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Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus)
The Sheepshead is an exquisitely beautiful and tasty light tackle fish. Popularly referred to as "convict fish" due to its symbolic coloration, the nickname holds true on account of its notorious bait stealing skills as well.
An interesting fact about this fish species is that it used to be abundant and popular as fine dining table fare in Brooklyn, NY - so popular that it got a bay named after it. Since it mysteriously withdrew from these waters, some have been retelling the story citing the resemblance of the shape of the district to a sheep's head as the cause for the name. Now you know better.
Another very interesting fact is that these fish have eerily human-like incisor teeth.
Sheepshead can grow to a maximum of 30'' and about 22lbs. However, most catches will be between 14 and 18'' and 1 to 8lbs. They live relatively long, about 20 years.
When & Where
The species can be found in the coastal waters of the western Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to Florida, throughout the Gulf coast and then in much less numbers off Central and South America down to Brazil.
The highest concentrations can be found in south Florida, from Melbourne to Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast and in mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands, in the Everglades and up to Charlotte Harbor (the most prolific fishery) on the Gulf coast. Northwest Florida also hosts them, but more around artificial structures such as markers, pilings and jetty rocks. They can be found in the Panhandle and westwards, abundantly around Pensacola, Destin and Ft Walton.
Fall and winter are the best times to target them, with changing tides being a prerequisite, especially slack and ebb tides.
The charter this angler was on boated 40 Sheepshead in a single outing! Taken aboard Fin Stalker II off Charleston, SC
How to catch
Sheepshead feed on mollusks and crustaceans, so natural bait is the way to go. Live or dead shrimp is the best option, but sand fleas, fiddler crabs, clams or tube worms will be good. Shrimp-tipped jigs will work too, but this is more due to the added weight of the jig helping keep the bait down in the current than its actual attractiveness to the fish. Chumming any of the above bait will always be helpful, but can be expensive - crushed barnacles will make for good, budget-friendly, chum.
Sheepshead are clever when it comes to bait stealing - they will first nibble on the bait in an attempt to loosen it from the hook, so always have it firmly set up and give them time to swim away with it. They also have a very tough mouth, so once you feel the weight of the fish taking the bait away, set the hook aggressively.
Good to eat?
Excellent quality white flesh, however, the hard scales and strong spines don't make it easy to clean and fillet.
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