Bait Stealers! Convict fish! Heads! One charter guide even calls them a “seven striped jetty snapper.” Whatever you call them, sheepshead are some of the most overlooked saltwater fish in Georgia. They fight hard and are really great to eat. But, for some people, catching them is a real chore. One look at the near perfect row of front teeth and you see why they are so aptly named. They really do look like the teeth of a sheep!
Lots of sheepshead are caught on the nearshore artificial reefs up and down the Georgia coast in the winter. Guides can make a really good trip on a nearshore venture in the winter and load the boat with ’heads. But now the sheepsheads are migrating back inshore from their winter homes. They spawn every spring around the inlets and cuts up and down the southeast Atlantic coast. Big schools and concentrations of these good-eating fish can be found in the spring, especially around the many inlets with jetties.
Behind the front row of teeth on a sheepsheads, located on the upper and lower part of the jaw, are crusher teeth. These are actually very hard bumps that come together when the sheepshead’s mouth is closed. They have a strong jaw, and they use these “bumps” to crush whatever food they have inhaled into their mouth. They crunch and grind a crab, or shrimp, or barnacle, spit out the shell parts and swallow the animal part. This crushing activity is something that savvy sheepshead anglers recognize.
Sheepshead are known as bait stealers. Many anglers keep losing their bait and never feel the fish. That’s because the sheepshead rarely grabs a bait and runs with it like most other fish. They approach a bait, inhale it to their crushers and grind literally without moving. This method of feeding is what makes them so difficult to catch—unless you learn a few tricks.
On a recent trip, we headed out from the public ramp at St. Marys just after sun-up. We had made the requisite stop at the ice house and bait shop, and because it was a weekday we pretty much had the boat ramp to ourselves. The offshore boys were launched and gone before daylight, and the inshore guides were already on the water taking advantage of the tide. We were headed to the St. Marys River entrance jetties.
Jetties are found along the Georgia coast in places like the Savannah River mouth, the St. Marys River entrance and Tybee Island. They protect dredged inlets and beaches from silting in by directing the tidal currents. They often extend as far as a mile out into the ocean or sound as is the case at St. Marys, and they are home to many species of fish. They offer a safe haven and a food source. And because they are visible, it’s easy to find where to fish. These jetties will be a home to small crabs and crustaceans, some oysters, and lots of barnacles. All of this marine life is the primary food for sheepshead.
The Right Tide
It was the last of the outgoing tide, my favorite tide to fish. We would be fishing as the water slowed, stopped and changed direction. I usually try to fish the last of the outgoing and the first of the incoming tide, especially along any jetties. Any other time, the current can be so strong it can be hard to get a bait to the bottom without using a window weight for a sinker.
Our bait this day was fiddler crabs. These are the standard sheepshead bait in our area, and the weather had warmed enough that the supplies in local bait shops are stable. Cold winter months send fiddlers deep into the sand, making them hard to harvest and scarce at the bait shops.
Actually, small live shrimp, and in a pinch small dead shrimp, can sometimes entice a sheepsheads. I have seen times when the live shrimp out-fished the fiddlers. I have caught a few sheepsheads on mud minnows, but they have been the exception rather than the rule.
There are two ways I fish with fiddlers. One is with a small sinker above a 12-inch leader and a 2/0 hook. The other method is to use a jig head with a 1/0 or 2/0 hook, usually 1/4-oz. or smaller. I prefer the jig head if there is any current at all; I will use the hook and sinker in a location where there is no current.
We use a short leader with the hook so that we can feel the fish. Sheepshead will come up to the bait, lightly suck it into their mouths and then sit still and crunch the crab off the hook. They are the ultimate bait-stealer fish. The short leader helps me lift the rod a short distance and feel the fish on the end. A longer leader allows too much slack, and the fish will invariably eat the crab without you feeling it.
With a jig, the weight is at the very end of the line, and I can feel the fish as soon as he picks up the bait, or rather inhales it. I fish the jig, like I do the hook and sinker, up off the bottom in the water column. I drop my bait into the water and allow it to head for the bottom. Once there I reel up a few cranks to get my bait up a few feet off the bottom.
Some anglers will use cane poles to catch sheepshead. A strong, 16-foot long pole, either cane or fiberglass or graphite, can make placing your bait a bit easier. A cane pole can also allow you to remain a few feet farther away from the jetties.
When using a cane pole, I keep the line length no longer than the pole itself. Usually I will make my line length about three-quarters the length of the pole. That allows me to lift the fish to the surface, and even with the pole bent to the weight of the fish, it will be at the surface next to the boat.
