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Sheepshead Fishing 101: Everything Needed To Catch Convict Fish

Sheepshead Fishing 101: Everything Needed To Catch Convict Fish

Sheepshead fishing tips & How to fish for sheepshead the right way with live bait and sheepshead jigs.

One of the most natural fish to spot in the ocean is the sheepshead. Sheepshead fish are in the family Archosargus probatocephalus. Often you will hear anglers refer to them as convict fish, sheeps, sheephead, sheepshead seabream, and southern sheepsThese are all common names for them, but the one I hear the most is convict fish. Several things set them apart from other fish. They are the forgotten species of fish that are fun to catch and make for a better meal. 

What does a sheepshead fish look like?

Sheepshead fish have particular traits to them that set them apart from most other fish. The most common would be their teeth. Their teeth almost look human-like. 

What does a sheepshead fish look like?

What does a sheepshead fish look like?

The human-like teeth include incisors, molars, and grinders. They have these teeth because of their diet of eating barnacles, crabs, other hard crustaceans, and mollusks they find in their inshore and offshore environment. Then next common thing about sheepshead is their stripe pattern. They resemble verticle black bars on both sides of the fish. This is what gives the fish its nickname of the convict fish. The only other inshore species of fish that often gets misidentified due to its stripes are the juvenile black drum. Often, sheepshead fish only have 5 to 6 stripes on each side. The last thing that sets the sheepshead apart from almost all other fish is their sharp spines that are strong on the dorsal and anal fins. Sheepshead fish are quite common, and range quite dramatically in size. Most commonly, you will find fish between 1-4 pounds, with plenty up to 5-7 pounds. At over 10 pounds, they are becoming rare, although the world record for sheepshead is 21 pounds and 4 ounces.

Small sheepshead fish while sheepshead fishing

Small sheepshead fish while sheepshead fishing.

 

Where are sheepshead fish found?

Sheepshead feeding around the pylon of a dock

Sheepshead feeding around the pylon of a dock.

Sheephead fish are plentiful in the waters around Florida, Georgia and the Carolina's, mostly living around structures like pylons, docks, retaining walls, rocks, and reefs where they can easily find their source of food, which is barnacles, shrimps, and other mollusks. When sheepshead fishing, they can be found in both inshore and offshore. Most anglers fish for sheepshead from a boat or a structure such as a pier. They tend to stick close to structures, so you are unlikely to catch one in open water, and when casting your line, you should aim to stay near to the structure. They will bite at both incoming and outgoing tides. If you’re fishing from the shore, it’s best to choose a time when the tide is high, as this gives the fish better access to the barnacles on the structures and thus attracting more fish. Sheepshead spawns in February to March, so fishing during these months is more likely to give you a high success rate; the fish are gathering, and are especially hungry. However, you can catch them year-round, and they make excellent winter fishing.

How to catch sheepshead fish?

When Sheepshead fishing, it is imperative to have the right equipment for catching them. The makeup of the sheepshead mouth makes them a challenge to catch. The teeth are one of the things which present a problem with this fish; their mouths have few soft spots between the teeth, which can make hooking them a challenge for any angler. Having the right sheepshead hook can make all the difference. There are a wide variety of hooks that work well for catching sheepshead. Often you can buy them by themselves or find sheepshead jigs using these specific hooks. Several factors that help determine a good hook for sheepshead fishing are size, strength, and sharpness. There have been many times I have hooked a sheepshead and had the hook has broken in half due to the sheepshead's strong jaws. The overall size of the mouth for this species of fish is rather small. Using hooks that are too large can be too big actually to fit in their mouths. The hooks need to be sharp enough to penetrate the sheepshead bony mouth. In our experience, some of the best hooks to use are the Mustad 2/0 and 3/0 Octopus hooks. As for what is the best weight to use with your hook or jig determines the location you are fishing and the depth as well. Often the preferred jig weight is 3/8oz to 1/2oz. If you are using a free hook, the best weight would be an egg sinker weight with a swivel. This set up has produced plenty of sheepsheads when fishing with the right bait. Always remember just to use enough weight to get you to the depth at which you will be fishing. The sheepshead fish are almost ninjas like hitting the hook, so the more sensitivity in the line, the better your chances of a hookup.

