Many people would agree that as far as seafood goes, sheephead are one of northeast Florida’s top table-fare. As the water starts to cool down, or warm up (given the last month of brutal cold weather), sheephead should start stealing many a jetty fisherman’s bait, thus adding another wrinkle to the well known name of “convict fish.” Fishing for “heads” is a type of fishing where, many say, you have to set the hook when you think that the sheephead is just about to bite. There are plenty of proven methods to catch sheephead and in this article I will explain the two methods that, I feel, produce the most and are the most effective.
Before we start I feel that there are two things that everyone must know:
1)Sheephead love structure — ex. rocks, docks, rubble, reef, and anything with pilings in deep enough water for them to swim and eat.
2) Sheephead love crustaceans and mollusks — ex. fiddler crabs, shrimp, barnacles, blue crab (pieces), clams, oysters and mussels.
If you are given a situation where any of those examples from numbers 1 and 2 are combined, odds are there is going to be a sheephead in the mix as well. My bait of choice is the fiddler crab. A great secondary bait would be oysters, however, fiddlers are way easier to manage, less messy, and seem to stay on the hook a heck of a lot better than oysters do.
With that knowledge filed away, there are two really good methods needed in your repertoire to produce the coveted fried sheephead sandwich. One is the “conventional” method of sheephead fishing which requires the use of four components: sinker, swivel, 20lb test leader line and a No. 4 or No. 6 wide bend hook. This is usually called the “drop down” method and for starters, combine the four components listed above and make a “Carolina Rig” (from rod tip to hook in this order) weight, swivel, 6-10 inches of leader then hook. The fiddler should be hooked from front to back, right underneath one of the claws. This next part is important: only the tiniest part of the hook should protrude from the back of the fiddler. This will insure a lot less snags. I love to use as little lead as possible as to feel the bite better. Another good tip is to shorten up on your leader. Sheephead fishing doesn’t require as long of a leader as, let’s say, flounder or other striking fish. You want to have control over your bait and a twelve inch leader is pushing it on the long side. I like 6 inch leaders and it helps in keeping the fiddler on or just off of the bottom.
When fishing this method, every so often you will need to raise your rod tip. So many sheephead will put a fiddler crab in their mouths and grind it. They do this by moving it back and forth, in and out of their mouths. Fishermen call this “sand-bagging” and eventually the sheephead works the hook out. By lifting the rod tip occasionally you can feel the extra weight on the other end of your line and set the hook. I like using this method best when the current is barely moving or slack because I can use a light weight. Using as light of a weight, as the current allows, will help you out immensely in feeling the sheephead’s bite as it tends to “sandbag” on your bait. Lastly, the “dropdown” method is great for when the current slows also because I find that the sheephead tend to scour the rocks (come out of the crags and crevices) a little bit more when the current isn’t running as much.
“Conventional methods can be used when the current is barely moving or slack. A lighter weight will help you feel the sheephead’s bite as it tends to “sandbag” on your bait. I find that, in this tidal scenario, the sheephead tend to scour the rocks and come out of the crags.”
When the current is running I prefer to use jigs and cast fiddlers or shrimp up into the crags and crevices of the jetties. There you will find the sheephead laying out of the current and foraging on whatever floats past their faces. For this method you will need a ¼ oz jig called a Lil’ Sparkie and 20 lb. test leader line. The leader line attaches right to your fishing line via the Albright knot or a variety of other line to line knots. Attach the Lil’ Sparkie and hook up the fiddler crab the same way as you did with the “dropdown” method. Don’t get me wrong, other jigs work but the Lil’ Sparkie sits the fiddler up on the rocks in a natural position. If you can’t or do not have the materials to make your own Lil’ Sparkie jigs, check your local bait and tackle stores.
“When the current is running I prefer to use jigs and cast fiddlers or shrimp up into the crags and crevices of the jetties. There you will find the sheephead laying out of the current and foraging on what ever floats their way.”
All fish generally love to conserve their energy. What you should be looking for, when the current is running, are places for the sheephead to get out of the current. For example, big rocks or pilings that break the current or little bowls in the jetty rock where they can get out of a hard running current and rest are best. Find these spots and always cast down current. That way if you get snagged, the current may work you out of it. Wait for your fiddler to settle in the rocks and wait for a slight tug or steady pull. Every few minutes without a bite, raise your rod tip and reel in the slack. When your bait pulls too far away from the rocks, due to the current, reel it in a re-cast tightly to the rocks. I hope that this helps and see you on the water!
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