ST. PETERSBURG — On a bone-chilling Friday morning, sensible folks are at home, curled up under the covers. Not Paul Arcos. He's a fisherman.
"It seems like anytime I'm looking for sheepshead, it is cold," Arcos told his guide, Rick Frazier. "But hey … that's fishing."
But Arcos, editor of Saltwater Angler magazine, also likes catching. A few years ago, standing at a friend's backyard tiki bar nicknamed "The Filthy Pelican," Arcos and his buddies lamented the fact that most fishing tournaments are geared toward the high-dollar angler.
"There needed to be something for just your average angler," said Arcos, 39, of Tampa. "The kind of angler who calls us when their local tackle shop runs out of our magazine."
And with that, Saltwater Angler's Filthy Pelican Sheepshead Invitational was born.
"There are plenty of kingfish and flats tournaments around," he said. "But sheepshead? I think we are the only one."
This species, often scoffed at by "serious" anglers, is the fish of choice during the cooler winter months. These prolific feeders have a small mouth but a full set of teeth — incisors, molars and rounded grinders — which they use to crush barnacles and other crustaceans.
Despite their strong, crushing jaws, sheepshead are notorious light biters. There's an old saying that a successful sheepshead angler must learn to set the hook before the fish bites.
One favorite bait is 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.
Prized as a food source in China, the Philippines and Malaysia, green mussels taken from local waters are not safe for human consumption and virtually all of Tampa Bay is off limits to shellfish harvesting because of the poor water quality.
Green mussels are found virtually everywhere and can be scraped off a seawall with a steel shovel. This bait is easy to clean, but difficult to keep on the preferred No. 1 to No. 4 size hook, and as a result, many anglers prefer sturdier baits such as barnacles or small crabs.
Old-timers sometimes call sheepshead "convict fish" because of the pattern of black stripes on their bodies, but then again, after fishing for them for a few hours, one might conclude that the name comes from the species' unequaled ability to steal bait.
A member of the porgie family and a relative of several popular bait species, including pinfish, sheepshead commonly weigh 1 to 2 pounds inshore but can tip the scales at more than 10 pounds when found in deeper water.
A sportfish targeted by anglers from Nova Scotia to Brazil, and all through the Gulf of Mexico, the largest specimen caught in state waters weighed 15 pounds, 2 ounces.
"Over the past couple of years, we have had some pretty big fish weighed in at the tournament," said Arcos, referring to 5.8- and 5.6-pounders of the last two years. "It seems to be one fish that everybody can catch."
Unlike king mackerel tournaments, where anglers in the biggest, fastest boats have a distinct advantage, Arcos' Filthy Pelican Sheepshead Invitational is billed as an "everyman" tournament.
"You can catch the winning fish right off a seawall," he said.