From feeling the weight of the bait to nothing in a matter of seconds is usually how the process goes and, once again, another bait is stolen. A couple more baits are stolen from a hook without any sign of a bite, until the upward force against a stiff rod buries an extra sharp hook into the mouth of the crook of all crooks, the "snaggle-toothed" sheepshead.
The technique for correctly setting the hook with sheepshead is often referred to as "setting the hook just before he bites."
Why does this happen so much? Well, sheepsheads are known for their unorthodox feeding techniques.
But a few Lowcountry experts have closed the "bite-vs.-catch" gap with proven sheepshead-catching techniques.
Known for their vertically alternating black-and-white stripes, these habitual bait-stealers commonly are called "convict" fish.
Peering into a sheepshead's mouth would make anyone think they could gobble bait like a pit bull devouring a t-bone steak. But even with their large bovine-like teeth, sheepsheads are gentle feeders and can devour the goodies from inside the shells of their favorite foods, leaving a hook - and an angler's hopes - empty as a wallet after a gasoline fill-up.
Using traditional hook-setting methods, a novice sheepshead angler will lose most of his baits before he hooks up with a convict fish.
Ninety-nine percent of gamefish throughout freshwater and saltwater systems feed by striking at their prey in a quick motion. Most prey species are mobile, and predatory fish usually are stealthy and quick. Predators usually lunge toward their next meal, chomping the bait into pieces with sharp-angled teeth or engulfing a bait whole.
So, as a general rule, toothed fish will give an angler some indication (a quick jerk on the line) that they've swallowed the bait. But not sheepshead.
Sheepshead, even with a mouth full of horse-like teeth, gently crush and suck the goodies out of their prey, sometimes barely twitching a fishing line.
Sheepshead eat small crabs, barnacles, mole crabs (sand fleas) and occasionally shrimp. They also tend to be lazy and like to feed on stationary food resources. They'll readily take a live shrimp or fiddler crab as a prized catch when available.
Sheepshead consistently hang out at places that provide food, as a rule, and good fishing spots will produce fish year after year - as long as conditions don't change. A little homework and experience will make any fisherman more productive.
Sheepshead most often chow down on barnacles and mussels attached to submerged structure found within the estuaries and inshore areas of the coastal zone. Barnacles are a primary food resource for sheepshead, so obviously barnacle-infested structures are good places to find these fish.
But barnacle production is directly proportional to highly productive waters at regulated temperatures. Temperatures that are too cool discourage the growth of barnacles and different algal organisms that compete with barnacles for surface area or space tend to take over a structure. And sheepshead will head for another dinner table.
Barnacle growth decreases with water depth and increases higher in the water column. Barnacles position themselves in areas with high concentrations of phytoplankton, usually adjacent to heavy current.
Highly-productive barnacle waters equate to highly-productive sheepshead areas. However, sheepshead tend to move around during different sequences of the tide and other water conditions.
Captain Rich Harris of Reel Deal Charters in Charleston puts sheepsheads under surveillance in order to find the hottest spots.
"You'll be surprised what you see when you drop a transducer," he said.
He unreels the probe with an underwater camera into structure and finds areas that attract the most fish.
"The camera makes me feel like we're cheating a little, but I see it as more of an edge," he said. "In fact, inshore the visibility is less than perfect, but during winter when the fish are holding at the local reefs offshore, it gives us a real advantage."
Barnacles like to attach to firm surfaces, the firmer surface area the more potential for sheepshead snacks.
Rock jetties and structures near inlets are prime areas for sheepshead. Rock jetties at river mouths are bottlenecks for nutrient-rich waters and also prime hosts for barnacles and sheepshead. Jetties also are havens for small crabs and shrimp to escape swift currents.
Generally, highway planners construct bridges across the rivers and estuaries at the narrowest locations. The narrowest location is usually a point where flowing water is constricted, forming such bottlenecks - creating other sheepshead favorite places.
The older bridges connecting S.C.'s barrier islands with the mainland usually have long earthen causeways leading through the marsh to a small bridge structure. These causeways constrict the flow of nutrient rich water to a narrow stretch at the bridges, creating bottlenecks, also optimum locations for sheepshead action.
Most structures attract and hold sheepshead at different levels of current, but some are better than others. Sheepshead tends to prefer certain sets of pilings or sections of jetties, usually because of eddies in the current with abundant food or adjacent to the sanctuary of deeper water.
Sheepshead prefer areas with fast-moving water but will congregate at areas with current breaks. Irregular structures create eddies, providing the best conditions for sheepshead.
