Don't shun the winter sheepsheadBy ED WALKER, Times
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
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
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
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
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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