Sheepshead Fishing: All You Need to Know

Jan 12, 2023 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

There are many many strange-looking critters out there that are worth targeting. With their unusual coloring and a full set of human-like teeth, Sheepshead have definitely earned their place on this list. Sheepshead fishing is popular for many reasons. For one, they’re really tasty. They’re also easy to find without having to go far from shore. And finally, you can fish for them any time of year. They simply tick all the boxes.

An angler in a cap and sunglasses holding a Sheepshead with water in the background


When it comes to actually catching these fish, you’re in for a challenge. Sheepshead are known to be cautious. They’ll take a good long look at your setup, and if they see anything out of the ordinary, you’re out of luck. This makes the art of disguise essential, along with some good old patience. It really is like catching a convict! Intrigued? Here’s the low-down on how to catch Sheepshead…

Where can Sheepshead be caught?

An image focusing on a Sheepshead being held by an angler wearing a cap  with water in the background

Sheepshead live in coastal Atlantic waters, from Nova Scotia all the way to Brazil. They’re especially popular in the Gulf of Mexico, and you’ll find the greatest numbers around Southwest Florida. They live in waters of varying depths, from shallow backwaters to around offshore reefs a few miles from land.

To get started, look for structure. Sheepshead gather near reefs, docks, jetties, and pilings, as well as hard or rocky bottoms that have deep holes and channels in them. It’s common to fish near or directly from the dock. They tend to avoid strong currents, so be sure to look for them around the backside, where they’re more protected. The more barnacles a dock has, the better! This indicates rich feeding grounds for them.

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!

A female angler in a hat and sunglasses holding a Sheepshead on a boat in Florida, with some greenery behind her

Spring

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! One of our captains from Destin said it best:

Early April Sheepshead bite is on fire! The Sheepshead are in the middle of their spawn, and now is the time to get ’em! Most of the fish are being found near the pass and they are eating the place down […] On 12 lb test they fight as good as any fish their size, and they taste as great as they are to catch!

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 shallow inshore waters. 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 as they start coming back to the coast. They feed on crustaceans around rocky structures, jetties, piers, and docks. The fall run starts in late September and continues into the winter Sheepshead fishing frenzy.

Winter

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. 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.

Sheepshead Fishing Tackle

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

If you’re already an avid inshore angler, then you can count on the same gear you would use to catch species like Redfish and Speckled Trout. That’s likely to be a 5’–7’ medium-heavy rod (spinning or casting) paired with a 3,000 series reel. 

In most cases, the line should be 10#–15# mono or braided. But, if you’re targeting really big Sheepshead or fishing some serious structure, opt for a beefier rod and 20#–30# braid. 

All this depends on the conditions you’re fishing in. Remember, Sheepshead are easily spooked, so a heavy, braided line floating in crystal clear water could be enough to make them keep their distance. Be open to experimenting with your tackle until you find what works. It’s tedious but makes this fish all the more rewarding when you catch it.

What is the best bait to use for Sheepshead?

Sheepshead earned the nickname “Convict Fish” due to their stripes, but this name is also fitting for another reason. They’re notorious bait thieves. Despite munching on crustaceans all day, they’ll bite your bait very lightly. This makes them hard to detect, which is how they got so good at stealing bait. 

A face-on view of a Sheepshead with its mouth open and showing its rows of teeth

Sheepshead like to bottom feed on mollusks and crustaceans (those pearly whites aren’t just for show). Depending on the area, this means they’re foraging for crabs, clams, oysters, shrimp, and barnacles. This tells you a lot about what kind of bait you’ll be using. 

Fiddler crabs tend to be the bait of choice for Sheepshead, along with live or dead shrimp. You can also use pieces of larger crabs (for example, blue or mud crabs), sand fleas, tube worms, and clams (especially in winter, when fiddlers are scarce). Bait selection depends on what’s naturally available in the area; whatever it is, be sure to bury the hook in it. You don’t want to give this fish anything to be suspicious about! 

