Sheepshead Fishing: All You Need to Know
Aug 25, 2021 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Sheepshead fishing is a popular angling experience along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as “Convict Fish” thanks to their black and white stripes, they live in coastal waters from Nova Scotia all the way to Brazil, but the highest numbers of Sheepshead are in southwest Florida. This is where most of the action happens, and it’s exactly where you should be if you’re looking for a trophy Sheepie.

An angler holding a Sheepshead with water in the background

Why do people love going after Sheepshead? Well, they’re really tasty! They might be a bit more difficult to clean than other nearby fish, but they’re more than worth the effort. They’re also fairly easy to find, as they tend to school around underwater structure. But let’s take an in-depth look at what exactly makes Sheepshead fishing so special, and where exactly you can make the most out of your trip.

Top Spots for Sheepshead Fishing

An infographic showing the distribution map of Sheepshead

While you’ll find this striped beauty all along the eastern Atlantic coast, including the Gulf of Mexico, some spots are more productive than others. Take a look at the top spots to go Sheepshead fishing, and pack your bags!

Florida

We have to start with the best. South Florida is famous for its inshore fishery, but few species here are as abundant as Sheepshead. There are so many places you can visit to fill your bags with these beautiful fish, so we’ve had to make some cuts to bring you the list below.

The Tamiami Trail Bridge over Charlotte Harbor
  • Charlotte Harbor: This natural estuary is home to some of the best fishing in Florida, but Sheepshead has to top the list of targets. Head out in the winter months and explore the seawalls and tidal creeks for the best action.
  • The Everglades: One of the most unique fisheries in the world, the Everglades will have you in awe of its beauty. The mangroves and rocky bottoms here hold an abundance of Sheepies. Come and see it for yourself!
  • Destin: The “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” is known as one of the most prolific fishing hotspots in the world. This is true for Sheepshead fishing as well. Explore the multiple bays, look around bridges and docks, as well as up the creeks, and you won’t be disappointed.

Texas

Another state where Sheepshead are revered by local anglers. If you think everything’s bigger in Texas, you should see the Sheepshead! You’ll find them all along the Texas Gulf Coast, especially around jetties, rocks, and reefs.

Aerial view of the City Harbor in Corpus Christi
  • Corpus Christi: Anglers from all over come here for spectacular inshore fishing, and Sheepshead fishing is no exception. Visit the rocky jetty on Packery Channel for some of the best action, especially in winter.
  • Galveston: Galveston is known throughout the Lone Star State as a prolific fishery, and fishing for Sheepshead can confirm that. The Galveston jetties extend to over 6 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, making it perfect for targeting the big ones.
  • Port O’Connor: The Port O’Connor jetty is beloved by locals, and Sheepshead fishing is easy and fun. Extending out into Matagorda Bay, this rocky structure will yield some great results.

Where else can I catch Sheepshead?

Aerial view of the Port of Mobile, Alabama
  • Mobile, Alabama: When spawning season hits, Mobile Bay becomes a real hotspot for Sheepshead fishing. Anglers tend to catch big Sheepies around gas wells and pilings dotted throughout the bay. Find any structure with barnacles and you can’t go wrong here.
  • Ocean City, Maryland: Another great place to look for “Convicts” is the Ocean City Inlet. Hit the south jetty for the best results. The highest chances of reeling them in here are during the warmer months, so spring and summer are your best choices.
  • Biloxi, Mississippi: Hit the calm waters of Biloxi Bay for some light Sheepshead fishing fun. They like hanging around structure here, gnawing on barnacles during spring.
  • Lake Charles, Louisiana: The world record Sheepshead came out of Louisiana waters, weighing in at 21.25 pounds. So one of the best spots to reel a big one in is Calcasieu Lake out of Lake Charles.

When to Go Sheepshead Fishing

When it comes to fishing for Sheepshead, you won’t have to think about the seasons that much. This is a fish you can target year-round in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but some months are better than others. Knowing where to find them in different seasons is half of the job!

Spring

A female angler holding a Sheepshead on a boat in Florida

This is a great time for some heavy fishing! March and April are when these beautiful creatures head out to spawn. This means one thing – they’re hungry and abundant. While they tend to go into somewhat deeper waters, finding the spawning grounds isn’t that hard as they don’t tend to move far from shore. Look for any underwater structure and you’re in for a lot of fun!

Summer

Come summer, and Sheepshead change their feeding habits. You’ll notice large numbers of them following the high tide into the flats and grass. Why? Well, they’re looking for food – tasty crabs. This means that you’ll find them in the shallow inshore waters, and using fiddler and mud crabs to entice their bite will yield some great results.

