On The Hook: Sportfishing’s winter incursion

Bill Walsh

Precipitated by the expected chill down in our weather conditions, the article this week is the sole “repeater” in our bi-monthly articles about the people that fish the Paradise Coast.

So here it is, you probably have guessed the subject already … it’s Sheepshead!

After 20 some years of charter fishing these wondrous waters, you can sense when those notorious black and white piscatorial thieves are about to set sail from their summer climes offshore for the winter invasion.

Sheepshead is a bait stealer. It  bites downward on the bait and  deftly slips it off the hook.

In other words: The Sheepshead are coming; and this is serious stuff for them; their not coming to partake in the “season” festivities here; their on their way to spawn. Whoopi!

And these sheepshead being featured this week are not the miniatures that you admired and released all summer, these are the mega fish that take to our nearshore and backwaters starting as the water temperature begins to dip. They will afford untold hours of delight and light years of frustration with their soft bite and shrewd habit of escape.

The online articles attempting to justify the name swear that they are named after the famous body of water in New York City. When I tell anglers on board that line, their eyes roll and they cover the smirk. So getting past the handle, bottom line, they provide good strong action on light to medium tackle and are a favorite at meal time.

You’ll be astounded when you first see the dentures on these black and white striped members of the porgy family. They have a front row of incisors that would put Mr Ed (remember the talking horse) to shame. Followed by row after row of “molars”. So the routine is they use the incisors to scrape barnacles and then the molars to crush same. That unusual custom is what drives anglers bonkers; they take your shrimp or crab with a quiet bite and just sit still devouring the morsel. Angler feels nothing and when retrieving to check the bait; it’s gone ... time after time.

More:Fishingcast: Conditions for SWFLA, Nov. 9-15

Now the stars of our annual Sheepshead expose article are three guys from the great state of New Jersey who have been best friends for years and my treasured customers for the last few.

They make the annual trek from the early winter shattering cold in the Garden State to their Shanghai La here on the Paradise Coast in early November and enjoy the excitement of their favorite sport every which way until reality takes them home in early April.

The trips are something else. Wild stories of past get togethers, risqué jokes, unbridled laughter goes on unabated. But best is their yarns of bluefish, fluke and flounder at the “Joisie’s Shore” that cascade with self-acclamation; no one questions validity of the yarns they are too busy lifting their John Barleycorns to those fond remembrances.

Each year, one of them finds a way to tell me why they like struggling with sheepshead. Up north the fish literally rip the rod from your hands on the strike; down here the sheepshead never let them feel the strike, yet the bait is long gone on inspection retrieve. Big difference that they love.

So, let’s turn the pages back and recount their very first trip for the winter sheepshead here.

Nice chilly morning, good tide, bait set on great feeding spot for the bigger sheepshead. Three baits out and we wait for the strikes ... they come is short order and Rippo! All three rip the rod skyward with the force of a trip hammer. Result: No fish. No bait.

I don’t say anything hoping they figure it out themselves. Bait up and cast out. Same result, now time after time and the frustration wrapped in “scurrilous’ names for the sheepshead who think the food truck has. arrived. Bottom line these guys have forgotten the soft lift required for the sheepshead and replaced it with the “Jersey Jerk” so named for the activity not the anglers!

So, we pull off and take a break to go over the basics. “When you get that first tap just lift the rod gently two or three inches; very slowly. You’ll immediately feel any series of nudges. Now lift the rod gently. If the rod feels heavy, your sheepshead is hooked and just sitting there. Now, a short punch to set the hook and hang on the fight is on and this sedentary fish will give you a real tussle and you’ll need a net to finally capture and swing him aboard.”

As we baited up and prepared to enter the game “One more tip, once he’s on, be careful not to slack the line. No pumping. Just hold the rod dead still and let the whip of the rod do the job. Last point. Handle the fish on the belly and avoid the dorsal fin whose tips have needle sharp points that can penetrate flesh in a heartbeat.”

So, instruction session over, the Jersey Guys finally get it; they bait up and jump back in. Then bumps, lifts, a set and a big sheepshead on. Nice 16” sheepshead hits the cooler, then another etc., etc. They got the touch. Smiles and high fives all around. They solved the “black and white” puzzle !

Afterwards, as we meandered home, we talked about the wide variety of differences as to how fish feed. Up east those ocean fish will slam your bait and impale themselves; all the angler has to do is complete the retrieve. Not so with our venerable sheepshead here where it takes more skill to feel their presence and outwit their stealth.

As the guys found out that very day. So, bottom line, leave the Jersey Jerk (technique only) at home and go for the slow lift for some great winter fishing here on the Paradise Coast.

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