While staring through a hole in the ice might sound like February fun for a fisherman up north, down here in sunny Florida we head to the nearest fishing pier to catch sheepshead this time of year.
You may not have heard of this species. In fact, Archosargus probatocephalus doesn’t even warrant a mention in the Species Identification section of the International Game Fish Association record book.
But if you're a sporting type, looking for some action, or a hunter-gatherer hoping to put some food on the table, read on.
Now is the time to catch these tasty bottom dwellers.There’s an old adage that if you want to catch sheepshead, the first thing you have to learn is how to set the hook before you feel the fish bite. These creatures are notorious nibblers, and if take one look at their human-like choppers, and you'll understand why.
The Gulf Coast of Florida has hundreds of great sheepshead spots. You’ll find these finicky eaters in the residential canals, along rocky channel edges and, of course, under docks. These unappreciated sport fish feed on everything from barnacles to shrimp.
Old timers call this bottom dweller the “convict fish.” Some suggest that's because of the sheepshead's distinctive stripes, like those on the uniforms worn by convicts on a chain gang. Others, this writer included, disagree and contend the name comes from the species' legendary reputations as bait thieves.
A member of the porgy family, the sheepshead is a close relative and constant companion of another well-known bait bandit, the pinfish. These two fish usually share the same space, and as a result, the angler’s greatest challenge is learning to tell the difference between the pinfish’s nibble and sheepshead's. Most sheepshead caught off local fishing piers weigh 1-2 pounds, but fish caught in deep water can weigh five times that much.
Every angler has their favorite sheepshead bait. Some like mussels, others bits of shrimp. Fresh barnacles, scraped off a piling, always work well. But remember, your bait-to-caught-fish ratio could be as high as 10 to 1. So whichever bait you choose, make sure you have plenty of it.
Love them or hate them, sheepshead may be all you’ve got when the north wind blows.