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Don't shun the winter sheepshead

By ED WALKER, Times Correspondent
Published December 10, 2005

Seldom regarded as one of Florida's prized game fish, sheepshead are hard fighters and better on the table than many folks realize. And starting sometime this month the biggest of the species will start to migrate from rivers, creeks and oyster bars to the reefs and wrecks up to 15 miles offshore, where spawning takes place usually in January and February. Swarms of the big striped fish gather over rock piles and man-made reefs where they intermingle with gag grouper and mangrove snapper. On many occasions divers targeting gags have dropped in on a large showing of fish visible on the depth recorder only to be greeted by huge schools of sheepshead hovering above a rock pile.

The Nature Coast produces many of the biggest sheepshead found on the gulf coast. During the spawning season, 6-pounders are fairly common and some over 10 pounds are taken.

Veteran anglers already have started carrying a few lighter rods and a bucket of fiddler crabs offshore with them. Even if the grouper bite is slow, sheepies often take up the slack and help fill the cooler.

To locate them, watch the bottom machine for signs of fish suspended over structures. Grouper usually hug the bottom, but sheepshead remain higher in the water. When conditions are right you may even be able to see the top of the school just below the surface. Another bonus is that they bite good in clean or dirty conditions, often eating better in dirty water when many other fish will not.

To catch them, use a 20-pound outfit rigged with a 2-ounce sliding sinker, 2 feet of 30-pound monofilament leader, a 1/0 hook and a fiddler crab directly below the boat. When you feel a tap or a slight heaviness, give the rod a sharp jab to set the hook. If you miss, your bait is most likely gone and it's time to start over.

Fresh shrimp also work, but you will have to weed through a lot of other small fish when using them.

After the bite gets going, double-headers are common. Be sure to drop a grouper rig down from time to time, because the gags are often attracted to the activity and commotion near the bottom.

The knock on sheepshead is that they are hard to clean, which is true compared to some fish. The meat, however, is worth the effort.

One way to make the cleaning job easier is to start by running your fillet knife along the back, in from the dorsal spines and work your way lower. When you reach the heavy bones of the rib cage, run the knife around them rather than trying to cut through. Because the rib cage section is usually cut off, there is no reason to include it in your fillet. Electric knives are also great for cleaning big-boned fish.

Smaller sheepshead have very little dark flesh, but the giants tend to have a bit more. Remove the skin and trim off any red meat. The remaining portion is one of the best fish for blackening available.

The minimum size is 12 inches and the daily limit is 15 per person. Some spots where the sheepies typically congregate for spawning are the Pasco No. 1 Reef at 2815.413, 8257.019; Pasco No. 2 Reef at 2817.637, 8301.123; off Tarpon Springs at Cutter Rock at 2830.9000, 82-50.000; and the "Reef Ball" Reef at 2830.080, 8258.480) off Hernando.

[Last modified December 10, 2005, 00:51:18]

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