What’s fresh in September? Sheepshead
Story by Collins Doughtie
Sheepshead (aka striped bandits) is one of my favorite inshore fish to catch. So why am I talking about sheepshead during the summer months when almost everybody fishes for them in the winter and spring? I hate giving away fishing secrets but, what the heck: Around here, I catch them pretty much year-round. The only difference between fishing for them in warm water versus cold water is you have to deal with a lot more bait stealers when the water is warm. With that said, you had better plan to bring way more fiddler crabs than you might use during the winter months because fish like pinfish, pufferfish, croakers and such will keep you busy re-baiting your hook the entire time you fish.
Patience isn’t a virtue, it’s a necessity!
If you are not the patient type, then there is no reason to read any further. In fact, if you have a hard time sitting still, then you need to go after some other type of fish. With teeth like a human who never made it to an orthodontist, sheepshead can take the bait off a hook with such finesse that the bite is barely perceptible. Personally, if I even think I see the tip of my fishing rod move, I come up hard and fast to set the hook much like you see professional largemouth bass fisherman on TV. It’s the only saltwater fish I do this with. Their mouths are hard and if you hesitate at all, a bare hook will be your only reward.
Tips on catching sheepshead
I tend to go light when sheepshead fishing. My favorite spinning rod is a medium action with a very sensitive tip. As for the line, use 30-lb. test braid since braid transmits even the lightest bite way better then mono. The leader is 10”-12” of 20-lb. test fluorocarbon with a swivel at the top and a #4 Eagle Claw hook on the end. Above the swivel on the main line I carry a variety of egg sinkers between ½ ounce to 1½ ounces, depending on the current, that slide on the main line. Sheepshead are structure-oriented fish found near old docks, rock piles and such. By far the most popular bait is China-back Fiddler Crabs, not the little brown ones which for whatever reason never get eaten along with clams, oysters and mussels. Since sheepshead feed on barnacles much of the time, drop your bait right next to a piling and try to keep your rod steady. I watch some people scarp barnacles off pilings for chum but I avoid doing this because you are taking away what attracts them there in the first place. One last tip: have a landing net handy because sheepshead have tons of razor-sharp spines and from experience, these spines can and will get you.
Are sheepshead good to eat?
I will take a sheepshead over just about any other inshore saltwater fish. The meat is firm, white and absolutely delicious no matter how you prepare it. As for limits, they must exceed a 14” tail length. They have large stomach bones, making the meat yield low on a 14” fish should you choose to filet it. I generally release these and keep larger ones. Anglers are allowed 10 per person per day and a boat limit of 30 per boat per day. So keep what you need and release the rest for another day. Be patient and watch that rod tip. If you even think it moves, strike hard. You have nothing to lose (except possibly your fiddler) and everything to gain.
LOCAL Life Test Kitchen
Baked Lemon Sheepshead
2 pounds sheepshead fillets
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 small onion, diced
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Directions  Place sheepshead fillets in a ziplock bag and mix the salt, pepper and lemon juice in it. Let the sheepshead fillets marinate over night or at least four hours before cooking.  Cover a baking sheet in aluminum foil, cover it with a thin layer of olive oil and place the marinated fillets on top of the foil. Use a brush to evenly coat each fillet with melted butter. Surround each fillet with onions and parsley, put parsley on top and drizzle olive oil over the fillets.  Cover the fillets with another piece of aluminum foil to keep the moisture in.  Heat oven to 400 degrees and place baking sheet on the top rack. Cook for 12 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.  Plate fish and garnish with the rest of the parsley. Serve with your favorite roasted vegetables and a lemon wedge.
Zind-Humbrecht White Blend
The medium-intensity flavor of sheepshead pairs well with rich, aromatic white wines. Local wine expert Betsy Trish suggests this Chardonnay and Auxerrios blend from Alsace, France. “It love it for the fresh, fruity, citrus nose,” Trish said. “It is full bodied but dry, so it pairs perfectly with fish. Plus, it’s French. They always make delicious wine!” It was scored a 92 by Wine Advocate and a 90 by Wine Spectator. It is also certified organic and biodynamic. À votre santé! Pick up a bottle for $25.99 at the Red Fish Retail Wine Shop.