Growing up on the coastal waters of Alabama offered plenty of great seasonal fish. Huge spring speckled trout, summer red snapper, and large numbers of bull reds in the winter are a few of the greats. Of these temporal flourishes in species, the sheepshead spawn was relatively unknown to me early on. It wasn’t until we decided to suit up in full winter gear in early spring, in the hopes of fighting kings and spanish on gas platforms, that I was introduced to the hoards that gather along the local oil platforms. After understanding this unique species, successful cold weather trips are not difficult to come by.
The sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) is part of the Sparidae family. This group is comprised of the porgies. While its cousins have been known to change sex on demand or cause psychedelic trips when eaten, this “bay snapper” is one of the tastiest fish of the Gulf of Mexico. They range from the western Atlantic coast to the southeastern Gulf states. Of the many fish that frequent our dinner plates in the South, this particular specimen has an incredibly diverse diet. With the help of its human-like organization of teeth, the sheepshead is an omnivore. They feast on plants, crustaecans, and vertebrates, with bone crushing power. Five to seven vertical bars are displayed on the side of their bodies, which gave them the nickname “the convict fish.” For new anglers, these fish should not be confused with young black drum or spadefish. If you accidentally eat a spadefish, that lesson will be learned the hard way.
Sheepshead prefer to live in brackish, warm waters, occasionally venturing into rivers during the winter. After two years of development, the mature fish head offshore annually to spawn. They gather by the hundreds around natural and artificial structure in late winter and early spring, particularly mid-February through April. To the uninformed fisherman, these fish can be a real nuisance, and are experts in stealing bait without getting captured. But in the eyes of a seasoned veteran, these fish are pure gold when it comes to quality seafood. If you were to be served “snapper” on a restaurant menu, it could easily be a fillet off of these scaly predators.
As a hard fighting species, with the extra reward of a great meal, this is the perfect fish for sport fishing enthusiasts. Fishing for these black and white barnacle-lovers can be a challenge. For those who fly fish, this is a much greater feat than the sought-after redfish on marsh flats. They can be picky eaters, and tough to set a hook into. Over the course of development, after years of chomping on the shells of crustaceans, they develop incredibly strong jaw muscles. This only improves with time and age. So don’t be surprised when your hook comes back bent and mangled. To that fish, it was just a pointy twig.
A quick YouTube search will lead you to how the commercial fishermen operate near Dauphin Island. They will pull up to a natural gas platform, beat off barnacles to chum the water, and use heavy tackle to heave these strong fish away from the pilings. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend banging on a gas platform. For one, you put your boat in danger of getting damaged from any rogue wake that pushes you too close to the metal pilings. Secondly, it’s not legal to take a gaff or bat to someone else’s property. Sure, you might be relieving them of a few pesky barnacles, but it’s not worth the risk.
Our technique is simple and effective. First, you want a good supply of hooks. You should expect to lose a hook every two fish, at least. Tiny size 8 treble hooks have shown us the best results. Too big and the fish won’t ever swallow the hook, too small and they will break you off immediately. Take one look into their mouths, and you will understand why it’s easy to miss a good number.
Second, we use small pieces of fresh dead shrimp or tiny live shrimp. Sheepshead are suckers for shrimp. They have also been known to enjoy pieces of barnacle or hermit crab. In an upcurrent position from the rig, we chum with a few dead shrimp, then add a tiny piece on the end of a barb into the depths. This is much like chunking bait for tuna. But, you have to make sure you put it right in their face. They don’t like to venture far from the safety of the reef. Every cast, I allow the bait to get so close to the rig that I risk losing it all with a snag.
Depending on the current and depth, you will need to add weight. A few split shot above the hook, or a bell weight below will give you the feel you need to sense a strike. Floats and heavy weights will decrease your ability to feel these fish take the bait. This can make for a frustrating day. The lighter the better. Furthermore, sheepshead’s small mouths require patience. Set the hook too soon, and you will pull away his meal. Let the fish eat for a few seconds before yanking on the line. Typically, you will begin feeling a bite as the bait falls out of sight from the surface.
Finally, the line is also an important factor to consider. We choose to make things fun. Flurocarbon is invisible, having a similar refractive index to water, and has more strength with less flexibility pound for pound than monofilament. I like to rig 15-20lb test leaders, using the smallest Penn spinning reels we own. After a fish or two, its imperative to check your line for frays. The smallest nick in the line turns 15-lb test into 3-lb test. Between barnacles and wrestling a fish through the vertical poles of the rig, this can be a time consuming task. But, it will avoid break offs and leaving fish with huge amounts of line in their wake.
After some trial and error, these small tweaks to the technique will show results. Find a good, calm, late winter day when tides are moving well, and you can load the ice chest. It has become an annual treat for our family, and it’s not uncommon to find fish that are 6-10 pounds a few miles offshore. For those who prefer to be even closer to land, the Theodore Industrial Canal provides plenty of deep water structure for small water fishermen. As a final word of caution to anglers, make sure you handle these fish like snapper. Their gill plates can be razor sharp and their spiny fins can be a hazard. Additionally, they require an electric knife to saw through their tough scales. It’s rough work, but after a few dashes of blackening seasoning, some olive oil, and Tony’s it will be apparent why this is truly the hidden jewel of the Spring.