Sheepshead are distinctive looking fish that live in marine waters on the east coast.
Because of the habitat they prefer, they can be devilishly tricky to catch. For some anglers, this makes fishing for sheepshead all the more fun. Once they’re out of the water, they’re nice on the dinner table too. In this article, we’ll go deeper into the identification, habitat, baits, lures, and delicious recipes for the sheepshead.
What is a Sheepshead?
The sheepshead, or Archosargus probatocephalus, is a game fish found on the east coast of North America, in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s got a high back and a short head, with a sharp, spiny dorsal fin. Its scales are hard like armor, which can make it difficult to clean. The sheepshead’s mouth is small but lined with very human-like teeth. These teeth are part of the reason they got their name because the teeth also look like sheep molars. Its blunt face and high back are also said to resemble a sheep, but this description takes a little imagination to see. Their bodies are decorated with four to five dark vertical stripes on a light gray background.
The male and female sheepshead look about the same but reach maturity at different ages. The males get there first, able to mate at three years. The females take another year and can mate at age four. They spawn all spring and the females normally lay around 87,000 eggs with each spawn. The offspring begin to resemble their parents when they’re about an inch long. Of course, not all of the eggs make it to adulthood. Plenty of predators eat the eggs and the juveniles. Even the adults aren’t free from predation; sharks like to take them on occasion. As far as size is concerned, the adults are typically around 19 inches long and two to five pounds. They can get up past 10 lbs. The record weight for sheepshead is just over 21 lbs.
The reason these fish have such disturbing-looking chompers is their diet of barnacles, crabs, and mollusks. They need strong jaws and large, flat teeth to crush open the hard shells of their prey. Although they sometimes supplement their diets with a little vegetation, it’s mostly these crunchy shellfish they consume. They’ve been known to chew the barnacles right off the sides of boats and piers.
For more pictures and facts on the sheepshead, check out this article by the Gulf Coast Research Lab at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Where to Find a Sheepshead
If you want to catch sheepshead, you have to find one first. We’ll start with worldwide locations and then drill down to habitat so you’ll know exactly where to cast your line and when.
On a global scale, sheepshead live in the western Atlantic ocean, off the east coast of North America. They inhabit waters from Maine to Mexico, but not as far south as the Bahamas or Caribbean. You can also find them in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s an area in New York, in Brooklyn, that’s named after these fish: Sheepshead Bay. Ironically, the fish aren’t in the bay anymore, due to a combination of factors, likely overfishing and pollution.
Euryhaline is a term that describes fish that can live in a wide range of different salinity. Sheepshead fit into this category which means you can find them in fresh, salt, and brackish waters. Check out areas with spring and river outlets during the winter, where the water’s warmer. While they do well in different salt levels, they don’t do well in low oxygen waters. Places with a recent algal bloom or swampy areas with decomposing vegetation.
They move closer and further from shore as the seasons change but don’t migrate like tuna or salmon. Sheepshead like hard-bottomed habitat in at least 10 feet of water. Keep an eye out for them near structures. Wrecks, jetties, docks, and piers are your friends when looking for sheepshead. They like being around structures not only because they provide shelter, but these are good places to find barnacles, crabs, and other prey.
The best times to go after sheepshead are when they’re spawning in the early spring. March and April bring the biggest groups of them. In summer, they spread out and move further from shore. Remember that local conditions can change the behavior of these fish. If you’re fishing in an unfamiliar area, the local anglers and bait shops can give you some tips.
You can read more about Sheepshead Bay on Forgotten New York’s website here.
Best Bait for Sheepshead
Once you’ve found a good pier or jetty to drop your line from, it’s time to figure out what to put on your hook. As with most fish, the best natural bait is what the fish are eating already. It doesn’t do any good to toss out a nice, juicy fly if the fish are at the bottom eating crabs. Bear in mind that sheepshead are notorious nibblers and it can be hard to sense when they’ve bitten. Instead of grabbing your bait and running off with it, they’ll suck it in and chew on it for a little while. Your rig should be set up to detect sensitive bites. Use a braided line, a mono leader, and keep the slack out of it whenever possible. When picking a leader, remember those teeth!
