A Sheepshead Story

Capt Sonny Schindler and his daughter Margot with a nice winter break sheepshead.

I got a call from one of my best customers one chilly winter day. He was vacationing down in south Florida, sitting in some high-end restaurant. He was screaming into the phone, “they got Sheepshead on the top of the menu, it’s right next to the freakin’ lobster!” I have been begging him for years to come fishing over the winter, to get in on the great near shore sheepshead fishing. Every winter he refuses, opting only to fish during the warm weather for trout and triple tail. My reply to him (jokingly of course) was, “I been trying to show you some culture, you thick headed redneck!”

In the northern gulf, we have it pretty darn good. We get treated to warm weather for the majority of the year, and great fishing every month of the year. Yes, our beloved speckled trout, reds, and flounder can get a little skittish during the “colder” winter months, but there is still great fishing to be had. Enter the sheepshead, hands down the most underrated fish in the gulf.

When the mercury starts dropping in late fall, the hard fighting sheepshead flock to the countless structures (reefs, bridges, pilings) that line the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The sheepshead can be caught year-round, but the winter months are without a doubt the best time of the year to really work on them.

With decades of experience fishing for sheepshead, Capt Robert L. Brodie (Team Brodie Charters Biloxi, MS) has certainly fine-tuned his technique. The first thing Capt Brodie looks for is moving water when targeting sheepshead. Brodie explains, “I have worked the same structure for over an hour with no bites until the water moved. When that tide kicks, it is like a light switch, and they just turn on.” Capt Brodie prefers live shrimp but likes them on the smaller side. “The larger shrimp just seem to get stolen, I will even break the tails off the bigger ones and thread them on a hook – tail first, towards the head.” He does admit that fiddler crabs are the best baits for sheepshead but are a chore to catch. Brodie catches sheepshead year round but does the best from October to April. March is the peak month when the fish are thick during their spawn.

Rigging for sheepshead revolves around hook size for Brodie. He prefers the small 1/0 Gamagatsu octopus hooks. The smaller hooks get the job done better for the often soft nibbles of even the biggest sheepshead. Brodie does admit, “sometimes they just slam the bait, but other times they just slowly take it and swim off without the tell-tale tap-tap. I have watched a sheepshead stare at a bait for 5 minutes before he got the guts to hit it, they can be funny sometimes.”

Stephanie Schindler with a nice sheepshead she caught in Bay St Louis.
Meghan Elizabeth and Allie Verde of New Orleans, with two warm weather sheepsheads.

Capt Kenny Shiyou (of Shore Thing Charters in Bay St Louis, MS) has strong opinions about sheepshead. Shiyou tells, “Just ask any old timer. There was a time not too long ago when triple tail, tuna, even redfish were not considered good eating. Some guy on tv with a big white hat tells them it is gourmet and they go wild for it.” Speaking of big white hats, Shiyou had some of the biggest named chefs in New Orleans on his boat last year. “All of them served sheepshead at their restaurants.” He likes eating them but really loves catching the big ones. You can normally get all you want on those man-made reefs off the beach. For the big ones (6-10 pounders) Shiyou heads out to the deeper water. When the weather allows, he usually sneaks offshore to fish the wells and reefs in 12 to 40 feet of water. “When you hit it right, you can see them. They will hit just about anything you throw out there, even artificial.”

Always up for a good joke, Shiyou will fry, bake and grill those white fillets and invite people over to eat. “I usually tell them it is grouper or snapper while they are eating it, no one has ever been able to tell the difference.”

Regardless, where or how you catch sheepshead both Captains Brodie and Shiyou agree on one thing. Take what you need and leave the rest for the next guy. There is no limit on sheepshead in Mississippi or Louisiana. Alabama has a liberal limit of 10 fish per person per day (12-inch fork length).

So, this winter when you are done hunting or looking for a good excuse to run your boat, get in on the fun. Sheepshead are hard fighting and great tasting fish that are plentiful when many are not in the colder months. Don’t knock it till you try it. As always, have fun and be safe.

Captain Sonny Schindler
Shore Thing Fishing Charters
Bay St Louis, MS