Every heard of Sheepshead Bay? Of course, you have! The Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn used to be a fishing community with an abundance of Sheepshead fish in the waters nearby; this gave the infamous bay its name.
The Sheepshead is a type of Porgy that lives in Florida’s saltwaters. Many anglers find Sheepshead fishing challenging yet rewarding. There are several techniques involved in fishing for and cleaning this fish, but it is all worth it in the end. So, let’s dive in!
What Do Sheepshead Fish Look Like?
The Sheepshead, also known as the Convict fish, is very similar in appearance to a Red Drum but has some unique differences. For starters, it is a relatively small fish, averaging a total length of 13 inches (2-5 pounds); although, it has been known to reach up to 36 inches. It has a light-colored body with 6 or 7 thick, vertical black bars on its sides (hence the name Convict fish), but that is not the only feature that makes this fish easy to recognize; this species has prominent, almost sheep-like teeth, and this includes the incisors, molars, and rounded grinders (hence the name Sheepshead). You will also see that the dorsal and anal fins have strong, sharp spines.
Where to Find and Catch Sheepshead?
This fish inhabits coastal bodies of saltwater, including bays and tidal creeks. It can most commonly be found near areas where barnacles and crabs are plentiful. This ranges anywhere from dock and bridge pilings, areas with rocky bottom, seawalls, oyster bars and natural or artificial reefs. A larger Convict may travel offshore when summer temperatures warm the water.
As the Sheepshead forages for crustaceans, you can often find it turned sideways near structure, picking off the barnacles and shellfish.
Rules and Regulations
In Gulf and Atlantic state waters, the minimum size limit when fishing for Sheepshead is 12 inches in total length. The daily bag limit is 8 fish per person and there is a recreational vessel limit of 50 per trip during March and April. These regulations extend into federal waters as well. Luckily, fishing season for the Convict is year-round. There are also specific regulations if you plan on fishing in the Biscayne National Park.
When it comes to gear, using a hook and line, cast net, spear, gig or seine is legal. It is, however, illegal to harvest by/with the usage of a multiple hook in conjunction with live/dead natural bait. Snatching is also not allowed. As for bait, if you prefer to use oysters, please brush up on oyster regulations. If you like to use barnacles, you can harvest up to 100 pounds per person per day with a recreational saltwater fishing license. You can even scrape them off docks and structures (as long as they are not private) and into the water to entice the fish.
Tips and Tricks for Snagging Your Catch
For starters, you need the correct equipment and should be aware of gear restrictions (see the Rules and Regulations section just below). Given that the Sheepshead is typically under cover of some sort and has a gentle bite, you will want a rod with power and sensitivity. A saltwater rod with a medium action back bone that is rated for 10-30lb. line is your best bet.
As for the reel, saltwater rated inshore spinning or baitcasting reels will do the trick. You should consider 12-30lb braid line, and you will definitely need strong but small, razor-sharp hooks. Setting the hook requires an upward motion and it must pierce the fish’s tough but tiny mouth, so the right hook and line are important. You can also use a 20lb., 10-16in. fluorocarbon leader for your line.
When fishing for a Sheepshead, natural bait will become your best friend. It is a sucker for fiddler crabs and barnacles. Live bait is always better but frozen works as well. You can chum up the water with some oysters, shrimp or clams or by scraping barnacles off structure and waiting. Mud crabs also work.
PRO TIP: If you’re using crab, be sure to remove the large claw from the males and then thread the hook up from the bottom of the crab, near its legs, all the way through the top so that the hook is exposed. Be careful not to kill the bait by piercing any organs.
One foolproof technique is to start by lowering the natural bait up current of where the fish is feeding. The water current will move the bait, so keep an eye on your line and rod. The Convict fish has a reputation for stealing bait (another reason for its nickname), so stay alert for any tap-tap feeling on the end of the line.
PRO TIP: Bring lots of bait! This fish is not an aggressive striker; its bite is very subtle. If there is a bite, you need a rapid yank of your hook using a quick upward motion to capture the fish.
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Cleaning and Cooking the Sheepshead
Believe it or not, the Sheepshead is considered excellent table fare, accredited to its shellfish-rich diet. The meat is firm and oily, similar to Triggerfish and Black Bass. The first challenge though, is to fillet and clean the fish. Handle this fish with care as the back spines and gill covers are sharp. For starters, you have to get through the spikes on its back; add to that its hard ribs. Filleting this fish is an involved process that requires the right tools, and every angler has their own technique. Find the right technique for you and you will not be disappointed.
The options for cooking up some Sheepshead are versatile. It can be boiled, roasted, grilled, baked or fried, depending on your preferences. Consider coating your fish in butter or olive oil and adding some oregano and parsley, onions, or lemon, along with some salt and pepper, before you pop it in the oven for 10-15 minutes.
PRO TIP: Pre-heat the over to 450 degrees and reduce to 350 just before you put the fish in. The meat should be tender when removing it from the oven. Serve with any side dish you prefer.
The Sheepshead fish will certainly challenge even experienced anglers, but don’t get discouraged. Scope out your favorite coastal spot and search the waters for a barnacle nibbling Convict. Once you’ve caught him, don’t let him go! Try your hand at cleaning him up and turning him into a delicious dish.
If you’re curious about other types of fish, make sure you check out the rest of our fishing guide articles.