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To catch a convict

Call it "March Madness."

This is the month in which college basketball devotees go crazy as they watch their favorite teams advance to the Final Four.

This also is the time of year that baseball fans go a little nuts waiting for spring training to give way to the regular season.

And March is a particularly maddening month for fishermen. Most have been locked in dry-dock all winter, and they are itching to catch some fish.

But the main spring kingfish run is weeks away. What's an angler to do?

"I know where we can go catch some sheepshead," said Rick Frazier, coming to the rescue.

The lowly sheepshead, a species often scoffed at by "serious" anglers, is a mainstay in local waters in early spring. These voracious feeders have a small mouth but a full set of choppers _ incisors, molars and rounded grinders _ with which they crush barnacles and other crustaceans.

Despite their crushing jaws, sheepshead are well-known light biters. There's an old saying that a successful sheepshead angler must learn to set the hook before the fish bites.

With that in mind, Frazier and his crew set off to find the bait of choice, Asian green mussels. This exotic species is originally from the Indian and Pacific oceans but was accidentally introduced into Tampa Bay about 10 years ago when a ship emptied its ballast tanks.

The green mussel is prized as food in China, the Philippines and Malaysia, but mussels from area waters are not safe for human consumption and virtually all of Tampa Bay is off limits to shellfish harvesting.

Green mussels are everywhere, and Frazier gathered enough at the first sea wall at which he stopped. Then he motored to a shallow drop-off near the approach to the Sunshine Skyway and pulled out an underwater video camera.

"They're here," he said as he lowered the camera over the side. "We'll have our limit in no time at all."

Frazier pulled out a hammer (essential for sheepshead fishing) and began smashing the mussel shells.

"You'll get one lick per lick," he said holding up the slimy animal. "The bite is real soft, so you have to be ready."

Sheepshead are often called convict fish, presumably because of the pattern of black stripes on their bodies. Then again, the name could come from their skill at stealing bait.

"Lost another one," Frazier said as he handed me another mussel. "Remember reel all the slack out of your line, and when you feel the weight of the fish lift the rod tip and set the hook."

Sheepshead, a member of the porgie family and relative of popular bait species, including pinfish, commonly weigh 1-2 pounds inshore but can weigh 10 pounds or more in deeper water.

Anglers target sheepshead from Nova Scotia to Brazil and all through the Gulf of Mexico. The largest caught in Florida waters weighed 15 pounds, 2 ounces, but in Louisiana an angler set the all-tackle record at 21 pounds, 4 ounces.

On the west coast of Florida even a 1-pounder can put up a fight, as long as your tackle is light enough.

"That might be a keeper," Frazier said. "But keep at it. I know there is a big one down there."

I dropped another mussel over the side, felt a tap and lifted the hook to find I had been robbed.

"One more," I said, ready to give up.

This time I decided to trust my intuition. The mussel had barely hit bottom when I got a sneaky feeling that a beast was licking my bait. So I hauled off and set the hook.

"Got it," I yelled as the fish pulled off drag.

It took a couple of minutes, but eventually I got the fish under control and produced a healthy 5-pounder.

"That's more like it," Frazier said. "Now let's try for one more."

SHEEPSHEAD REGULATIONS: Bag limit: 15 fish a day, minimum 12 inches.