Sheepshead, Sheepies or Convict Fish are one of the most unstable species on the pier. They are known for how difficult it is to get a bite out of them. Even when you get a bite out of it, you often come back with partially chewed bait. Sheep are very stocky and large fish with black and white vertical bars on the sides. Their dorsal and anal fins both have very strong and sharp spines, their most distinctive feature being their teeth. Sheepsheads have very prominent incisors that almost look like humans. Behind these teeth they have rounded molars and grinders. These fish feed primarily on molluscs and crustaceans, but will occasionally eat small fish and graze on algae. You will see them graze on the stilts, eat the barnacles, and the oysters that encrust the concrete legs. They can grow to around 36 inches long and 20 pounds, but more often than not they are much smaller at a few pounds. Care must be taken not to confuse them with the young Black Drum or Spadefish. Both have similar black bars, but they lack the incisors like the sheep’s head.
Tackle – Sheep’s Head
For the sheep’s head, a heavier one coastal cane is recommended. Something that can be used to keep fish away from stilts, but you also don’t want a broomstick or rod because of the light bites and sheep’s head banging. For the reel – because you’re not casting, but dropping your rig – you don’t need a lot of line capacity, but you want a reel capable of at least 10lbs of drag. You want to have about 20lb braid for your mainline; the braid has no stretch, so it will help transfer the feeling of the pricks. I recommend the sheepshead fluorocarbon material, they have good eyesight and often examine a bait for a good minute before biting. I usually use 20 pound test fluorocarbon but have gone down to 12 pound test when the fish have been very skittish.
The finishing tackle to target the sheepshead should have a small J-hook either in a Carolina rig or put a split shot on your leader about 16″ from the hook. For the Carolina Rig you want to have about 16″ of leader. Too long of a leader makes it difficult to detect bites.
Bait – Sheep’s Head
Live bait is king for sheep, 99% of the time they won’t look at dead shrimp. So you need one of the following baits: live shrimp, live fiddler crab, live sand flea, ghost shrimp and/or oyster. You can buy live shrimp and fiddlers at most begging tackle stores, but call ahead and make sure they have them in stock. Sand fleas can be caught in the waves with a sand flea rake. Ghost shrimp and sand fleas are also sold blanched and frozen at tackle stores, but live works best for both. Oysters can be purchased at fish markets in the shell, but it takes a bit of work to open them up and hook them on a hook. They will last a bite before falling, so they take a lot of effort to rig, but you can also break their shells and drop them on the pilling as a kind of buddy who can also bring fish to the pilling.
Technique – Sheep’s Head
For sheep, the main thing is live bait or as close to live bait as possible. I’ve heard of sheep hitting jigs or spoons on very rare occasions, but personally haven’t seen it happen on the pier. For the most part, you will fish a Caroline Rig with live bait from top to bottom. Sheepshead feed on the pilings of the pier, if you look at the water you can see them going sideways as they peck at the growth. They eat either barnacles, oysters or crustaceans that live in the growth. So the plan is to gently present your bait in front of one of these actively feeding fish.
You want to be right on top of the pile you see the sheep’s head on and slowly lower your bait in front of them. Keep your index finger on the line and wait to feel a tap. It can be very light at times as they don’t inhale what they eat, but graze more on the bait. They can peck a shrimp off your hook without you even realizing it sometimes. Once you feel a good bite, attach the hard hook. They have very tough mouths with all those teeth, so you need some power behind the hook.
Once you’ve snagged a sheep’s head, you need to drag it away from the pilings and try to bring it up to the surface. Don’t try to reel in the fish on the pier, you’ll probably lose it on the way up. You must have a jetty net to pick up the fish and then bring it back to the deck.
Table Rate – Sheepshead
Sheep’s heads are excellent table dishes, a very white flesh that is cooked very flaky. Their diet consisting mainly of crustaceans and molluscs allows them to have very clean meat. The only problem is that they are a bit difficult to clean. They have large, hard scales, a large rib cage, and their fin spines are very sharp. So you have to be very careful when cleaning them, but once you’re done cleaning them, the nets are well worth the work.