If blue crabs grew to be 5 pounds, their meat would look exactly like a sheepshead fillet. And the taste would be so similar that only seasoned crab fishers could tell the difference.
Sheepshead are not a glamour species, usually caught by accident on an artificial lure.
But never mind that.
For the next three months, swallow your pride. Bait up with live shrimp, fresh oyster or mussel, and you’ll soon be swallowing the tastiest bites of seafood in the sea.
Sheepshead move into residential canals, rocky pot holes and coastal rivers with the first cold fronts of the year, and usually stay until mid-February. Then they head to the edges of the shipping channel, the artificial reefs inside Tampa Bay and just off the beaches, and stay through March to spawn. After that they disappear to who-knows-where for the rest of the year, so most anglers chase them in cold weather only.
Finding sheepshead is usually not difficult.
Motor slowly through the residential canals around St. Pete Beach, Bradenton Beach, Longboat Key, Apollo Beach or other waterfront communities on a sunny day. Sooner or later you’ll see the barred patterns on their sides as they sidle up to a piling or a dock to munch on barnacles or mussels. They frequently feed just below the surface on these shellfish, so you can readily spot them if you wear polarized glasses.
They also hang in rocky pot holes in the flats such as some of those south of the Little Manatee, and around the commercial docks in the downtown Tampa harbor.
Sheepshead are schooling fish, so where you find one, you might find a limit of 15.
Getting them to bite can be remarkably easy if they’ve not been pressured. Just impale half a medium shrimp on a 1/0 long-shank hook, lower it down into sheepshead land, and set the hook when you feel a bump. It can be a little tricky to set the hook at just the right moment, but a small piece of bait and the small hook help.
It’s also wise to use braided line, which transmits the bite more sharply and allows a stronger hook-set than mono or fluoro. A leader of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon will encourage more bites, and you’ll need an ounce of weight around deeper locations, a half-ounce in shallower.
When sheepshead get smart — as they quickly do when they see a few of their buddies derricked into the boat — it’s time to break out the spudding hoe and “chum” them by scraping barnacles or mussels off the pilings to create a stream of edibles that turns on the bite. Lower your bait into the chum stream when you see the fish actively feeding on the chum, and things happen fast.
One of the better baits is the invasive green mussel, which has showed up all over Tampa Bay in the past 20 years. It’s a tough bait that stays on the hook better than shrimp or oysters, and every mussel you kill is a step toward getting rid of them here. You can find them on most concrete pilings all over the bay.
The minimum legal size on sheepshead is 12 inches; most you catch will be 13 to 14 inches, with the occasional 15- to 18-inch jumbo. They’re strong battlers and are good at wrapping your line around any nearby pilings, so stout gear is a must.
Cleaning can be a challenge. Sheepshead are armed with needle-like spines that seem to point in all directions, and it’s tough to handle them without getting stuck. It’s wise to use poultry shears to nip away the stabbing points before starting to clean the fish, lest the blood that is shed might be your own.
Once the fish is filleted, boned and skinned, the white meat is great cooked in every imaginable way, but simply grilling it with a brushing of butter is hard to beat. It also comes out very nicely if broiled “in the shell” like redfish; put the gutted carcass under the heated broiler until a fork goes easily through the thickest part of the shoulder. Lift off the skin and dig in.