On The Hook: On your mark! For sheepshead fishing

Bill Walsh

As has been tradition, we have only repeated one topic annually, and this is it, so, standby for the annual sheepshead dissertation. 

You’ll notice that the mornings now have just a crisp and refreshing breeze. The fish notice that, too. Among which are the sheepshead, who notice the change and commence their annual march inshore to complete their spawning cycle.

When they arrive here the piscatorial world changes. People line the docks and beaches and board the boats to try and latch onto these winter piscatorial favorites.

By way of background, sheepshead are very edible members of the porgy family that occupy these waters in cool, cold conditions. In summer they stay super deep in the Gulf but as the inshore waters cool down they head inshore to mate and spawn. They are good to excellent table fare and in the spawning cycle are quite sizable.

So, sheepshead fishing becomes the Holy Grail for the seasonal “snowbirds” as well as the full time residents and rightly so.

File: Looking inside at the rows of corn-corb teeth in a sheepshead mouth.

The principal characters in our annual episode are three guys from New Jersey. They all arrive in mid-November and hang around until a week or two after Easter. These are good guys who fish different parts of the water of the Garden State but linkup as residents of the same beachfront condo here for the winter. They put a bi-monthly charter program together and anxiously contact us to book those winter dates the mid-summer before (don’t want to miss anything).

Up there in the Garden State, they fish seriously all late spring and summer long. They unabashedly announce that they are acknowledged back home for their prowess in landing bluefish, mackerel, fluke, weakfish and some striped bass. These are not piscatorial shrinking violets.

Thus they have gotten used to catching these species that literally attack your bait. When they strike your bait they almost tear the rod out of your hands. Don’t want to demean Jersey ocean fishing but; there is not a lot of skill in making a fishing hook up in New Jersey.

So, here they were, some years back, on their first journey into the waters of Southwest Florida in search of the winter megastar sheepshead species.

It was a beautiful cool December morning with just the right tide and water temperature when they excitedly boarded for their first trip. They even brought their own rods and reels; heavy duty ocean reels on broomstick rods with 30-pound test that we, politely, left ashore as we got going.

As we get underway, we spend a few minutes talking to them about their target that day. The sheepshead is really a member of the porgy family and got its name back in the 1920s and 30s from the Bay it which it was frequently caught; that’s right Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. As the story goes, they too made the trip to Florida one cold northern winter and never went back.

As we make our way down the Marco River, we talk about the stealthiness of the sheepshead. The bite in most instances is nothing more than a light tap as they ingest your bait and just sit there. You feel nothing, until you pull in to check your bait and find it vanished. They are the thieves of the briny for sure.

All three nodded but you just knew those words of warning went unheeded. And we were about to prove that.

We anchor up on our first spot that morning in Rookery Bay and as I disperse the rods we reiterate the sheepshead basics again.

“When you get the first tap, don’t pull or yank, just lift the bait two or three inches very slowly. You’ll feel another set of taps that are stronger. Lift gently. If the rod feels heavy, your sheepshead has taken your bait and is just sitting there. Give the rod a short, strong hook set and begin your retrieve. The sheepshead is on the way to the cooler.”

All three nodded again, vacantly.

We bait the rods with a half shrimp and away we go. We’re in 10’ of water with a light current running over some low bottom structure. Great sheepshead spot. Just then one of the trio gets the tap; and immediately forgetting all the detailed instruction, rips the rod north with the force of a trip hammer. No bait. No fish.

That repeats itself with all three time and time again. These guys have forgotten the painstakingly imparted fishing techniques and replaced it with the more familiar “Jersey Jerk.” 

Finally, I ask them to put the rods down and we pull the anchor and move off the spot and commence a training session.

We cast out un-baited rods and simulate a sheepshead strike.

“Now you feel a tap; what do you do.” Soft lift. “Now you feel weight”. Compact set. They are paying attention now, so back we go to our previous spot.

This time around they got it. There were sizable sheepshead on that particular spot that morning and they gave the three “Jersey Boys” all they could handle.

All smiles and grins and high fives as they slid some nice 14-16 “sheepies” into the cooler.

On the way home that morning we talked about the wide variety of differences as to how fish feed. Most fish will slam your bait. They make a fast attack run and crash your bait without ever slowing down. In essence, the catch is automatically made. But as they just learned, not so for our black and white buddies that are here for the winter

Not so easy a change until you get used to it.

So, bottom line, leave the “Jersey Jerk” (technique only) at home and go slow lift for a great winter of delicious sheepshead filets.

More:On The Hook: Gizmo fishing

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.