexes are paramount in targeting these fish. To me, this sounded just like bluegill fishing back in our local lakes, so I rigged up 3 rods with my typical panfish setups: a drop shot rod, a jig, and a regular split shot and hook setup. After rigging, I went down to the beach and flipped rocks over to find some fiddler crabs and once I had a couple dozen, it was time to go!
With the bait shop info and my rods, I set out to find myself some sheepshead locations. Local anglers had told me to look for docks in 5-20 feet of water, the older the better. Essentially, the goal is to find the oldest dock with the most barnacles around to target these fish. After a fast Google Maps scout, I was on the water headed to the spot that looked the most promising to me. Current made it harder to fish than I expected, so quickly I realized simple panfish gear wouldn’t cut it. I upsized to more weight and the same small hook, then it was time to get serious. My area was an old burnt down train trestle that had been abandoned for years. It was covered in barnacles and from what I was told, this should be Sheepshead heaven! I focused my casting on the backside of pilings, literally bouncing my setup off a piling, and letting it sink down on the side opposite the current so it would fall as straight as possible. I immediately had little taps on my gear, and thinking they were smaller scavenger fish, I just passed on setting the hook. I was shocked to keep coming up bait-less, not knowing how little squeaky baitfish could pick off a crab. Well, it didn’t take me more than a few casts to figure out I was wrong, when I saw a gorgeous sheepshead chase down my jig tipped with a crab in shallow water. Preparing for a THUMP, I got set in my KVD Bill Dance, Mike Ike Bass Slayer position and waited for the hit. Then I kept waiting for the hit. Then I waited some more for the hit. And waited… and waited… and then I gave up. I pulled my gear up to find, again, I was crab-less. So, this time I set down in the same spot, and when I felt the tiniest tap, similar to a 4 inch perch hitting a nightcrawler, I set the hook. For a split second, my rod was doubled over, then the fish was gone. So, what did I learn, these fish are artists at taking bait! Even the monsters seem to delicately pick the crabs off. I rebait, and here we go again. Wait for the littlest tap, then set it! FISH ON! Immediately, drag is screaming off my line and before I can do anything, I am wrapped 5 times around the piling. Adios to that setup.
It was now apparent I needed a stronger backbone in my rod. I switched to my bass flipping rod and got ready to go again. A short minute later, it was fish on again! I was getting yanked all over the place trying to control this fish. for the tiniest bite ever, this fish was a demon! It does spirals like a bluegill, but its seemingly infinitely stronger. In addition, it’s a very smart fish, as it does its best to get around any structure it can and do the death spiral, knowing it can break the line on the barnacles and mussels around the pilings. A long battle later, many prayers about frayed line holding said, and I have a fish in the net. The minimum keeper size is 14 inches, and this specimen was 18 and change. Estimated weight was 4 pounds, a serious beast!
I was shocked by its beauty, and pictures do not do justice to seeing the power and insanity of this fish’s jaws. I could not pry the mouth open to get the hook out, and with a row of teeth in front of big crushing plates, that hook was going nowhere. I bent my hook straight trying to get it out, but unable to open its mouth, I gave up and cut the line. I took a 10 minute break from fishing to study this sheepshead, and it is truly unlike anything I had ever held. The best thing to describe this fish is a giant panfish with a piranha’s teeth and the attitude of a spawning smallmouth. Hard headshakes and digs, a bad attitude, and more aggression than a mother bear protecting her cubs. This fish quickly became my favorite fish in the south’s saltwater to target.
I spent the next hour chasing these fish and ended up going a measly 3 for 24, as I used up all my crabs (LOL!). The bite is so light, and the mouth is so hard, a perfect hookset had to be taken to put them in the boat. Luckily, the next 2 fishing missions after this species were more successful once I had the hookset down.
Whenever you travel, I highly recommend getting out on the water and learning about the unique species that inhabit the area. Whether you travel with your rods like me or you hire a local expert to expedite the learning process, there is something special about exploring the waterways and making comparisons to fish we know back home. It is amazing to see how similar tactics work all around the nation for different species, as well as learn new tactics which you can bring home. This adventure turned into bluegill fishing for giants, and I was immediately transported back to being 6 and sitting on the dock. Amazing how every fish we catch brings the same joy as the first.
Tight lines all!