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Gear up for a showdown with sheepshead

Capt. Mark Magnuson has always been helpful whenever I needed assistance with pretty much anything swimming in North Suncoast waters.

So when my request drew a quick "No," I figured there had to be a logical explanation.

I had inquired about the possibility of replicating a trip of two years before, when Magnuson and his twin brother, Luke, led me to a memorable morning of spring sheepshead action over limestone outcroppings a few miles northwest of the Weeki Wachee River.

These rocks, along with others spread throughout waters in Pasco and Hernando counties, host hordes of sheepshead for annual spawning conventions from January to early April.

When this week's little cold spell put the black and white "convict" fish back on my mental radar, I thought I'd bend a rod on the tail end of coastal rock season.

Alas, it was not to be. As Magnuson explained, a mild winter and warm water temperatures curtailed the sheepshead's migration to their limestone love shack.

"We've caught a few decent ones out there, but nothing like we usually do," he said.

Fortunately, sheepshead inhabit local waters year-round, so finding the fish is simply a matter of looking closer to shore.

"There's a lot of sheepshead on the flats and around oyster bars," Magnuson said. "I'd look around the mouth of the Weeki River where it comes out at Bayport."

Best baits

Wherever sheepshead roam, shrimp is the hands-down favorite. But the tasty crustacean's tender design makes it easy picking for the sheepshead's broad front teeth. Made for cracking shells, sheepshead incisors make short work of a shrimp fitted with a single hook under its horn.

For effective sheepshead presentation, pinch off a shrimp's tail fins, insert a hook and thread the shrimp onto the hook shank. Bringing out the hook point about midway into the shrimp's body gives thieving sheepshead less room to munch without risk.

When sheepshead prove particularly crafty, cut shrimp into nuggets just big enough to cover the point of a hook. This forces the fish to commit to a mouthful of metal, and that means better hookups.

Fish sheepshead baits on light wire hooks and small egg sinkers or split shots — just enough weight to hold a bait in place. For a streamlined presentation, replace hooks and weights with a quarter-ounce jig head.

Braided line aids in strike detection and quick response.

Making scents

When sheepshead gather on coastal rocks, finding one means finding a bunch. Back at their shoreline abode, the fish tend to scatter, so persuading the fish to group up can improve your catches.

Do this by seeding the water with free samples and appetizing aromas. For starters, chop fresh shrimp into dime-sized bits and spread them around promising spots such as oyster bars and flats adjacent to channels.

Industrious types can up their chumming effort by scraping a few pounds of barnacles from docks and seawalls into a 5-gallon bucket and crushing the shells into a smelly grit.

Toss handfuls of this enticing mash downcurrent of your fishing spot and let the water carry the stimulating scent to the fish.

Oyster shells can complement or replace barnacles, but remove the mollusk meat and use it for sheepshead bait.

Rock replacements

Now, the good thing about all the rock reefs dotting North Suncoast waters is that they'll always appeal to somebody. Shelter, forage, ambush points — predators dig such things.

Gag grouper will soon invade the shallow rocks, and locking horns with these beasts in shallow water is nothing short of brutal. Live pilchards or cut mullet dropped on fish finder rigs will tempt plenty of gags, but trolling makes better use of your time.

Unless you already have a honey hole scouted, hopping from rock to rock is the usual routine for finding the grouper bite. Dragging a set of diving plugs not only enables you to investigate a targeted structure, it serves as a good search tool.

As water temperatures continue to rise, cobia will enhance the scene with an attractive blend of incredible fishing ability, tasty fillets and profound gullibility. Keep a bucktail jig or a live bait rig ready for quick pitches. Pinfish are a favorite.

It's not hard to find coastal rock piles — just ask anyone who has ventured out of the marked channels anywhere from Hudson to Homosassa. In deeper water, look for dark shadows and mark the spot on your GPS for return trips.

Gear up for a showdown with sheepshead 03/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 6:00am]
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