If you’re using live shrimp, pinch off the tail flippers and thread it on your hook. You can rig fiddler crabs by feeding your hook right through the bottom, or from the side – start at the base of the second leg from the rear and push your hook through until it reaches (but doesn’t penetrate) the top of the shell. Extra tip: break the large claw off of male fiddlers for best results.

It’s very popular to chum for Sheepshead. In fact, some say this is the best technique. A good Sheepshead chum can be made by grinding up any of the natural baits mentioned above, but it’s cheaper to use barnacles scraped off a bridge piling or fresh oyster shells. Cast your chum up current to any type of structure or hard bottom you’re fishing.

Sheepshead Lures

A female angler, wearing sunglasses and smiling, holding a Sheepshead in Ponce Inlet with the water behind her

When it comes to artificials, you can’t go wrong with a jig. In fact, jigs are great for anyone who’s just learning how to catch Sheepshead. The weight of the lure makes it easier to cast, and there won’t be any slack in your line, meaning you can feel the fish bite right away. 

Bottom sweeper jigs work very well, all you need is an appropriate weight (from 3/4 oz up to 5 oz) to prevent the lure from moving in the current.

It’s also common to buy a bare jig head and bait it with shrimp, or cut away the feathers and then thread a live shrimp on the hook. This works well for fishing a deep hole or channel. You can also work your jig back slowly over hard bottoms, or let it rest there with little to no motion. When you’re casting toward rocks and jetties instead, popping cork is the way to go.

Common Sheepshead Rigs

Sheepshead are primarily bottom feeders, so to get their attention, it’s important to keep your bait close to the bottom, which is also their hunting ground. 

A pinch-on weight or sliding sinker rig with a ½ oz egg sinker can help with this. It’s a good idea to have the sinker on about 12 inches of shock leader (20#–30# mono or 15#–20# fluorocarbon), attached to the line with a swivel. The less weight you can use, the easier it will be to feel the Sheepshead biting. It’s also a good idea to use a heavier rod if you’re using a big sinker.

A modified version of the Carolina rig as described in the video above could also serve you well. This rig is recommended for fishing vertically over inshore and nearshore wrecks, and around jetties.  

Meanwhile, a drop-shot rig is better when you’re fishing directly from a dock or bridge. This allows you to work the water column right up against that structure. Use a palomar knot for this rig and a hook no larger than size 1.

How to Fish for Sheepshead

Hooking an avid bait thief like Sheepshead takes a bit of patience. Give this fish a chance to nibble before you try to set your hook. Make sure you keep your rod tip low and maintain tension while you wait, since this will allow you to feel the bite better. 

Once the fish starts to move away with the bait, you’ll feel a sudden change in the weight at the end of your line. This means it’s finally time to set your hook. Due to the fact that these fish have such tough mouths, many people think you have to tug the rod forcefully; but with a sharp enough hook and careful timing, simply lifting your rod up should be enough. 

One last tip: Don’t dip the rod as you’re trying to set the hook, or you’ll just lose the fish.

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.

A view from the beach next to the Tamiami Trail Bridge over Charlotte Harbor, with waves crashing onto the beach
  • Charlotte Harbor: This natural estuary is home to some of the best fishing in Florida, but Sheepshead have 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.

An aerial view of the City Harbor in Corpus Christi, with the marina in the foreground and some taller buildings in the background
  • 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?

An aerial view of the Port of Mobile, Alabama, with the bay and inlet dominating the centre of the image, while the Gulf of Mexico is visible in the distance
  • 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 just over 21 pounds. So one of the best spots to reel a big one in is Calcasieu Lake out of Lake Charles.

Sheepshead Fishing: To Catch a Convict

A happy kid, smiling while holding a Sheepshead on a boat with the engine and water behind him

The “Convict Fish” is often overlooked in favor of more popular inshore game fish. But when you consider the unique challenge of catching this fish and just how tasty it is, there’s every reason to make it one of your main targets next time. If you give it a go, you’ll have a lot of fun figuring out how to catch Sheepshead for yourself. And, you’ll learn some valuable angling skills along the way. Tasting the fruit of your labor at the end of the day will make it more than worth it!

Have you been Sheepshead fishing before? What are your favorite tips? Tell us in the comments below!

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