Game Fishing > Sheepshead Family, Sparidae > Sheepshead


SheepsheadIn his account of the fishes in the vicinity of New York, in 1788, Schoepf, a surgeon in the British army, placed the sheepshead in the European genus Sparus, but gave it no specific name. From his description the ichthyologist Walbaum, in 1792, named it probatocephalus, which being translated means "sheep head." This fish inhabits the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Cape Cod to Texas, where it is common during the summer months, but it is especially abundant in the bays of Florida during the entire year.

Its body is nearly half as deep as long, is much compressed, and elevated and arched over the shoulder. The head is large, about a third of the length of the body, with a steep profile, rounded in front of the eyes, which with its incisor teeth bears a slight resemblance to the profile of a sheep. The mouth is large, with strong incisor teeth in front, and several series of molar teeth in both jaws. The general tint is dusky gray, with silvery lustre, paling to the belly; about half a dozen broad, black bars cross the body, from above downward, very distinct in the young, but becoming fainter with age.

As might be inferred from the character of its teeth, the sheepshead resorts to mussel shoals, oyster bars, bridge piers, and old wrecks, where mussels and barnacles abound, and on which it feeds, pinching them from their beds with its strong incisor teeth and crushing them with its molars. It is gregarious, feeding in schools, especially in southern waters, several hundred having been taken on a single tide at places in Florida. It appears in northern waters in June and disappears in the fall, probably wintering at great depths of the sea contiguous to the coast.

Its usual maximum weight in northern waters is from three to six pounds, though occasionally reaching ten, fifteen, or even twenty pounds, though these heavy fish are exceedingly rare. Its average size in Florida is less than in the North. It is highly esteemed on the East Coast as a dinner fish, baked or boiled, and owing to its fine flavor has been called the turbot of America, though it is really much superior, in northern waters, to that vaunted aldermanic delicacy. In Florida, however, it is very lightly esteemed as a food-fish, and is seldom eaten where other and better fishes are available. Perhaps its abundance has something to do with its depreciation, though I am convinced, from numerous trials and tests, that it is not so good a fish in southern waters as in the North, having a sharp, saline taste that is not agreeable to most palates. While confined to salt and brackish waters in the North, it often ascends the rivers of Florida to fresh water. I have seen it in the large springs, the head waters of several rivers on the Gulf coast, its barred sides being plainly discernible on the bottom at a depth of fifty or seventy-five feet, in the clear and crystal-like water.

The difference in flavor between the sheeps­head of the North and South may perhaps be due to the character of their food. It is especially noticeable that fishes of the salt water that pass the winter season in the deep sea, as the salmon, shad, etc., possess a more superior flavor than those that feed constantly and during the entire year along the shores. While nothing is really known concerning the spawning habits of the sheepshead in northern waters, it probably spawns in early summer. From my own knowledge I can say that it spawns in Florida, on the Gulf coast, during March and April. Its eggs are very small, about thirty to the inch, are buoyant or floating, and hatch in two days.

A good rod for sheepshead fishing is the natural bamboo rod, known as the striped-bass chum rod. It is light, and strong enough to withstand the vicious tugs, spurts, and especially the propensity of boring toward the bottom, that is characteristic of this fish. A rod of steel, or lancewood, or ash and greenheart, or bethabara, though heavier, is better and stronger. It should be about eight feet in length, with double guides. A multiplying reel carrying sixty yards of line, with sinkers, and a wide­mouthed landing-net, make up the rest of the tackle.

While the sheepshead often bites at all stages of the tide, the most favorable time is about slack water; from that stage, to half flood or half ebb, good success may usually be expected. The largest fish are taken from a boat anchored over or near mussel shoals or oyster beds. Smaller ones can be caught from old wharves or bridges whose piling is studded with barnacles and mussels, and about which shrimp abound. During slack water a light sinker is sufficient; but when the tide runs strongly, heavier ones must be used, as it is imperative to keep the bait near the bottom, especially if fishing from a boat. If fishing from a wharf, it does not matter so much, pro­vided the bait is deep enough to prevent the fish from seeing the angler. While this is a precaution that must be observed with all fishes, I do not think the sheepshead is so shy a fish as some maintain; at least I have never found it so.

The best bait is shedder-crab, fiddlers, or hermit crabs. Clam bait, though, is cheaper and more universally used in the North. In Florida the fiddlers can be scooped up by the peck on the inside beaches of the bays, and contiguous to good sheepshead fishing. If the clam is large, the meat should be cut up for bait; but if quite small, or if mussels are used, the shells may be merely cracked or smashed, and put on the hook entire. The latter is the mode where the fish are scarce or shy, but I prefer to use the meat only, discarding the shells; in the case of fiddlers, when very small, they should be used au naturel, or whole.

The bait should be cast and allowed to sink, and the line reeled enough to keep the bait off the bottom, but close to it. A taut line should be maintained always, so as to feel the slightest nibble. If crab bait, or cut clam, is used, the fish should be hooked, if possible, at the first bite, however slight, by a quick and somewhat vigorous upward jerk of the tip, otherwise the sheepshead is apt to nip off the bait; or if sufficient force is not used, the hook fails to enter the well-armed mouth.

A small sheepshead is a more adroit stealer of bait than the cunner. It has a way of deftly pinching the bait from the hook without much, if any, disturbance. When small clams or mussels are used in the cracked shells, *it is thought best by some anglers to give the fish a little time to "shuck" the bait before jerking on the rod. But my advice is to yank him just as quickly as if crab bait were employed.