On The Hook: Sheepshead holiday

BILL WALSH
Photo with no caption

Photo by Willard

So, this is the time all Southwest Florida visiting anglers have patiently waited for it’s sheepshead time. The big versions of these striped bait thieves are headed inland as nature, triggered by the sudden dip in water temperature, drives them to their spawning grounds which just so happens to be under your dock along with hundreds of other spots.

Anglers, especially those here to beat the ravages of northern winters, react to the big sheepshead arrival announcement like someone just sounded “general quarters.” Up early and bundled in swaddling clothes to ward of the early morning chill, they line up for bait at the local marinas and then race to their “honey hole” dock fishing spots to fend off any scurrilous interlopers.

Bragging at condo socials and fishing club meetings becomes commonplace. “Yep, landed a 24,” 13 lb. sheepie this past Tuesday almost dragged me into the water.”

“But, Howie, are you sure the state record, set years ago, is only 15 lb.?

“Well, maybe it just felt like 13 lb. but it was big!

And so it goes on as the great winter diversion for those who like fishing with good repetitive action enjoy the opportunity.

Well, this sheepshead mania that consumes most anglers, does not infect everyone. There are exceptions. This week’s story is about an exception.

The wife made the phone contact: “My husband and his brother and two boys would like to book a charter trip next week; anything available? Had a morning open and we booked. Nothing about what they were targeting just that they wanted the trip.

So their morning arrived. Chilly, 45 degree air temperature kept the all important water temperature hovering around 60 degrees which would be sheepshead heaven. Rest of the factors were favorable, too. The wind was mild from the east and the water clarity was fair to good depending on your venue.

Couldn’t wait to get these guys into some hot sheepshead action.

However, those plans vanished in a heartbeat, when one of the fathers, as he boarded, pronounced, “Captain, no sheepshead; we’ve been catching them left and right from under the dock of our rental home. Enough is enough. We have punctured fingers from just trying to unhook them. We’re all looking for something else”

Whoa! My mental scramble as to target alternatives went into high gear; the water temp had plunged overnight and we were starting our adventure at dead low tide which left few backwater options. However, the wind had finally eased and gone east; only good alternative then was the nearshore reefs for whatever wasn’t striped black and white and was biting there.

Fortunately the wind gods were holding off on the daily uptick in wind and gusts and the sea conditions were reasonably calm as we headed nearshore. Our new target was Spanish Mackerel. These “macks” fight and run like banshees and would surely give these guys a run for their money.

As we closed in on the reef,the fishfinder lit up with mid-depth marks indicating that the all important bait schools were there but there was also quite a few marks of fish below the bait; maybe the mackerel were holding deep in the chilly morning surface water temperature. We would check that out.

We set anchor and deployed a couple nets of dry chum into the already strong outgoing current. Standard approach for mackerel is a fast retrieve with a shrimp tipped jig worked just below the surface and we soon had four such rigs at work.

The four of them jerked and pulled for close to 20 minutes. Nothing. Time to check out those deeper marks we saw on arrival. So we switched the two boys over to weighted lindy rigs which would get to the bottom.

Almost immediately they had strikes and fish on both rods were bent fairly well and the kids were enjoying the tussle; that is until our strugglers surfaced; two enormous sheepshead. The fathers gave me that look that said “You weren’t listening,captain ... ”

We released the sheepshead; pulled the anchor and headed off to another spot.

The second spot was a major reef just south of the island and we set up again with chum and working jigs. This time we hit paydirt. The mackerel were as thick as thieves. We’d have two or three on at a time with lots of whoops and smiles all around. We kept a half dozen of the smaller ones for a evening family dinner and were releasing the rest.

We had great action amid cut off lines and the inadvertent tangles and these guys loved the action. Then on one of the retrieves, there was an enormous surface eruption behind the hooked mackerel which took everything.

“What was that ?” was a simultaneous yell.

“We’ll find out,” I responded as we readied some heavier spinning tackle that we would deploy loaded with a slab of fresh mackerel. Two would man the heavier gear and two would keep fishing mackerel for bait.

It didn’t take long for it to turn into an angler’s dream.

The bigger rods went off first and the struggle was classic take line and then a run off, again and again, and finally boatside we found we had hooked into a fish called a little tunny.

To digress: Little tunny are a cousin of the bonita and the blackfin tuna. Identical shapes that run anywhere from 10-20 pounds, and are a fierce fighter but not much for table fare.

Anyhow, we were into some fantastic action. The kids and their dads were switching roles as little tunny or mackerel catchers and having a ball. And after a consult as to table quality, they released all the tunny at boatside.

Exhausted with the non-stop action, we called it a day early and headed home. They shared a few smartphone photos of the action and were emailing them home to mom as we finished our day.

Guess we proved that that not all is black and white while fishing the Paradise Coast in winter.

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolcharters@compuserve.com.

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Comments » 2

WizeOlMarco writes:

Chum, that's really sporting.

MIOCENE1 writes:

"We kept a half dozen of the smaller ones for a evening family dinner and were releasing the rest."

Good. The smaller ones taste better anyhow.

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