Anglers, now that deer season is over, it’s time to check that fishing tackle and get ready for a late winter-early spring fishing bonanza with a species that was once relatively overlooked – sheepshead.
Craig Newton, Artificial Reef Coordinator with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Marine Resources Division (MRD), said sheepshead are a great target to shake the dust off the rods and reels.
“The timeline for sheepshead fishing lines up really well with outdoors enthusiasts,” Newton said. “The days are getting longer. You can have nice, pretty days in February. People feel like they can have an easy day on the water, make sure the boat is running good, and they have a good chance to come back with a nice bag of sheepshead fillets when they’re done.”
Newton said during the summer, fall and early winter, sheepshead are spread throughout the estuaries in tidal creeks, on grass flats, around structure, in river channels. In January, the fish will start aggregating in the lower end of the estuaries around deep-water structure, and they will continue that aggregation around nearshore structure in February.
“That’s when they do most of their spawning – in that February through March time period,” he said. “Given the limited amount of structure in the near coastal waters and lower end of the estuaries, they tend to be extremely abundant around the few structures that are there. We’re talking about structures that have barnacles in relatively salty water. They feed on the barnacles and the crustaceans hiding in the structure. You’ll find that type of habitat around the gas rigs. That’s where people typically start fishing for them in the lower end of the bays and nearshore waters.
“The jetties around Perdido Pass are a great place to catch sheepshead. The inshore reefs in Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound are also great places to catch sheepshead. Also, the Dauphin Island Bridge and Perdido Pass Bridge provide quality sheepshead habitat as well.”
MRD Director Scott Bannon said the sheepshead hotspots can get pretty crowded when the fish are hungry.
“I wish I had a picture of it, but I have seen the boats at Perdido Pass where you could almost jump from boat to boat and walk from one side to the other with people targeting sheepshead,” he said.
The most common tactic for catching sheepshead is to use live shrimp or live fiddler crabs. Before you get ready to head out on the water, make a few phone calls to the local bait shops to find out if they have live bait available.
“Fiddler crabs are my favorite bait,” Newton said. “If you’re quick enough, you can catch your own around the marsh edges, sandy shorelines with marsh grass and rock jetties. Even if you can’t find live bait, they’ll take peeled, fresh dead shrimp, also.
“But they are notorious bait thieves. It takes a little bit of practice and a light touch to feel their bites even when they’re feeding during the spawn.”
When you’re sheepshead fishing, if you toss a piece of bait into a promising spot and don’t get a bite within a couple of minutes, you’ve likely been robbed. You might as well reel the hook in and grab another bait.
It’s a good idea to carry plenty of sinkers, leaders and hooks because you are going to lose some tackle when you’re fishing around barnacle-encrusted rocks, pilings or gas platforms.
Depending on water clarity, you can start out with 10- or 12-pound-test line, but if you keep getting cut off, you’ll have to go with at least 15-pound-test. Fluorocarbon line also handles the abrasion better than monofilament.
When you look at the chompers in a sheepshead mouth, you can see that fine wire hooks are basically useless for these fish. Use strong hooks with a rod capable of muscling the fish away from the structure before you get cut off.
Newton said the sheepshead can spawn every few days during late winter and early spring, which means a great deal of energy is expended.
“They’re having to feed a lot during the spawn,” he said. “They’re very active. They might be less picky about the type of prey they’re chasing so they can keep burning calories to maintain their spawning frequency. It takes a lot of energy to spawn as much as they do during that February-March time period.”
After the spawn, the fish spread out again, and the eggs will flow back into the estuaries. Once they hatch, the larvae will use any type of structure available for refuge.
“The funny thing is the sheepshead are still there,” Newton said. “They’re just not aggregated. They’re in the tidal rivers, bayous, inshore reefs, the bridges and jetties. They’re just not as active as they are during the spawn when they’re trying to keep up with the caloric requirements for spawning. That’s when a fish that is tricky to catch to begin with becomes even trickier.”
Bannon said Marine Resources should have a full stock assessment of sheepshead soon with encouraging preliminary numbers.
“It looks like we have a healthy population, and it is an increasingly popular species to target because the prime time for catching them is kind of an off time for a lot of other species,” Bannon said. “Especially this time of year, the wind blows a lot, and the weather is cooler, so you can find locations to get out of the weather and still be able to catch sheepshead.
“When the weather is good, the inshore and nearshore gas production structures are good. Anything with structure.
Bannon said one of the great things about catching sheepshead is you don’t have to have a boat to do it.
“It is a species very available to shore anglers,” he said. “Sheepshead are often caught off public fishing piers, like Fairhope Fishing Pier, Cedar Point Fishing Pier, Gulf State Park Pier, Fort Morgan Pier as well as jetties and rocky shorelines.”
Although Alabama’s size minimum for sheepshead is 12 inches total length with a 10-fish bag limit, Newton and Bannon said a fish that measures 15 to 16 inches is a preferable size to keep.
“It takes that size to get a respectable fillet,” Newton said. “They have fairly large ribs and a very large head that take up most of their body.”
Anglers tend to agree. A trend Marine Resources has seen during the research for the stock assessment is that only a small percentage of the sheepshead kept are at the 12-inch minimum.
“Anglers are having the opportunity to catch big fish,” Bannon said. “Most of the fishing forums and Facebook pages are showing a lot of big fish.”
Speaking of big fish, in late October 2021, Wesley Olsen hauled in a huge sheepshead that weighed 14 pounds, 4 ounces to establish a state record. In March 2022, that record was replaced by a 16-pound, 6-ounce behemoth sheepshead caught by Kendale Jeans. The Jeans fish is more than a pound heavier than state records for Florida and Georgia.
Jeans proved all you need is the basic equipment to catch a big fish. Her husband, Donovan, bought her a Zebco 33 kit before they went fishing on a canal in Gulf State Park.
“We were fishing the weir with live shrimp,” Jeans said. “I was praying for a fish because we wanted to fry fish for supper. God gave me a big one. It took a while to get him in.
“We were loosening and tightening the drag, but we finally got him.”
“The record was broken twice in less than five months,” Bannon said. “Which shows there are some really big fish out there.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.