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Sheepshead: Tricking the bay area's tasty nibblers

Sheepshead are famous for gnawing away and making off with bait. But with the right sized gear and baits, they can be brought to hand.


Sheepshead are famous for gnawing away and making off with bait. But with the right sized gear and baits, they can be brought to hand.

Fishing is cyclical. Meaning different species of fish are more abundant some months of the year than others. And, now that winter is upon us, being a successful angler requires adjustments to wintry conditions. One fish in particular always comes to mind when the north wind begins to howl.

Big breeder sheepshead make their way into the bay, congregating around bridge pilings and rock piles. Think about how many miles of bridge pilings and rock-laden sea walls litter the bay area? Some of the more accessible bridges are the Gandy, Bayway, Tierra Verde, and Madeira Beach spans. The Merry Pier sea wall at Pass-A-Grille beach is a great spot for sheepshead. So is the Bayboro Harbor sea wall.

Now, just because sheepshead are easy to find, don't be fooled. These striped porgies are as hard to catch as any. Figuring out the reason they're so wily is the first step in landing them.

So, why are these horse-toothed critters so hard to catch? One look at their incisorlike buck teeth and scraped-up face reveals their gnawing prowess. Simply put, they're nibblers, not inhalers like most fish.

When fishing with hook and line, the bite is so subtle it's hard to detect. But, there are a few tricks to improving your chances of success.

For one, scale down in hook size. A smaller hook is more likely to get "sucked" in as opposed to larger ones. Start with a No. 1 and go smaller from there if necessary. Even using a No. 2 or 4 hook isn't out of the question.

Second, use braided line. These lines do not stretch, making them more sensitive to the light bite of sheepshead.

Third, use a light-tipped graphite rod with a little backbone. Graphite is much more sensitive than fiberglass and, as mentioned earlier, feeling the bite is paramount.

Last, only use enough weight to get your offering to the strike zone. Too much lead will kill the feel of the bite. Use crimp-on sinkers so the weight can be adjusted accordingly to current and depth.

Now, let's talk bait, specifically natural bait. Sheepshead aren't terribly picky, but they do prefer certain offerings more than others. Scour the oyster beds at low tide for small crabs. Crabs are a sheepshead favorite and probably the easiest to find next to barnacles. Barnacles can sometimes be hard to harvest by landlubbers, but just the same, they make great bait, too.

Another delicacy is tube worms. These flat centipede-looking worms are found living in straw size tubes on mud flats at low tide. They're a little harder to harvest, but an excellent choice. And finally, we can't forget shrimp, probably the easiest of all to obtain. The trick with shrimp is to use just a small piece, not the whole thing. Sure, oysters and mussels will work well. They're just hard to keep on the hook.

Will sheepshead take artificial baits such as shrimp or crabs? Never, say never, but they generally prefer natural attractions.

One important factor when hunting for sheepshead is to chum. Sheepshead will definitely come to it. Take small pieces of whatever bait is being used and sprinkle the area up current. Remember to chum, not feed.

Rick Frazier runs Lucky Dawg Charters out of St. Petersburg and can be reached at (727) 510-4376. If you've had a great day fishing from land and want to share it with readers, contact the lubberline at (727) 893-8775 or e-mail

Sheepshead: Tricking the bay area's tasty nibblers 01/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 8:49am]
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