If you consider yourself a top-class angler, there is one fish that can knock you off your lofty perch. The one and only, black-and-white striped, cousin of the porgy, the sheepshead.
It’s not that they’re aloof or cagy or hiding around corners, they are right there in the open, always ready to bite And therein lies the problem. The sheepshead is equipped with a set of “choppers” that can move onto a bait with a demure tap, and then go motionless.
Contrast that to most other species that will come onto a bait with gusto, a strong whack at the bait we commonly call a strike. The sheepshead’s bite could be called a nudge.
So the problem is framed by this contrast and perpetrated upon amateur and expert anglers alike, and by some quirk of skill, the amateurs do better than the experts. Almost always. That’s the backdrop for our fishing story this week.
The charter reservation seemed innocuous enough. An affable, well-spoken fellow made arrangements for a half-day charter for he and his nephew. He was from someplace cold and the nephew from Ft. Myers.
That cold, windy morning, Jim introduced himself and his nephew, Paul. In amongst the banter as I finished preparing the boat came the discovery that Jim was a professional bass fisherman from that someplace cold. And here we were, about to embark our trip into a sea of wind-driven, muddy water and try to find anything that could see our bait well enough to take a swipe at it. Made one feel a little underwhelmed.
I Thought to myself “I can’t take these guys to catch little sheepshead and snapper, they certainly expect more. So there we were for what seemed to be an eternity, trying to induce a speckled trout to take our bait in water that looked like Caffe Latte on the Intercoastal Waterway. All we got were fish with whiskers… catfish.
We sometimes can get into great action on juvenile permit in Rookery Bay; desperation was closing in. There, the water was a shade better than the ICW, so we set up a drift in the raging wind. The boat was moving so fast the fish couldn’t have caught the bait even if they wanted to. Strike two.
So it was down to a choice… Either take these guys to a spot with small sheepshead and snapper or scrub the trip and take them back home. I gave them the choice!
They wanted to keep fishing, but then Jim asked curiously, “What’s a. sheepshead?”
Paul answered, “You’ll see,” and off we went, to a spot up along the Hurricane Pass.
The water was miraculously a bit cleaner here and we set up just forward of some structure which, this morning, would both hold sheepshead and devour our rigs. The colder water slowed things down here, as everywhere, and we went a painful 10 to 15 minutes before we got a “nudge.”
As fate would have it, Jim was the strikee, and true to expectations, his “hook set” effort was truly something to behold. He was sitting on a cooler on the starboard side when he reared back with such force he upended the cooler, himself, and just barely missed exiting the boat.
Paul was doubled over in convulsive laughter as I helped Jim back to his feet. As he dusted himself off he boldly asked “Did I get ‘em?” which doubled Paul over again. And so it went for at least the next hour. Jim could not tame the yank the he used to pull lunker bass out of the lily pads back home.
I thought that if we moved to the structure of the docks, we’d see bigger fish that might be easier to nail. These guys were excellent with rod and reel. They’d drop their casts inches from the pilings; draw a strike and lose the bait, along with the fish.
Then I remembered that the circle hooks that we use on reef snapper have a feature that sets themselves. We rigged one up on Jim’s rod with the instruction, ”No matter what happens, do not pull on the rod.”
“Your kidding, right?”
Just then, Jim’s rod twitched with a nudge; he did not yank and suddenly, the pole doubled over with a big sheepshead angrily trying to escape.
“Okay, I got it. Take the funny-looking hook off.”
We went on catching the black-and-white thieves and Jim was in the no-yank mode. But I knew he didn’t like it; he wanted action that takes the rod out of his hand. But this was a tough day to find pelagic action of any kind in this “mud,” but we’d try.
Back to Rookery Bay we went and set up on one of the points and guess what? All we caught were more sheepshead. That is, until Jim’s rod literally doubled over and the reel screamed. “This is more like it,” he yelped, and began a fight that would make those bass look like powder puffs.
He struggled and circled around the boat more than once, taking and losing line. The battle went on and on. He moved to tighten the drag on the reel and I reminded him that was 12-pound test between him and the fish… “I use 50-pound test on the bass; we get ‘em in right away”
How sporting, I thought!
Finally, the big fish was alongside – a jack in the 20-pound class, still full of energy as he thrashed away. Jim hoisted the fish for a photo and then released.
“Boy, that was some fight. Great fish!”
As we neared the marina homeward bound, Jim was telling Paul he hoped his newly learned ‘no-yank” sheepshead technique doesn’t carry over into his next tournament.
I couldn’t resist. “Jim, truthfully, which fish is more of a challenge to catch?”
He didn’t look up as he mumbled the unmistakable answer…. “Sheepshead”
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 email@example.com.