Migrating Sheep

By: Captain John Curry

Mostly I write about the more glamorous species like stripers, snook, redfish and tarpon, but sometimes bridgeyou have to give credit to those species that have a diehard following. The sheepshead is one of those species here in Southwest Florida. Nothing creates a buzz with the older fishing crowd than when the sheepshead migrate inshore to spawn during our winter months. You can always tell by the different boats at the launch this time of year that the ole striped convicts are here. The normal bay boats with towers and the latest fishing technology are sharing the same ramp with a 16’ aluminum boat with the basics like a cooler, an old anchor, garden hoe and a few spinning rods. Yup, the “tin boats” take over. These old guys know a thing or two about filling a cooler full of sheepshead and that is the only thing their after.  This is not a sporting adventure, but more of an annual rite of passage.

fishSheepshead begin migrating inshore around Thanksgiving to the brackish areas near oyster bars, piers and bridge pilings. They feed on a variety of crustaceans like shrimp, clams, fiddler crabs and barnacles. That’s why those tin boaters bring and old rusty garden hoe. They scrape the bridge pilings to loosen the barnacles and this is one of the best methods to chum up a school of sheepers. sheepshead have human like incisors similar to our tautog up north. They can scrape barnacles and withtheir hard “chrusher” like throat they can even crush hard shell clams. Sheepshead are notorious bait stealers with this dental work. A light spinning outfit is a must to feel their light bite and set the hook fast as you can as you only get one chance before you have to re bait your hook.  I like to use a small split shot sinker and hook tipped with half of a fiddler crab. Like fishing for black sea bass up on the Cape, I tell my client to set the hook hard if they even think a fish is “breathing” on their bait. Here on Charlotte Harbor we have a perfect place to fish for sheepshead with the old phosphate train bridge spanning almost a mile between the main land and Boca Grande. On a busy weekend you will see many boats tide directly to the old bridge dropping baits against the pilings. With a generous bag limit of 15 fish and a minimum length of 12” you can see why they are such a popular winter species to target.  And of course they are excellent eating. Just make sure you bring a knife sharpener to the cleaning table as they have very tough skin. I like to target them as part of my charters when clients want fresh fish for dinner. That way we can release the more prestigious snook and reds for a perfect day on the water.

Capt. John Curry can be reached at www.capefishing.net or jtcurry77@gmail.com.