Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sheepshead – Dissected

For the longest time, seeing friends like Kayak Kevin Whitley, Rob Choi, and Lee Williams catch monster Sheepshead (let alone any Sheepshead) haunted me.  Seeing footage of these extremely violent fights in close quarters with amazing fish were all I focused on for almost two seasons.  Fortunately, my first two monster fish both came in over 11 lbs and both came on the same day, in conditions that I had no right fishing in.  From that day on, I have refined my skills, and am confident sharing what I have learned.  I will break it down from bait and rigs, to techniques and conditions in which I post consistent catches.

Bait Selection:
Although Sheepshead can be caught on a large variety of baits, they have mouths designed for feeding on crustaceans.  My favorite baits are as follows in order or seasonal precedence.
Mole Crabs (Sand Fleas) 

  • For me, the availability of these baits in the surf is what kicks my sheepie fishing into overdrive.  I prefer freshly caught and live baits, but have had success on dead and frozen baits.  To catch them, I look at the surf zone, and if I see little bubbles in the sand as the water recedes, I focus my attention there.  I look for baits between the tide line and the small little shelf that generally occurs a few feet into the breakers.  I will dig through the sand with my hands until I feel them, at which point, I use either a clam rake, or a half a aluminum minnow trap to scoop and shift through the sand to sort out the baits.  I store them in containers with easy drainage so the ammonia in their urine doesn’t kill them.  If possible, I will catch them at night when they are all throughout the surf, keeping them cool until im ready to fish.  I will fish them on either dropper loop rigs, or Carolina rigged, depending on the conditions.                                                                                                                                                     
Fiddler Crabs 

21 Dozen Fiddlers in a Yeti Tundra 35
  • Im sure that in many of your favorite marshes you see these little critters scurrying around the banks on a low tide.  I start to use these baits with the mole crabs and have found over the past few years that as the summer move on, I have better catches on crabs.  In Virginia, you can spend upwards of $4 a dozen at tackle shops, consistently wondering if there will be any in stock when you want them, or you can catch them yourself.  I focus on low tide cycles in areas I have seen them in the past, and can easily move along the shore after them.  If they are concentrated in open sections, I will throw a cast net at them and quickly collect them from under the net.  I will also walk through marsh grass, grabbing them as I spot them.  If there is sea grass in the areas you are looking that collects in clumps along the shore, they will generally hide underneath.  To keep them alive, keep them cool, moist and provide them a place to hide.  This summer I kept 22 dozen alive in a Yeti Tundra 35 for over 24 hours adding moist sea grass an crumpled up cardboard.  The cardboard, or better yet cardboard egg crate gives them a place to hide so they don’t kill one another.  Keeping them cool in conditions like this will let you keep them for a few weeks.  As they die, remove the dead ones and place a slice or two of bread for food.  I like to fish these on dropper loop rigs.
Clams and Shrimp
  • Although this is not a bait I use to target sheepies due to the large by catch from species like spot, croaker, pinfish, grouper, I have had great luck when targeting Spadefish and Triggers.  Generally, My sheepies using this bait comes on lighter rods dedicated for spades, and the fight is amazing.  The go to rig for clams is a Carolina rig.
Blue Crabs
  • I use Blue Crabs in 1” chunks when I am unable to get Fiddlers.  I fish them the same way I fish with Fiddlers.
Sea Urchins and Barnacles 
  • I have never fished with either bait, but I know they are more popular the further south you travel.  On all the sheepies I have kept, both have been the majority of the stomach content.

Rods and Reels
I prefer using a MH or H power rod that is stiff enough to set the hook through a mouthful of molar like teeth.  Another consideration is the combos ability to pull them away from the structure quickly.  I use a few combos:
  1. MH Shamano Travala S paired with a Release Reels SG spooled with 85lb test braid.  The reel has an insane line retrieval ratio along with a super smooth drag.  The rod has enough backbone to cross their eyes and pull them off the structure, and the braid gives me sense of mind when fishing alongside razor sharp barnacles.
  2. H power Diawa Procyon paired with a Shamano Calcutta 200 and 35 lb braid.  The power of the rod and smooth drag on the reel makes this a great all around bait fishing/dropping combo.
  3. MH Shamano Crucial paired with a Shamano Cronarch 200 and 35 lb braid.  Again a super strong combo, with a added bonus (super light weight).  This rig is used when Im fishing with lightweight and/or doing a lot of one handed paddling along structure.
  1. Dropper Rig.  I use either 1 or 2 hook configurations and weight from ½ to 5 oz.  I tie mine with super high quality components.  My hooks are Owner SSW J hooks from size 2 to size 2/0 (depending on the bait size).  For line I like 20-35 lb Seaguar Red or Blue label fluorocarbon line.  The Blue label is expensive, but has amazing abrasion resistance and knot strength (I recently landed a 62 lb cobia using this line).  I like a high quality barrel swivel to connect to the main line, and at least 18” to the first hook.  If Im fishing a double hook rig, I like the bottom hook 6-8” above the weight, and the top another 14-18” above that (think about working the water column.  A single rig, I like the hook 12” above the weight. On the bottom swivel, I go with a strong but inexpensive Eagle Claw Barrel Swivel with clip for quick weight changes.  With this rig, I focus on fishing near the bottom of pilings or in rocky areas.  See a dropper loop tied here.
  2. Carolina Rig – I use 16-24” of 20 lb Seaguar Red label with a high quality barrel swivel and the same Owner hooks paired to bait size.  I use a Snell or Palomar from the line to the hook, and a Palomar or Uni to the swivel.  This rig is used when I am working the entire water column.  Ill drop to the bottom and work my way up 12-18” at a time, fishing each spot for a few minutes at a time.  If I have to go over 1 ½ ounces of weight on my egg sinker, I am using too much and switch to a dropper rig.

I have had equal success with both rigs, but tend to lose more around vertical structure with the Carolina rig (must because i'm not from Carolina!).

The bite and fight:

You will either feel weight on the line or light tap-tap.  If you feel the tap-tap and miss the hookset, don’t fret.  Keep your bait down for a few seconds and wait.  The sheepies tend to hit and crush the bait before they go back and pick up the pieces.  When in doubt Set the Hook.  You will loose weights and rigs, but can also be rewarded with some amazing catches.  Also, if you keep getting stolen without feeling bites, or keep missing bites, stick with it in the same areas. You may go through a lot of bait, but if you are fishing for a sheep that you know is there and feeding, don’t move on until you catch him or he stops.  Finally, when you set the hook, cross his eyes to get a positive hookset.  He’s not a speck, and your not going to rip it out of his mouth.  Once you get the hookset, hang on for the fight of your life.

Photo Credit - Jay Brooks

Good luck out there!

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