February may be the month for love, but for fishermen, it's the month to hate.
Frequent cold fronts make it hard to get offshore and plummeting temperatures on the grass flats keep nearly every species from biting.
However, there is one bright spot, a reliable species I turn to when everything else shuts down: sheepshead.
You don't read much about sheepshead. Few anglers build reputations on them. You won't see the nom de guerre "Sheepshead Slayer" on any fishing website message boards.
In fact, archosargus probatocephalus doesn't even warrant a mention in the species identification section of the International Game Fish Association's record book.
But if you are a sporting type looking for some fishing action, or a hunter-gatherer hoping to put food on the table, read on. February is the best month to fish for sheepshead, but catching this particular prey can prove frustrating.
There's an old adage that says if you want to catch sheepshead, the first thing you must learn is how to set the hook before you feel the bite. These creatures are notorious nibblers. Take one look at their humanlike choppers, and you'll understand why.
Here in the Tampa Bay area, there are hundreds of great sheepshead spots. You'll find these 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.
Old-timers call this bottom dweller the "convict fish." Some suggest that's because of the sheepsheads' distinctive stripes, like those on the uniforms worn by convicts on a chain gang. Others, this writer included, disagree and contend that the name comes from the species' legendary reputation as bait thieves.
A member of the porgy family, the sheepshead is a close relative and constant companion of another well-known bait bandit, the pinfish. These two usually share the same space, and as a result, the angler's greatest challenge is learning to tell the difference between the pinfish's nibble and sheepshead's chomp.
Most sheepshead found in local waters weigh 1-2 pounds, but fish caught in deep water can weigh five times that much. In case you're wondering, the largest specimen on record, caught in New Orleans in 1982, weighed 21 pounds, 4 ounces.
The favorite prey of pier anglers, sheepshead can be found from Nova Scotia to Brazil. Here in Tampa Bay, anglers tend to use natural bait on tiny hooks. Start small, with a No. 1, then downsize if necessary, going as far as a No. 2 or even a No. 4.
Another trick of successful sheepshead fishermen is braided line. It doesn't stretch like monofilament, 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 on the line, don't go heavy. All you need is enough to send the bait to the bottom.
Every angler has a favorite sheepshead bait. Some prefer mussels, others bits of shrimp. Fresh barnacles, scraped off a piling, always work well. But remember, your bait to fish ratio could be as high as 10 to 1. So whichever bait you choose, make sure you have plenty of it.
Love them or hate them, sheepshead may be all you've got when the north wind blows.