I have a trolling motor on my Seacraft, and I fish using it to keep me positioned along the rocks. I like to stay 15 to 20 feet off the rocks and fish straight down. But, depending on the wind direction, I can anchor my boat, using a jetty anchor, and allow it to swing close to the rocks. If you plan to anchor, make sure you are anchored securely and that your boat will not swing into the rocks. The jetty anchor I use is a homemade affair made from rebar welded into a 2-foot length of galvanized pipe. The rebar tongs allow me to retrieve an anchor that would ordinarily be lost to the rocks. The rebar bends under a lot of pressure. I also use a 4- to 5-foot length of chain ahead of the anchor.
So, we positioned the boat along the rocks—either with a trolling motor or an anchor, out toward the end of the jetties. For some reason that I have not really determined, we seem to catch more fish toward the end of the jetties than we do farther in the inlet. It’s probably because we fish there more than we do father in. Whatever the case, we caught fish.
The fish weren’t turned on like they are sometimes. I’ve fished these rocks when you could get a bite on every drop. You either hooked up, missed a fish or caught a fish every time. But, when we fished we had to work for the fish. A cold front had moved through the area, and we were fishing on the back side of that front.
I fish with light line. It’s partially because I like catching fish on light tackle, and partially because the lighter line catches more sheepshead. I really believe they can see the heavy line. So, the light line means that landing a fish requires a net.
When we fish for sheepsheads, we use what I call a lifting technique. A sheepshead’s bite is so subtle that most anglers won’t feel the fish on their line. I drop my bait to the bottom and reel up a few cranks to get the bait into the water column. Then it becomes a matter of lift and wait.
Lots of little “mother-in-law” fish will come from out of the rocks and grab at your bait. You can tell it’s them because they will be that little rat-tat-tat on the end of your line. The name is what we call them. They are actually a type of wrasse, similar to a seabass.
I slowly lift my rod to see if I feel any pressure. The sheepsheads will take the crab into his mouth and gently crush it. Once crushed, the shell, and of course the hook, are then spit out. You come in with no bait and no fish. Lifting helps me feel the fish. If a fish has the bait, you will feel pressure and once you learn the techniques you can sense the fish moving ever so slightly in the water. At that point I lift a bit more and begin reeling—slowly at first then getting faster. As the rod begins to bend and the fish moves away with the hook, I will set the hook. I believe the slight pressure I apply at first makes the sheepshead think it is losing a meal, and it clamps down on the bait.
With a cane pole, it’s a bit different. You must learn to watch your float if you are fishing with a float. The fish won’t pull the float under, but you will see that it is slightly moving maybe to the side. Or, the float may sit just a tad deeper in the water. Both situations indicate that a fish has the bait. That’s when I begin to lift the pole and apply a light pressure. As the fish turns, I will lift the pole harder, setting the hook.
You can use a hook and sinker or a small jig head on a cane pole, but it will wear you out in a hurry. You have to hold the bait up off the bottom, and that pole, regardless of what it’s made of, will get heavy in a hurry.
We moved back inshore later in the day, all the way back to the I-95 bridge over the St. Marys River. The pilings are covered with barnacles and small oysters, and on a slack tide (no current) you can fish around the pilings. The same techniques are at hand. The sheepshead feed on the barnacles, the oysters and all the small crabs that are there.
And, anywhere there is a dock, particularly an old barnacle- and oyster-encrusted dock, you will usually find sheepshead. On some trips, I look like a professional bass angler, on a run-and-gun trip, moving from dock to dock. If a sheepshead is around a piling, he will usually bite as soon as you drop your bait. Hanging around a dock for 30 minutes is wasting time. If the fish aren’t right there within a few minutes, move to another dock or another set of pilings.
On another recent trip, we fished around the jetties at the north end of the Jekyll Island ICW entrance. These are sometimes difficult to fish, because of boat traffic. Although boats are required by law to slow when passing an anchored boat, many large craft ignore that law. You can easily be washed up onto the rocks if you anchor to fish. So be careful! The ICW side of the rocks is deeper and will have more fish. The west side of the rocks is shallow but protected.
Did Someone Mention a Net?
How many times have you gone fishing and forgotten something? I left my landing net in the back of the truck! Every fish we brought to the side of the boat had to be lifted in by the leader— and a number of them broke off at that point, or had to be lifted in the boat by hand—and a number of dorsal fin wounds to our hands ensued. There is simply no easy way to hold a 5-lb. sheepshead.
This month head out when the water and air temperatures warm a bit. It means the sheepshead will be invading the rocks and inlets to spawn. You can catch your share if you plan it right.
About the time GON went to press, substantiated reports have been coming in of good numbers of sheepshead in the 10-lb. range being caught on the north jetties at the mouth of the St. Marys River. These larger spawning fish should remain in this area for at least a month. These reports mean that the jetties on the north side of the Savannah River entrance should be seeing the same thing. April will be a record sheepshead month by all accounts.