The dawn breaks these days with just a tad of crispness in the air that invigorates the step and excites the soul. The suffocating heat and humidity are finally exiting our paradise. For the general populace, that points to great cool mornings for walks and exercise and days filled with sparkling sunshine.
But for those who fish these waters, it means one more thing. Our winter piscatorial friends are on their way to grace our docks ,pilings and structures. In short, it’s the start of sheepshead season. First, an aside; I have always tried to keep my material fresh with a new situation; a new happening or even an update on the state of recreational fishing. This is the one exception! For sheepshead rule the roost for many of our seasonal visitors and residents during the cooler winter months and become a true centerpiece of activity.
Sheepshead are a difficult fish to catch. Even if you fished the Heartland for bass and trout or the shores of the Northeast for bluefish and flounder, you need to listen up. Sheepshead training is indeed in order before the striped gang arrives.
By way of background, sheepshead are a major member of the porgy family that move inshore to spawn once the water temperature chills down to the 60s. They have been living in much deeper water all spring and summer far off in the Gulf, and late November has always been the time that they arrive here with us. They show in a trickle at first, but before you know it they are by far the dominant fish in the lineup.
As stated, even if you’re a world-class angler with a chest full of ribbons, you’ll have difficulty hooking and landing these thieves of the briny. I’ve illustrated that fact with a story affectionately titled the, “Saga of the Jersey Jerk,” in past years. I’ll do it again this year.
There were these three guys some years back that descended on our domain who considered themselves anglers extraordinaire. They just happened to be from the Garden State and all had rented condos for the season in the same beachfront complex.
I met them after one of my morning charters shopping at the marina. Shopping, not as in shoes and shirts, but for a charter boat. With pockets stuffed with rack cards, they were asking prices, times, results and availability etc. of all the captains. When they finished, you felt like you had been interviewed for a CEO position. They left that day saying they had to have meeting before selecting the “lucky” captain.
For no really good reason, that selection came my way and we set a date. The three of them arrived at least 45 minutes before the appointed time and hovered over me as we tried to fuel, get bait and ice and ready the boat. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, they all were at the cutting edge of fishing skill and spent every summer at the “Shore,” loading up on bluefish, stripers, weakies, fluke and flounder, so it ought to be a piece of cake here. We’ll see!
So, off we go, making our way down the Marco River on a beautiful sunny morning with just a nip of wind to enhance the 60-degree air temperature. We arrive quickly at our first spot just off the now-vanished Coconut Island. We go through the rudiments of fishing procedure on baiting with shrimp, use of light tackle (10-pound test), etc and they have at it.
Based on my experience with this spot for the prior three days, I knew it was loaded with nice-size sheepshead and a few snapper. I try to tell them about the sheepshead bite, which is unlike any other fish, and how they should handle it. They weren’t listening. They knew better.
They hadn’t had the baits soaking for more than 30 seconds when – Rippo!. One of our trio rips the rod up with the force of a trip hammer. No bait. No fish. That happens over and over again to all three of them. They are energized and focused on the strikes, but not on the instruction.
All three are making the same move – on the first sheepshead bump they are ripping the rods up over their heads at breakneck speed. Thus the nickname, “Jersey Jerk,” certainly not intended as handles for our anglers, but rather for their errant technique.
Finally, I got them to put the rods down and listen. On that first bump, just raise the rod softly by two to three inches. Do not pull or yank. In a matter of seconds, you’ll feel a series of bumps stronger than that first single bump. Now, lift gently and if you feel weight as you lift, the sheephead has ingested your bait and is just sitting there. Now, strike and hang on. That slow moving bundle of stripes will kick into high gear as you move it towards the boat.
You want to keep that rod nice and steady and be careful not to slack the line. No pumping the rod and no reeling if the fish is taking line, which they will often do.
Disappointed with the opening session’s terrible results (no fish), they listened and went back at it with the softer technique. It took less than five minutes and all three had landed their first keeper sheepshead. Smiles and high-fives all around. Let the good times roll!
They kept enough sheepshead for a nice dinner for the three of them and their wives. Cautioned them about handling the sheepshead – always from the bottom; their dorsal fins are as sharp as hypodermic needles and can injure quickly. But they are great table fare and can be prepared in myriad ways – nice, mild taste, with a flaky consistency.
So, for all of you ready to take your spot on the dock or the boat for this fun winter pastime, remember, leave the Jersey Jerk at home.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.