February is the perfect month, to me, for catching one of the hardest fish to land. I am talking about sheepshead that invade the rocky bottoms, docks, bridges and wrecks inside Tampa Bay. Sheepshead are nicknamed bait stealers or bandits for their cunning ability to steal your bait even before it hits the bottom.
The big females migrate in from the Gulf of Mexico to spawn somewhere around mid-to-late January, depending on water temperature, and hang around until late March. Sheepshead are great fighters on light tackle, especially the big females that range from 5 to 12 pounds. Feeding on mostly shrimp, fiddlers, small crabs and barnacles, they are considered great table fair. Some anglers even call them chicken of the sea.
Tackle changes depend upon where you are fishing for them. Around bridges and docks, light spinning tackle, 10-pound test braided line and 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader with a #1 or #2/0 Circle hook will work just fine. Fish hanging around these areas tend to be smaller, and most are males in the 1 to 3-pound class. The big females, on the other hand, prefer the deeper waters of the Bay, hanging around the ledges, wrecks and rock piles in anywhere from 12 to 30 feet of water and average in size from 4 to 12 pounds. Here, I prefer to use medium tackle, a 7-foot medium action rod with a larger spinning reel with 15-pound test braided line and 25-pound test fluorocarbon leader tied with a loop knot to a #2/0 circle hook. I use a Texas rig where the sinker slides on the leader just ahead of the hook. I also use a small glow soft bead, because this keeps the sinker from hitting the knot and the glow beads seem to draw the attention of the larger fish. If you can find small jig heads with #1/0 or 2/0 hooks, they also work great around bridges and rock piles.
Live shrimp, fiddler crabs, bloodworms and sand fleas are all great baits. Fiddler crabs work best, but tides and time schedules for me to catch the little critters make them second best to live shrimp. Since sheepshead are bait stealers, regular shrimp works best. Don’t waste money on medium or large shrimp, as there’s just more bait for them to steal.
Coast Guard charts are still the best way to find these bandits, because they show rocky bottom, ledges and wrecks. New software chips can show the contour of the bottom with rocks and ledges. C-Map Reveal and Navionics Platinum, to me, are the best with C-Map Reveal being a little better.
From shore, bridges, docks and rocky areas are favorite spots for sheepshead. On the water, their favorite spots are artificial reefs, wrecks, ledges and rocky bottom. Remember, the deeper water holds the bigger fish.
Shore Fishing spots:
· North side of St. Pete Gandy Bridge. There are plenty of rocks along the shoreline.
· Weedon Island Fishing Pier sits on an oyster bed, with great fishing all year round.
· Skyway Fishing Piers–both North and South piers. At the South pier, you can drift a live shrimp on a cork with the outgoing tide over the rock piles from the old bridge.
Boat Fishing spots:
· Howard Franklin Bridge rock jetties Tampa side, Gandy Bridge rock piles on the edge of channel and the South side of Gandy Blvd. (St. Pete side).
· Port Tampa rocks.
· Rocky seawall on the North side of St. Pete airport.
· Skyway Bridge large boat fenders.
· Range markers.
· Artificial reefs.
Fishing for the sheepshead can be a fun and rewarding experience. Hooking and fighting an 8 or 10-pound sheepshead will put a big smile on your face. And, if you have kids, they will love the experience.