It’s time to catch sheepsheads. Texas coastal waters are filled with these hard-fighting, excellent tasting fish that get little respect despite the aforementioned attributes.
These fish congregate in the greatest numbers in our jetty systems. Right now is an excellent time to catch them as they begin gathering in large numbers for the spawn, which will take place next month. Their unique dentures give them an edge on picking baits off of a hook.
My favorite method to catch them is to use a 1/4-ounce jighead rigged with a small piece of shrimp fished vertically over rock outcroppings at the jetties.
I use a light braided line such as Berkley Fireline, which has eight-pound diameter and 20-pound test. The low stretch line helps with hookset in the hard mouth, and also aids with sensitivity.
The sheepshead’s bite can be so slight, you actually have to watch the line. It can be virtually impossible to detect otherwise. A braided or fusion line can help overcome this, but it can still be tough at times. Many times they thump a jig pretty hard but when they go stealth, few fish can pick a bait off of a hook quicker.
Fishing a live shrimp under a popping cork is also a great way to catch sheepsheads along the rocks. I find it interesting that from December to March they will gobble up dead shrimp. After that, these picky fish seem to turn their nose up to the dead stuff at jetties. It’s possible to catch them in the bay during summer and fall on dead shrimp, but they don’t like it at the rocks.
When the water clears up, these fish can be line shy so use a fluorocarbon leader under the cork for best results. Fluorocarbon is virtually invisible. It also has low-stretch properties, which enhances its sensitivity.
Many anglers use small treble hooks that the fish ingest. However, regulations require us to throw back many of the sheepsheads we catch, so that is probably not a good idea.
I have my best luck with thick, short-shanked hooks. Hook girth is something to consider because these fish often bite through thin hooks. I have actually had them bite through thick hooks as well, but it is a rarity.
In the bayous and marshes Carolina (fish finder) rigs work the best. Use as light an egg weight as you can get away with because finicky sheepsheads will back away when they feel too much pressure.
If you are serious about catching sheepsheads, especially the big ones, you will need lots of patience and focus to get the job done. When they feed aggressively anyone can catch them, but when they are being sort of snobbish, it takes true fishing finesse.
Big, over-sized black drum are also present in the bay and jetty systems now. At the jetties in particular, drum will gather and feed as the forage moves through the boat cuts and around the southern tip of the rocks and around any deep holes. They also gather up over shells in the channel and around big drop-offs in the ship channel areas.
I prefer to fish for drum with heavy tackle, in the 30 to 50- pound class. Crab is the best choice for bait. Broken in half, and hooked through the carapace, the stuff has a long hook life and is irresistible to drum.
Drums are a pecking fish. Sometimes they will not just take your bait and run with it. When you see something pecking on your line, pick it up and wait until you feel pressure on the other end. At that point, pull back and brace yourself. There are plenty of bull reds around now as well, and they will take the same baits as the drums, although the absolute best bait is live croaker.
Anglers can catch oversized redfish in the exact same spots as they do the big bull drums. In fact, this will probably hang into a mixture of both.
Winter not only brings opportunities for these overlooked fish, but also for using some baits that few anglers ever consider. They are as follows:
• Sea Lice — These strange looking creatures are marine parasites that feed on the mucus, skin and blood of host fish. They look like a crab crossed with something from the “Alien” films. They make great bait for black drum, especially the really big ones.
A number of bait camps along the coast carry these disgusting looking creatures. Besides drum, they are effective for sheepsheads and redfish.
• Fiddler Crabs — These little crabs with one giant pincher and another small one are perhaps the best bait for sheepsheads. They are hard to take off a hook, and sheepsheads will seemingly take them before they will anything else.
Some catch fiddler crabs in dip nets, while others set traps. They are not so easy to catch, but if it’s sheepsheads you want, fiddlers are the golden ticket. Black drums have a fondness for them too.
Winter saltwater fishing can be fun, with a few anglers out on the water. Some of the most peaceful and yet action-packed fishing trips of my life came during the winter, usually anchored up somewhere at the Sabine Jetties soaking shrimp or crab for sheepsheads and drum.
It’s simple and despite the appearance of the fish, it’s a very beautiful thing.
—story by Chester Moore