The right rod and reel is always an essential piece of equipment when sheepshead fishing. One thing to remember is to have a rod and reel that can handle a decent size fish. It's necessary to have saltwater rod and reel because they hold up better in saltwater, but the most critical aspect is the sheepshead rod. Have a rod that has enough force to be able to set the hook on a large sheepshead but enough play in it to detect a bite. Our recommendation would be to use a saltwater rated inshore spinning reel with enough torque to be able to pull the sheepshead off and out of the structure. Our go-to saltwater spinning reels are canyon reels. They make a great reel that can handle any of the fish you want to catch and not break the bank. The rod should be a medium-light rod to ensure you can feel the bite. Check out our rod guide and reel guide for picking out your next sheepshead fishing set up.

Another thing anglers must consider is the fishing line going on your rod. Have too heavy pound test can yield fewer bites due to not being able to feel the bites. The perfect pound test for sheepshead fishing is 10lb to 20lb test. This allows for you to be able to land even the biggest sheepshead that you hook. It’s generally agreed upon by anglers that a braided line gives the best sensitivity to this light bite, and will, therefore, provide the best chance of catching something. It’s also not recommended to use a very long leader line, which will reduce this sensitivity. The only type of line that you will find on my rods is Vicious fishing line. When using fluorocarbon Leader Line with my braid, go with Seaworx Fishing Gear. This leader line will withstand the elements of fishing in and around structures.

What Is The Best Bait For Catching Sheepshead?

Sheepshead Fishing With Fiddler Crabs

Sheepshead Fishing With Fiddler Crabs.

One thing I always do when sheepshead fishing is trying to think like the fish, I often think what are the fish feeding? This is one of the reasons when I clean fish for food; I always check the contents of their stomachs to see what they are feeding on in the wild. I will then cater my fishing style to what they are eating. Sheepshead can be attracted by a variety of live bait, including fiddler crabs (their favorite), or other crabs, live or freshly dead shrimps, oysters, clams, and barnacles. Getting these to stay on the hook might be more difficult, but will be worth the effort. During certain times of the year, even bare Sheepshead jigs will occasionally succeed in attracting a bite from fish. My father always told me that a perfect way to attract them is to scrape some of the barnacles off of whatever area I am fishing. This trick creates a natural chum in the water, which will bring the fish to feed. This can help you save on bait, and will attract a more significant number of fish to you.

Sheepshead Jigs for Sheepshead fishing

Sheepshead Jigs for Sheepshead fishing.

One of the best sheepshead lures is sheepshead jigs. These football jigs, paired with an octopus hook, is the perfect lure for successfully catching sheepshead. The movement of the hook presents the bait naturally to the sheepshead and usually ends up in more frequent hookups. Make sure you are using shrimp or fiddler crabs on your jigs. These seem to work the best. One of the sheepshead jigs I prefer to use then offshore fishing is the bottom sweeper jigs. They make a heavier jig compared to traditional swing jigs that are perfect for getting your bait to the bottom.

As mentioned above, the best live bait to use is fiddler crabs. The beauty of using fiddler crabs is you can find them at almost any saltwater boat dock or any marsh area. Catching your own can be fun. Check out our Fiddle King article for great tips on catching fiddler crabs. Live crabs always seem to be on their diet, but frequently you can catch them on frozen crabs as well. Many people often as me, What is the best way to put a fiddler crab onto the hook? It looks like it can a difficult task, but honestly, it is pretty straightforward. The fiddler crab should be hooked from the bottom near its back legs with the hook protruding from the top. If you are using the male fiddler crabs with its massive claws, then remove them before baiting. By hooking them toward the back allows for the fiddler crab to remain alive and look more natural on the hook.

