January is one of those months comparable to a .500-level sports team. There are great days where everything goes right, and then there are days where you should have stayed in bed. The weather can be very unstable, with the wind turning from the Southeast to the Northwest almost instantly as Canadian fronts barrel down from the North. You can have some simply gorgeous days with light winds and trout green water, and within a matter of hours the wind could howl from the North and the waters of Lower Laguna Madre can turn into the color of Nestle Quik.
Redfish and trout are hard to locate in water that turns murky with the slightest whiff of a norther, and when the weather moderates and high pressure settles in, the fish that are cruising the air-clear flats are colt-skittish and hard to get in casting range. Flounder are literally nowhere to be found, and black drum are in the middle of their two migrations. The water is too cold for mangrove snapper and the surf too rough too often for pompano and whiting. As one can guess, you can just forget about snook and tarpon. Nope, the first month of the year is not the time to expect fish-a-minute action.
Hopes not lost for fishermen hoping to get on the water in January, however. There are fish that will cooperate, even if the wind is coming from the wrong direction. There are some hard fighters out there that offer some top-notch table fare for anglers hoping to put a few fillets in the oven (for related details, see the feature "Cold Comfort" and this months Saltwater column, "Well Grounded," elsewhere in this issue).
Sheepshead are a plentiful Lower Laguna Madre species that make their presence felt in winter and they never got the memo about how bad the fishing is supposed to be. Few fish are more capable of turning a winters day fishing from bust to boon as quickly as these barred, stout fish with the funny teeth can. They readily bite the simplest of rigs, fight hard, and provide the patient fish cleaner with white, flaky fillets that are an culinary delight when fried or baked with a bit of lemon pepper and little else for seasoning. They grow big too, with several 6-8 pounders caught every year and a couple over ten pounds annually brought to net for added excitement. The last two state records, including the current record, a 15 ½ brute, were caught off of a South Padre Island fishing pier. Shorebound anglers have as much a chance to latch into a few convict fish as easily any other angler.
Sheepshead start aggregating in good numbers and congregate around pilings and jetties after the first serious cold front in November and stick around until the water begins to warm in late April. In January, sheepshead are feeding aggressively to build up mass to convert to eggs later in March, and the numbers of fish available to fishermen jumps exponentially. The fact that they are feeding heavily makes them relatively easy to coax into hitting a baited hook.
The great part of the winter sheepshead run is the easy-access nature of the fishery. On days when the weather permits, all a fisherman needs to do is head to the Brazos Santiago Jetties on South Padre Island with some live or fresh shrimp, usually the latter. Live bugs are hard to come by when strong fronts encourage them to bury themselves deeper into mud than trawl nets can reach. Use a reasonably stout spinning or conventional outfit with 15 pound line to catch a quick limit of five sheepies over 15-inches long. The easiest rig involves a #2 Long-shank hook three feet under a popping cork, with a #3 split-shot sinker six inches above the hook to hold everything down. Toss the rig up against the rocks and wait. The float holds the bait above the rocks and also indicates when a sheep is grazing on your bait.
Boaters also have an easy time of it when they search for sheep. The Queen Isabella Causeway is loaded with them. Anchor up underneath the Causeway and allow your boat to drift within 10 feet of the pilings. Free-lining a live shrimp up against the pilings is all it takes. Again, you will want to use stout tackle for this application, because there are some big fish down there, and you want to force them away from the pilings and into open water as soon as you can.
Another productive spot for January sheepshead is the Port Isabel Turning Basin. The docks and rip-rap hold sheepshead. The pilings of the large dock along the south end of the channel is a popular spot. The loading dock near the old cement factory just of that is another spot. Both are accessible by boat only, but are worth some investigation.
Dont be surprised if you latch into some chunky mangrove snapper, too. If there is a stretch of mild weather that warms water temperatures, Mangroves break out of the mullygrubs and feed a little more actively. Theyll hold higher in the water column than sheepshead, but theyll take the same baits as the sheepshead will. If there is not around a set of pilings, move on to other ones. You should locate some sheepshead with a minimal of effort.
Once you do, hang on, because these fish will give you the full measure before coming to the boat.
THE BANK BITE
Location: South Jetties
Species: Sheepshead, whiting.
Tips: Use live or fresh shrimp on a bottom rig; float rig near the rocks.