The slight, almost imperceptible tug on the rod tip signaled the sheepshead had taken the crab in his mouth. Pulling back gently to tighten the connection I waited for the second tap. At this point, history has taught me that it may be too late, the crab crushed and the fish gone, but there it was, another light tap!
Setting the hook quickly the classic tug and war battle was on. Bending the rod double on surging runs and taking drag, the sheepshead did his best to return to the structure below. After several minutes we finally had color, the black and white striped master bait thief was close. But they never give up easy and the fish took line again and headed for the depths.
Back and forth he went until finally the fish was close enough to slide the net under. Weighing around eight pounds, the sheepshead was mostly grown, while weights in the double digits are possible, few are caught over the ten pound mark.
Sheepshead are present year round in the low country but March is a banner month for this fishery. A member of the snapper family, they rank in my list of favorites to catch Difficult to hook due to their feeding habits, a real scrapper when it comes to fighting and last but definitely not least- they are delicious on the plate. A large set of teeth, almost human like, are used to crush barnacles, crabs and other hard shell critters.
The preferred bait for most anglers are fiddler crabs. The most common rig is a fish finder rig, a sliding sinker rigged above a short leader with the hook at the end. Dropping the crab over structure until the sinker hits bottom, then reeling the sinker up a foot or so allows the angler, if he’s lucky, to feel the light tap or tug when the sheepie takes the crab in his mouth. Only seconds pass before the sheepshead crushes the crab, spits the hook and then he’s on his way. Needless to say you need a good supply of fiddlers if you want to seriously sheepshead fish. Fresh clams and live shrimp are also productive baits.
One of the things I like most about March is that sheepshead are the harbingers of the season. They kickstart our local season, keeping us busy until the cobia show in late April and May, but that’s another month and another story. Now it’s time to catch the sheepies!
P.S. A note for our guests and residents of northern origin, these are not the same fish as the freshwater species you know from back home.