By far, the best bait is fiddler crab. You can fish them live or cut and catch them yourself on the beach. You will lose a lot of bait when fishing sheepshead, it’s just the nature of the animal. So, if you’re getting crab from a bait shop, you might want a couple dozen. Jigs and circle hooks work well for crab. Go with a #1 or 1/0 sized hook. Star from underneath the crab and bring the point of the hook right up through the center and out the top shell. Be careful not to crush the crab in the process. Some anglers remove the claw and some prefer to leave it alone. Either way, keep that claw secured while you’re putting the crab on the hook.
If fiddler crab isn’t available, a couple of good alternatives are small shrimp and barnacles. With shrimp, you want something smaller than 1.5 inches. If you have bigger shrimp, and it’s really fresh, you can cut it and use the pieces. Sheepshead won’t go for frozen shrimp, however, so the fresher you can get, the better. Barnacles are simple. You can break them off the side of structures to attract the sheepshead’s attention, or you can break one open and use the meat on your hook.
Best Lures for Sheepshead
If you can’t get ahold of live bait or simply have no place to store live bait, you can get away with a few different lures. This can eliminate the frustration of having to re-bait your hook as often. Soft lures work the best, but keep them small because sheepshead don’t have very big mouths. You’ll have the most success with lures that mimic crabs or shrimp. Chasebait Crusty Crabs are the right size and move realistically in the water. They are flexible but also pretty durable. Almost Alive Lures has a selection of fiddler crab lures so you can match the color to your local crabs.
When rigging up lures or live bait, you will definitely want either an egg sinker or some split shot to get the hook down to the fish. A Carolina rig is a popular choice. It consists of an egg sinker on the line, then a swivel connecting a two-foot leader with a hook on the end. As usual, you’ll want to only use enough weight to sink your lure. Anything too heavy will discourage the fish and you won’t get more than a nibble.
Find a good spot and drop your line straight down. The fish are more likely than not facing whatever structure they’re near, picking the barnacles off of its surface. Free-line your bait right into the eddies down current from wrecks or pilings.
For some good tips on fishing from different types of structures, check out The Angler Within’s article here.
How to Clean & Fillet a Sheepshead
The spines and hard scales of sheepshead can be intimidating when it comes to cleaning this fish. However, once you know how, it’s not a difficult task to ready this fish for the dinner table. All you need is a regular filet knife, nothing fancy. On the dorsal side of the fish, where the fin is, there’s a break in the scales. It’s a long line right next to the fin. Insert the tip of your knife there and cut in till you get to the backbone. With one hand lifting the top of the fish open, cut along the backbone, separating the meat. Do the same with the ribs. There’s a good amount of meat in the head too, so don’t stop with just the body.
Best Recipes for Sheepshead
Sheepshead are good eating. A lot of people say they taste like a sweet shellfish. Their firm, mild flesh doesn’t have that “fishy” taste. You can even sub sheepshead meat in scallop recipes. The traditional methods of preparing fish – baked, fried, grilled – all work for sheepshead. You can filet them first or cook them whole. There are loads of sheepshead recipes online, but here are a couple of favorites.
The Blackened Sheepshead with Basil Lime Cream Sauce has a nice little tang to it. Chilis and lime are a classic combo and a side of sliced avocado will cool the spice down. A blend of garlic, paprika, basil, and cayenne goes right onto the filet. Pan sear the filets while you mix up a sauce with sour cream, lemon juice, and more fresh basil. You can serve with or without a few jalapeno slices for an extra kick. Drizzle on the cooked fish and sit down for dinner.
Another great recipe is the Killer Sheepshead Tacos on this list of five sheepshead dishes. In this one, the sauce is made of mayo, sour cream, cayenne, lime, salt, and pepper. Pan-fry the filets with some Old Bay until flakey. Fresh salsa and shredded cabbage provide a counterbalance to the spicy fish and complete the taco. Don’t forget to serve with a lime wedge and some Tapatio. Enjoy!
Check out our other article, How to Catch a Bonefish