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Fishing 101: Nabbing sheepshead is no easy task

Anchored up off a dock on a warm winter's morning, I knew there were fish hanging around the pilings.

The night had been cool, the water even colder, so the sheepshead had to be hovering on the east side of the structure, soaking up the sun.

Knowing where the fish are and catching them, however, are two different things.

February is a good month to target this species. March is even better. And if you are looking for a nonscientific but fool-proof method to pick your fishing days, just think March Madness. When college basketball fans start talking about the Sweet 16, grab your sheepshead stick. The bite is on.

Tampa Bay has its share of great sheepshead spots. You'll find these toothy critters in the residential canals, along rocky channel edges and, of course, under docks.

These bottom dwellers typically feed on barnacles (take one look at their choppers and you'll understand), but they also hit everything from pass crabs to cut shrimp.

Sheepshead fishing can be a frustrating experience if you are cursed like me and do not have the touch.

"Lost my bait again," I yelled as a wily predator cleaned my hook again. "I've about had it."

Bait thieves

Sheepshead are sometimes called "convict fish" because the pattern of black stripes on their bodies resembles the uniforms once worn by prisoners on a chain gang.

Others argue that this name comes from their uncanny ability to steal bait. There is an old adage among sheepshead anglers that if you want to catch these fish, you have to set the hook before you feel the bite.

A typical sheepshead is silver, with five or six distinct vertical black bands on its sides, though interestingly enough, they are not always the same on both sides. This fish is sometimes confused with juvenile black drum.

Another thing you'll notice about the sheepshead is the mouth. These prolific feeders have a full set of teeth — incisors, molars and rounded grinders — which they use to crush barnacles and other crustaceans.

Popular porgie

A member of the porgie family, the sheepshead is a relative of a well-known species anglers often use for bait, the pinfish. And just like its cousin, a sheepshead's spines can inflict a painful injury.

Most sheepshead found inshore will weigh about 1 to 2 pounds, but specimens caught in deeper water can easily tip the scales at more than 10 pounds. In the Tampa Bay area, a 5-pound sheepshead is all you need to bring home a trophy in most fishing tournaments.

Sheepshead are one of the most popular sport fish in Florida, and they are targeted by anglers from Nova Scotia to Brazil, so if you are looking to land in the record books, you have your work cut out for you.

The largest specimen caught in state waters weighed 15 pounds, 2 ounces. The world record is 21 pounds, 4 ounces and was caught near New Orleans in 1992.

Redemption

Batting about one out of 10, the captain finally felt sorry for me and explained that sheepshead are nibblers, not inhalers like snook or trout.

Keeping the tension on the line, I gave it a little tug at the first hint of a bite and, voila, fish on. There are other things anglers can do to ensure success when pursuing sheepshead.

First, fish with a small hook, which is more likely to get sucked into the sheepshead's tiny mouth. Start with a No. 1, then downsize if necessary, even going as far as a No. 2 or even a No. 4.

Many diehard 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.

When it comes to weight, don't go overboard. Use just enough to send your bait to where the fish are. Weigh it down too heavy and you will never feel the bite.

Next month in our Fishing 101 series: hard-bodies artificial lures.

.Fast Facts

Fishing 101 online

Outdoors editor Terry Tomalin and guide Rick Frazier discuss sheepshead tactics in a video at outdoors.tampabay.com.

State regulations

Sheepshead must be at least 12 inches in length. Bag limit is 15 per person, per day. No snatching.

Fishing 101: Nabbing sheepshead is no easy task 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 9:02pm]

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