- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Some might call it entrapment—an unfair setup designed to lure a thief into committing a larcenous act for which a would-be captor lays in wait. Fishermen, however, call it common sense, or common “scents,” depending on how you look at it.
We’re talking about chumming, and specifically, for a fish whose bait-stealing tendencies, along with a conspicuously appropriate black and white striped vesture, have earned it the nickname “convict fish.” Perhaps one of the most sought-after and infrequently bested fish in saltwater, the sheepshead is a master of munching. Broad incisors protruding past its lips justify the moniker and give all manner of invertebrates a very bad feeling.
Now, just as a thief’s fancy for easy loot will ultimately lead to incarceration, a sheepshead’s appetite will become its undoing when leveraged by a savvy angler. Tools for this saltwater sting operation include a bucket, a shovel and a hammer (more on this later). The idea is to attract the often-elusive sheepshead with a nose-nudging stimulus known as chumming.
Staking Out Suspects
Rocky inshore channel edges provide abundant feeding opportunities with good tidal flow.
Look for sheepshead around rocky, shell-covered bottom, channel edges, oyster bars and concrete pilings. Available year-around in coastal and inshore waters, this spunky member of the porgy family often appears in large groups during the winter months. Easily spooked, sheepshead are tough to engage on the flats, so fish spots with at least 4 to 5 feet of water on a low tide.
During winter months, sheepshead feed best on the last half of the outgoing tide through the first half of the incoming. Low water levels allows the sun’s rays to warm the bottom as the falling water pulls shrimp and crabs off the shallow edges into sheepshead abode. At the start of the incoming tide, the new water brings fresh oxygen and more tumbling food sources from the opposite direction.
Initiate your chumming operation by finding any oyster and barnacle-covered seawall or piling, scrape the shells into a bucket with the shovel and use the top edge of the hammer’s head to mash them into succulent gravel. Low tide affords optimal opportunities to scrape the shells because the water level allows the best access to the freshest bivalves growing beneath the waterline.
Toss a couple handfuls of the chum uptide of your fishing spot and let the current deliver an enticing scent trail to your quarry. For more consistent chumming, fill a ventilated, weighted and capped coffee can or PVC tube with chum and drop it to the bottom. The current will eventually wash out the scent, so refill the container every half hour.
Sheepshead have an opportunistic nature, so they usually respond quickly to the perceived availability of food. Don’t dump your entire chum in the first 5 minutes but keep up a steady stream of scent. As the fish dash through the aromatic trail, they’ll grow increasingly aggressive in their search for something edible. The first bait dropped almost always gets clobbered.
Speaking of bait, there’s nothing wrong with making your chum source pull double duty. Truth be told, sheepshead find freshly shucked oyster meat and barnacles mighty tempting entrees. Barnacles are fairly easy to handle—just partially crack the segmented shells and insert the hook into the flesh. Fresh oysters, though, require a little more hook-wrapping effort.
A small shovel, a 5-gallon bucket and a hammer are really all that's required for producing good chum.
A popular option for sheepshead bait is a fiddler crab. When the water is up, these crabs usually nap away the hours in deep tunnels dug into the sand and mud. When the tide recedes, fiddlers come out to scavenge the land for tiny food particles.
Common to most sandy beaches and mucky mangrove basins, fiddler crabs range in color from mottled brown and black in juvenile stages to bright orange, red and purple patterns in adults. Males have one oversized pincer that’s often wider than their bodies. Used mostly for impressing females and challenging rivals the big claw isn’t much of a threat to humans and, in fact, makes a nice handle.
A promising sign for a good fiddler crab spot is lots of holes in the beach surrounded by tiny sand balls. When a fiddler digs his getaway tunnel, it rolls the sand out in spheres, deposited on his doorstep. Other good signs are crab-eating wading birds like herons and egrets, or their tracks.
Catching fiddlers is tricky because the wary crabs are quick to duck into the holes when threatened. Digging them out is a tough chore, as the crabs don’t burrow straight down and guessing the correct direction is frustrating. Also, tearing up a beach is an environmental no-no. So a good way to capture fiddlers is to lay a mesh screens baited with breadcrumbs, coffee grounds or fish meal on the sand near a group of holes. When a good number of crabs congregate near the food, quickly lift the screen and dump them into a bucket.
