March is the perfect month to catch, clean, cook and sink your teeth into these notorious nibblers.
Story by Bailey Gilliam
For those of us who aren’t well versed in the seafood world, sheepshead may seem like a foreign delicacy of the head of a lamb, not the name of a delicious fish. Rest assured, sheepshead is a common fish, and this is the perfect time of year to catch and eat them. Sheepshead, or convict fish, are known for their black and grey horizontally striped bodies and an annoying ability to steal bait. They have large, beady black eyes and a set of teeth resembling dentures. While they may not be the most attractive fish, they taste amazing. They have fine white flesh that is firm and flavorful. When cooked, they become flaky and tender and have a sweet and slight shellfish flavor.
Sheepshead are full-bodied, compressed marine fish with sharp dorsal spines. These odd fish are most known for their human-like teeth, which are used for crushing shells and crabs. They have black and gray stripes and can grow between 10 and 35 inches in length.
Sheepshead fish are an obvious source of protein but also contains a rich array of vitamins and minerals. High in vitamins A, B-9 and B-12, eating sheepshead can help maintain a healthy digestive system, nervous system, hair, skin, nails and eyes. Sheepshead also contains large amounts of potassium, phosphorus and sodium, aiding in blood and bone health. And its abundant omega-3s help heart health, brain and eye development.
Where to find them
Sheepshead live on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States and prefer brackish waters. The Boathouse says you’ll find sheepshead on “any structure that holds barnacles.” They can be found near manmade structures, reefs, wrecks and other areas where you might find oysters, barnacles, clams or other shellfish. It’s all about the food source. Since these toothy fish snack on shellfish and little crabs with no problem, that’s where you’ll find them. The Boathouse also provides the tip for the season that you’ll find them even more at “local reefs like the Savannah reef.”
How to catch them
Finding sheepshead is relatively easy, but catching them is another story. They can be a bit tricky due to their convict nature and ability to steal bait, but we’ve got some great tips from a local spot, Bubba’s Cabin. The first thing you will need is a short, light rod. The lighter the better, because they have an incredibly subtle bite. You need to be able to feel the slightest movement so you can set the hook quickly and avoid getting your bait stolen. Speaking of bait, the perfect thing to use is their favorite snack, fiddler crab. If you have a hard time finding live fiddler crabs, as they are difficult to get and keep alive, Bubba’s Cabin recommends using fake crab, a cloth-tied, shucked shellfish like oyster or clam, or rubber-banding frozen sand fleas to your hook. And for your hook, you need a jailbait hook which is designed with toothy fish in mind.
Ways to cook it
Sheepshead is most commonly served raw, grilled, fried, baked, steamed, broiled or sautéed. It’s a pretty versatile fish. Because of its mild flavor, you can cook it in any way and it will still taste good. It’s a popular fish to eat in this area because it is good enough to be eaten by itself, and it can be easily caught with the right gear.
Since sheepshead have a mild flavor, pair them with a rich, aromatic white but avoid the oak. Viognier, Pinot Gris from Alsace, Dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Unoaked California Chard are some perfect pairs.
• Although the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn in New York City was named after the fish, it is now rarely found that far north. However, they just recently started to return to the area in small numbers, with a few being caught in Jamaica Bay and on the Rockaway Reef.
• This fish was dubbed the sheepshead fish for the way its mouth resembles the muzzle of a sheep.
• Full-grown sheepshead eventually grow three rows of stubby, flat teeth in their upper jaw and two rows lining their lower jaw. The fish’s front teeth are even coated with enamel, like the human incisors they resemble.
• Young sheepshead eat marine worms and soft-bodied animals found within seagrasses until their specialized teeth grow in. LL
1 1/2 pounds fresh sheepshead fillets
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 8-ounce bottles clam juice
1/2 teaspoon Italian hot pepper flakes
2 small red potatoes, diced in 1/2-inch pieces
2 medium leeks, white and green part only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 large ribs celery, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup corn, optional
Directions  Cut fish into chunks and set aside.  In a large dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and celery, and cook stirring, until vegetables are tender, about 5-6 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes.  Slowly whisk in the milk, broth, clam juice, hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Add the potatoes and bay leaf and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender, about 10-12 minutes. During the last 2 minutes of simmering, add the sheepshead and the corn.  Add the cream, dill and lemon juice, and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper or additional red pepper flakes. Serve with your favorite bread and butter.
Baked lemon-herb sheepshead
8 6-ounce sheepshead fillets
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Lemon-herb butter, softened
Fresh basil sprigs, for garnish
Directions  Sprinkle sheepshead fillets with salt and pepper. Spread 2 tablespoons of lemon-herb butter on each fillet.  Place fish on a lightly greased pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until the fish flakes easily with a fork.  Garnish with sprigs of basil and serve with melted butter and your favorite vegetable.
4 6-ounce sheepshead fillets
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon slices for serving
Directions  Heat the olive oil in a large pan to medium-high heat.
 Season the sheepshead fillets with cayenne, paprika, garlic, basil, salt and pepper.  Sear the fish in the hot pan for about 2 minutes, then flip and sear for another 2 minutes. Add a splash of water and cover. Cook another few minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and moist within.  Serve with a lemon wedge and your favorite asparagus and rice dishes.