Fall

As the weather starts cooling in fall, we slowly enter Sheepshead high season. This is when it becomes a lot easier to hook into larger specimens, since they start coming back to the coast. They feed on crustaceans around rocky structure, jetties, piers, and docks. The fall run starts in late September and continues into the winter Sheepshead fishing frenzy.

Winter

An angler holding a Sheepshead with water in the background

Hands-down the best time to go fishing for Sheepshead is in the cooler winter months. This is when you can find them in the inshore shallows, making them super popular with anglers at this time of the year. You’ll find them around dock and bridge pilings, mangroves, and any other structure that provides shelter and food. They feed on shrimp and crabs, as well as oysters, barnacles, and mussels, so this is the best bait to use during the winter.

How to Fish for Sheepshead

Now it’s time to dive deeper into how exactly you can land yourself a delicious meal by targeting Sheepshead. What tackle should you use? What type of bait works best? Keep reading to find out.

Bait and Tackle

Sheepshead are known among anglers as one of those fish that will eat just about anything. As long as it’s alive, that is. Artificial lures can be used, but it rarely happens that Sheepshead will bite into it. Natural baits are the way to go here.

Fishermen usually entice the bite of Sheepshead by using live, frozen, or freshly dead baits. And frozen shrimp is one of the most successful lures. It’s readily available and easy to use, making it the most popular Sheepshead bait. But keep in mind that you’ll get the best results using live baits, so if you want to fill your bags, this is the way to do it.

A collection of brightly colored lures, tackle, and fishing gear arranged on a wooden table

Which bait to use will vary depending on the region. However, Sheepshead love munching on crustaceans, so using live shrimp, sand fleas, and fiddler crabs will get them crazy. Oysters, barnacles, and mussels work especially great in wintertime, when you’ll be fishing around mangroves, docks, and bridges.

As for tackle, you don’t need anything special or fancy to reel in a nice Sheepshead. A 6–7′ medium-action rod with a spinning reel works great, and you can use it with a monofilament line. Since these fish bite a bit lightly, some fishermen like to use a braided line to get a better feel.

When it comes to terminal tackle, basic bottom fishing gear will do the job. If you’re using a circle hook, remember not to set it. Most anglers prefer using small J hooks when Sheepshead fishing for better grip due to the structure of their mouth and all the molars. Use a 20–30 lb test fluorocarbon leader around 12–18 inches long, so you can trick them into biting, but also feel their light nibbling.

Sheepshead Fishing Techniques

As we’ve mentioned, you can find Sheepshead in a variety of places, and you can target them from shore or a boat. If you’re looking for a challenge, opt for shore fishing, while hopping on a boat will allow you to find the fish and go to them. If you’re fishing from a boat, you’ll get the advantage of natural chumming, as you can scrape the pilings of barnacles to get them to join the party.

A female angler holding Sheepshead in Ponce Inlet

Another thing to remember is that these fish are also known as “Bait Stealers.” This is because they’re very light biters and they tend to nibble on the bait without running away. Therefore, often you can’t really feel the bite, so you have to really pay attention to what’s going on underwater.

If you’re fishing vertical structure, cast your line in the down current side and let it sink with the lightest weight you can manage. But use enough weight to keep the bait close to the structure where they feed. If you’re fishing rock piles in moving water, cast your bait up current and let it drift over the underwater structure.

A face-on view of Sheepshead with its mouth open, showing its teeth

Sheepies normally suck in the bait and then crush it. This is why it’s important to hold off on setting the hook for a second after the initial bite. This way you’ll make sure it’s in for good. But waiting too long to set the hook can lead to the fish spitting it out. Balancing this is a skill that will make you a great angler once you master it!

If you’re looking for something completely different, try spearfishing for Sheepshead. This interesting technique has been gaining popularity in recent years. The thrill of the hunt, paired with the on-hands experience makes for a real adrenaline rush.

Sheepshead Fishing: The Underdog Convict

So what makes Sheepshead fishing special? The “Convict Fish” is one of those often overlooked species due to the more popular inshore game fish. If you give it a go though, you’ll not only have a lot of fun, but you’ll learn some valuable angling skills along the way. Fishing for Sheepshead is a bit unusual, but tasting the fruits of your labor at the end of the day will make it more than worth it.

A happy kid holding a Sheepshead on a boat

Have you ever been Sheepshead fishing? How was it? Tell us all about it in the comments below, or ask any questions you might have. We love to hear from you!

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