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Sheepshead - Spring & Fall Favorite
by John Hook
Bay Naturalist Spring 2007
Sometimes referred to as the convict fish,
for obvious reasons, sheepshead are popular choices when Plan A fails.
- Sheepshead - Found in abundance Spring and
- Cold fronts and miserable weather aren't completely behind us in March
and April. If you doubt that fact for even a minute just try scheduling
a fishing weekend more than about five days in advance. Odds are high that
Plan B will rear its ugly head, again.
- However, the seemingly endless slow days on the bay since last fall's
great fishing are officially over if you are willing to accept two conditions.
First, there's that pesky weather issue and second you need to target the
swarms of sheepshead ganged up around hard structure at every pass from
Texas to Florida.
- Agreed that might not get your adrenaline flowing like sight casting
to tailing reds or sow trout busting topwater baits. But, you have to admit
that it's hard to argue with fast fishing for hard fighting, not to mention
tasty fish, especially right on the heels of winter. If you need cover
for your reputation as a trout and red specialist, this is the perfect
opportunity to take some kids fishing and you won't have to admit to anyone
that you enjoyed every second of catching some yourself! Don't procrastinate
though, if you miss this run you won't get another chance at sheepshead
swarms until next spring. Sure there'll be the occasional accidental convict
captured throughout the rest of the year, but it won't be anything like
the show that's available for about six weeks every March and April.
- Science wasn't really very interested in sheepshead until about twenty
years ago when commercial fishing restrictions on bay fish became much
more intense. When "bay snapper" started showing up on menus
biologists started paying attention to sheepshead life history. It was
quickly discovered that every spring sheepshead return from their wintering
grounds in the Gulf to waters near shore and passes to spawn.
- Another early study indicated that these fish were primarily vegetarians,
which was quite a surprise for folks who had been catching them with shrimp
and fiddler crabs for years. Another study found that sheepshead needed
to be regulated very closely because they grew so slowly that even small
fish were eight to ten years old. As sheepshead were investigated further
it became clear that this fish had an unusual life history and it didn't
help that a general study of Gulf fish made nearly a century ago probably
made a math error by reversing the conversion of pounds to kilograms. This
simple error caused the maximum size of sheepshead to be published as 145
pounds instead of the much more realistic thirty; so no wonder there was
- The diet and growth rate issues were resolved when other studies revealed
that sheepshead are actually opportunistic omnivores (they'll eat pretty
much anything) and that they have a two stage growth pattern. They reach
sexual maturity at twelve inches in three or four years and then growth
slows dramatically with a five-pound fish being a twenty year old. That
presents interesting management problems for the fishery guys trying to
protect the overall population.
- Since sheepshead yield only about 20 percent of their body weight in
filets, a keeper needs to be at least 12-inches long. But you also want
to protect the larger fish that took so long to become spawners. It could
be looked at as a very similar situation to managing redfish where adults
in the offshore Gulf are protected as valuable spawners and the juvenile
harvest is managed in the bays. The only difference is that a juvenile
redfish has enough meat on it to warrant harvesting and a ten inch sheepshead
really doesn't. Gulf-wide the management solution is nearly as confusing
as everything else with sheepshead. Texas acted to impose what most fishermen
considered a ridiculously low five fish limit, Florida a more generous
15 fish limit and Louisiana doesn't regulate sheepshead at all!
- No matter how many you intend to keep, the sheepshead legend is that
they're so tricky to catch that you have to set the hook before they bite.
Most fishermen believe that the real challenge happens during the cleaning
process when you try to leave less of your blood on the table than theirs.
Sheepshead are armed and dangerous. Their dorsal, anal and pelvic fins
all bear vicious spines that guard those delicious filets and they will
definitely get your attention if you are not intensely careful. A good
self preservation trick is to snip off those daggers with kitchen shears
before you start scaling or filleting.
- Regardless of what you do with them once you've got them, now is the
time because spring is for sheepshead.
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