TAMPA BAY — If you want to increase your odds of catching sheepshead, bring along a statistician.
"There is a secret to catching these fish," I told Frank Biafora. "You have to set the hook before you feel the bite."
"How can you set the hook before you feel the bite?" he asked.
"That's the secret," I replied.
Tampa Bay has hundreds of great sheepshead spots. During February, you will find finicky eaters in the residential canals, along rocky channel edges and, of course, under docks.
These unappreciated sport fish feed on everything from barnacles to shrimp.
But the first thing any sheepshead hunter learns is all sheepshead food is not created equal. The best bait is not necessarily what gets bit but what stays on the hook.
Grand theft piscatorial
Old-timers sometimes call this lowly bottom dweller the "convict fish."
Some say it is because the pattern of black stripes on their bodies resembles prison uniforms. Others argue the name came from this species' uncanny ability to strip a piece of bait clean off the hook before it hits the bottom.
Your typical sheepshead is silver with five-six distinct vertical black bands, though they are not always the same on both sides.
This fish looks a lot like a juvenile black drum except with a full set of very human-looking choppers, complete with molars, incisors and rounded grinders; well suited for crushing a variety of crustaceans.
Sheepshead are members of the porgy family, a close relative and constant companion of a well-known species anglers often use for bait, pinfish. The two are often found together, and the first task of any sheepshead angler is learning to differentiate between the pinner's nibble and sheepshead's chomp.
Evening the odds
Most sheepshead found in local waters weigh 1-2 pounds, but fish caught in deep water can weigh five times that much.
A mainstay of pier anglers, sheepshead can be found from Nova Scotia to Brazil. But having traveled to both locales, neither has anything on Tampa Bay.
Your chance of success will increase if you start with a small hook because the tinier the hook, the more likely it is to get sucked into the sheepshead's little mouth. Start with a No. 1, then downsize if necessary, going as far as a No. 2 or even a No. 4.
Many veteran sheepshead fishermen insist on using braided line, which does not stretch, making it easier to feel the bite. A good light-tipped graphite rod will also help you "feel" the fish. And when it comes to weight, don't go too heavy. All you need is enough to send your bait to the bottom.
Recipe for success
Anglers will argue the pros and cons of sheepshead's bait.
The Asian green mussel, an exotic species originally from the Indian and Pacific oceans accidentally introduced into Tampa Bay more than a decade ago when a freighter emptied its ballast tanks, was a fan favorite until a series of hard freezes decimated their numbers (probably a good thing).
So we started with cut shrimp that had been previously frozen. The bait worked — when it stayed on the hook.
"I would say that you average one hookup for every 10 pieces of shrimp," my angling buddy hypothesized.
So we switched to small crabs that also had spent time in the deep freeze. This bait, much sturdier on the hook, increased our bait-to-catch ratio. Biafora, who boated several fish during our hourlong experiment, was satisfied with the results.
"I think it is safe to say," he concluded, "that crabs are the way to go."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.