For years, I tried to get a sheepshead to eat a fly. I got close, but couldn’t make it happen. I tried all sorts of flies and in all sheepy haunts, but with no success. I was a skilled sheepshead bait fisherman, so how hard could this be? Was I using the wrong fly, the wrong approach, or in the wrong place? Catching sheeps on the go-to fiddler crabs, barnacles and shrimp can be tough – on fly, well, it’s enough to make you quit.
But, I didn’t quit and finally figured it out. The fly is, of course, important, but I learned it’s the method that’s key. Sheepshead are referred to as “convicts”, because with their huge, sheep-like teeth, they can pick the bait off the hook of the most skilled anglers. Even when you’re tight to a fish, it’s easy to lose them because of their big chompers. The hook must be seated just right in their mouth. J-hook, circle hook, it doesn’t matter. It’s always a tough game.
Introduce the sheepshead on fly scenario, and the game just got tougher. I tried docks, bridge pilings, shallow reefs, beaches, etc. Fish would eye my presentation, but never commit. Some would take a quick peck at the fly, then leave. I almost threw in the towel. As a seasoned fly fisherman, it was super frustrating. Then it happened.
I gave up on the mission for a number of years before befriending two phenomenal fly tiers who ran the fly fishing pro shop at Tampa Fishing Outfitters – Captain Keaton Anderson and Marvin Cogar. I was impressed by these young guns’ beautiful – and functional – creations. And, they were catching sheepshead on fly! I had to know the deal.
It makes sense that using a fly that imitates crustaceans is the way to go. A small crab or shrimp pattern will do, since we know that sheepshead eat them year-round. So, what was I doing wrong? Admittedly, I was handed a fly or two that might up my odds. But, it wasn’t the fly so much as the presentation that made the difference. Fishing on foot, I found a school of sheeps on a small, shallow rock pile, and took more time to study their behavior. This was the game changer. I noticed that, unlike bait fishing, when they’ll eat a shrimp or crab in almost any part of the water column, they would only pay attention to my fly when it was sitting motionless on structure. I finally got the eat.
It still wasn’t easy though. Mostly, the fish would swim by, ignoring my fly sitting on the rock. Being patient and not moving the fly was the key. Sheepshead are spooky, so it wasn’t until they were relaxed and no longer fearing predators that they began to feed. Even then, many feeding fish would move right past my fly as if it wasn’t there. The temptation to re-locate the fly was almost too much. Remaining patient and motionless was the answer. It was pure sight fishing, as I watched the fish chew the fly without hesitation. I raised my rod in a trout-set fashion and came tight. Mystery solved.
I continued to work the school with a few curious fish here and there with no eats. But, now I know the trick. I suggest a small fly and light leader. Big sheepshead pull hard, so I suggest at least a 6 wt. fly rod. Mostly, be stealthy. A spooked fish will remain that way longer than you may care to wait. And the cherry on top, there’s hardly a better table fare out there, so if it’s in the slot, put this one on ice.