Another type of bait that I have used successfully is live shrimp. We catch all our shrimp live on the mudflats by throwing cast nets. Fish these live shrimp by hooking them through their back carapace without piecing their black dot, which is their brain. Fish these live shrimp under bridges near pylons, around jetty rocks, near a dock or anywhere there is the structure that the sheepshead can be feeding. Other species of live bait that work exceptionally well are different species of crabs like blue crabs and mud crabs, sand fleas, clams, oysters, or clumps of barnacles. I even know a few guys who have told me they catch all their sheepshead on oysters. Getting your bait to stay on the hook can be a problem with a few of these baits, so it may take a little practice to be successful with them. 

The Best Sheepshead Fishing Techniques

Sheepshead fish are rather easy to fish. It is because of this that anglers of all experience levels can catch them. The challenging part can be fishing around structure. Be prepared to get snagged and lose hooks. Often anglers can see sheepshead in the water feeding on structures when this happens; one of the best techniques for fishing them is the float by. Cast your bait a little up from where you think they are feeding. Allow the current or gently jig your jig or hook in front of them and watch for the bite. If you are fishing around a pylon or on a pier, drop your jig directly down it and begin to slowly vertical jigging it back up. The feeding sheepshead will almost hit this every time. The biggest challenge is feeling the bite. One reason they are referred to as the convict fish is that they are so good at taking the bait from your hook. The reason for this is because they try to crush the bait with their teeth and grinders. If you think a bite is happening, then set the hook hard to ensure it pierces the mouth of the sheepshead. Most times, anglers will become frustrated with missing hits, but the seasoned anglers will know this is part of fishing for sheepshead.

Are sheepshead fish good to eat?

The legal size and bag limit for convict fish varies according to states. Sheepshead fish are some of the best eating fish of the inshore species. They tend to be a pretty bony fish, but anglers can get two nice fillets off of the larger ones. Sheepshead are very tasty, because of their diet, it makes their meat sweet and tender. When filleted and cooked correctly, you should finish up with two reasonable-sized fillets perfect for your next dinner.

Funny Sheepshead Fishing

Funny sheepshead fishing photo with gold grill.

Conclusion

Sheepshead fish are a popular fish for a whole variety of reasons, but at the least, they are a tasty treat when caught. While they present some difficulties concerning being hard to feel and hook, they require minimal equipment, so they’re perfect for a part-time enthusiast or beginner, as well as offering a challenge even for the more seasoned fishermen. Get out there and try your luck sheepshead fishing using live bait and sheepshead jigs. You will get a great fight and an even better dinner out of it.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to leave us a comment below or email us at info@HFDepot.com. We would also love to see all of your sheepsheads catches, so make sure you send us all your great catches to be featured on our social media pages. Check out sheepshead nation and join the community of like-minded anglers who share a passion for sheepshead fishing today. Find other excellent sheepshead fish information and sheepshead recipes here on hfdepot.com. We look forward to hearing about your sheepshead fishing adventures using live bait and sheepshead jigs to catch them.

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Comments

jason - November 24, 2017

hey rich, you can go anywhere off a pier and catch sheeps. i’m on mississippi coast, i’m assuming florida is the same. i’ve caught them off of little docks, marinas, long piers, even off pylons/trestles in biloxi bay and ponchartrain all year long. you don’t need a fancy rig. i got a couple cheap mitchel medium weight rigs from walmart bargain bin for twenty a piece. i’ve caught them without leaders on speckled trout rigs, even caught some on hermit crabs. i’ve seen guys scraping barnacles off piers to bait them and lucky guys with patience to go find fiddlers. they are fun to catch, and not too hard to fillet. i see guys using great big knives to fillet ‘em, i prefer the tip of my little filet knife to really get in there and be precise. good luck- i’ve never even seen those football jigs or sheepy specialty jigs… i will have to try, good article.

RIch Hoskins - November 24, 2017

I have never salt water fished and living in Florida sounds like Sheepshead would be a good start for me. Not sure where to go living in Central Florida. What is a good beginner Salt water reel and rod. I am kind of fond of anything Uglystik and Diawa

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