Also effective are the tiny dime-sized crabs hiding in the nooks and crannies of oyster bars. Be careful when extracting, as the jagged oyster shells can inflict nasty cuts. Shell beds will also harbor the heavy-clawed stone crab, but this protected species is off-limits for bait seekers.
Bait crabs are best fished on light hooks that cause minimal damage. For maximum bait life, insert the hook in the extreme corner of the shells and let the crab dangle on the hook’s bend.
Other bait options:
Tossing handfuls of freshly crushed chum uptide of a promising spot will deliver the convincing aroma to opportunistic sheepshead.
• Sand Fleas: Known scientifically as mole crabs, these burrowing crustaceans lack pincers and are common to surf lines on most sandy beaches. Watch the rolling end of a receding wave and you’ll see little white critters tumbling in the surf. Even if you miss the exposed crabs, look at the sand just as the wave clears and you’ll probably see a couple of small indentations as uprooted sand fleas dig in for safety. Scoop up a handful of sand where you saw the digging and let a wave wash away the grains until the scurrying crab is exposed.
• Mussels: Usually occurring in clumps of a dozen or more, these oblong bivalves burrow into soft sand and mud. The shells are stout, but not as strong as an oyster’s. Shucking a mussel and using the meat works well, but you’re better off partially crushing the shell and inserting a hook into the meat, as with barnacles.
• Tube Worms: The worms also burrow into the soft sand close to beaches, hiding in a tough, protective casing with just the tip protruding. For camouflage and protection, the end of this casing collects tiny shell fragments that are visible on a low tide. Best bet is to carefully dig around the casing to extract the entire worm. A tubeworm is superb sheepshead bait when fished in small segments.
In terms of availability and ease of use, fresh shrimp is tough to beat. Like most baits, though, it’s also tough to keep on the hook. Flaunting a proficiency for mollusk munching and bait stealing, sheepshead possess protruding incisors that are perfectly designed for cracking shells and for pecking baits from hooks.
Get a grip on the sheepshead’s feeding strategy and you’ll stand a much better chance of winning this quick draw contest. Sheepshead approach their meals with a 1-2 combination. The first bite is to crush the shell; the second is to gobble whatever protrudes. Experienced anglers often jokingly advise would-be sheepshead tamers to set the hook a half second before the fish bites.
Once an angler overcomes its bait-stealing tendencies, the 'convict fish' will fight to the end to avoid incarceration.
Regardless of whether you respond to the first or second bite, don’t try to win this game with a sky-high hook set. This usually just pulls the bait away from the fish. A more effective response is to quickly reel as you firmly raise the rod. Such action will gradually bring the line tight and sink the hook before the fish can let go. You’ll increase your odds by affixing the bait tightly around the hook. Furthermore, don’t let pieces of the bait dangle from the hook. Sheepshead call these “handles” and will use the advantage to pull the rest of your bait loose.
Capturing The Culprits
Sheepshead grow to 10 pounds or better, but 2- to 4-pounders are most common. Standard tackle includes light to medium spinning outfits carrying 8- to 10-pound monofilament and 12 inches of 15- to 20-pound leader. For an optimal blend of strength and strike sensitivity, try a braided fusion line.
Because most sheepshead fishing is in deeper water, even a mild current can make it tough to sink a bait on target. A small split shot will help keep your bait where you want it, but the lead weight presents a secondary object, which often spooks wary sheepshead. Eliminate this problem by crimping the split shot just above your hook knot to minimize visibility and unnecessary noise.
Sheepshead are spirited fighters with a stubborn bottom-hugging strategy. In the boat, their stiff dorsal and anal fin spines can inflict painful wounds. Your safest grip is under the chin and around the gills. When cleaning sheepshead, make sure your knife is razor sharp, as this fish’s leatherlike hide is unkind to blades.
Nevertheless, despite a tough hide and larcenous ways, this convict has a redeeming quality—mild, white filets that rank among the sea’s finest. All you have to do is catch your thief in action.