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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 Fall
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 confusion.
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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