Anglers should try irregular sections of jetties or bridge abutments near deep water as best fishing areas usually contain the most irregular structure.
Harris locates the heaviest cover/structure in deep water, usually 10- to 20-feet deep.
"Why so deep?" he said. "Well, sheepshead feed up and down structure, and if they see you, they'll spook."
When moving to a new area, scouting for the ideal fish locations is a key. Anglers should locate areas of surrounding waters with abundant structure. Structures with their surfaces covered during the high tidal periods but dry during low tides are usually hot zones for optimum barnacle production.
Scouting during low tides, especially during a peaking lunar cycle, exposes optimum barnacle production zones and reveals popular feeding areas of sheepshead. Such places will appear to have their barnacles scraped off with a shovel, leaving white engravings where the barnacles once attached themselves.
Such signs are indications sheepshead are feeding there. Anglers with GPS units should record such hot spots for later visits.
At Charleston, one such spot Harris likes is the old burned bridge at the Cooper River as well as the old piers by the I-526 Bridge. Older structures are great hosts for barnacles and serve as key areas for sheepshead. Inshore structures within 5 to 7 miles of the ocean also will hold sheepshead.
Sheepshead (and barnacles) need water with relatively high salinity content and prefer to live relatively close to briny water.
Sheepshead consume a variety of foods such as, barnacles, shrimp, mussels, and China-back fiddler crabs.
Although most anglers readily associate sheepshead with barnacles, barnacles are difficult to keep on a hook.
Live shrimp are great for sheepshead, but everything else in the ocean will home in on shrimp as soon as they land in the water. Sheepshead have to be quick on the draw or other bait-stealers will go to work on shrimp.
Mussels are great baits for sheepshead but are a little difficult to collect. They must be scraped off the jetties at low tide with a knife or claw hammer.
The smaller ones tend to work better, especially when they're clustered together and fused into a root-like mass.
China-back fiddler crabs caught in the marsh flats are the most common bait used for sheepshead and are the easiest to collect. Many bait-and-tackle shops also carry fiddler crabs, where they can be bought by the cup.
Black drum and red drum also eat fiddler crabs and are always a nice bonus.
The traditional method, fishing the bottom of a structure, often produces good results, especially at bridge pilings or adjacent to other structures, including rock jetties. The traditional method involves using short heavy-action rods spooled with heavy monofilament or braided line.
The actual Carolina-rig setup consists of a 3- to 4-ounce barrel sinker attached to a swivel with 10 to 14 inches of heavy 20- to 30-pound-test leader and a 1/0 or 3/0 hook.
Harris prefers to fish just off the bottom an inch or two but will work his line up the structure. He uses a Carolina rig with a 30-pound monofilament shock leader attached to a small J-hook, and 60- to 80-pound-test braided line. He likes to use the smallest effective barrel sinker to get his baits to the bottom.
As sheepshead feed at structure, they travel up and down the water column and in and out of structure in search of available food. Therefore, the traditional technique (sinking baits to the bottom) isn't always the most effective technique.
Capt. Steve Hedrick of Reel EZ Charters of Georgetown has overcome the complications of fishing bottom rocks at Georgetown.
"You need to get as close to the structure as possible to catch fish," he said. "The jetties at Georgetown are treacherous but full of sheepshead."
Hedrick has fished the local inshore waters at Georgetown for more than 30 years. Sheepshead are his specialty and his preferred method is the slip-cork rig.
Sometimes sheepshead feed at certain depths better than others and a slip cork rig allows baits to be fished at different levels until he finds the right depth.
His float method serves three purposes.
"The slip-cork rig allows a fisherman to find the sheepsheads' preferred feeding depth, allows the fisherman to suspend baits just above structure, and it's a visual indicator of a bite," he said.
"If you concentrate on the cork, you can detect a bite much easier than using a bottom rig."
Still, sheepshead bites usually are difficult to detect. Placing baits as close as possible to structures will lend the best opportunity to get a bite.
"When the fish takes the bait using a slip cork, the cork will do something erratic and will always do one of four things," Hedrick said. "The cork will start moving against the current, will turn up on its side, stop moving all together, or go completely under the surface of the water. Sheepshead rarely pull a cork under water, but on occasion they'll do that."
His slip-cork rig consists of a 3-inch Styrofoam cigar cork with a bobber-stopper attached to a swivel. Below the swivel, attach approximately 18 inches of 25-pound-test fluorocarbon and a No. 4 Gamakatsu octopus hook with enough split shot to hold down the bait.
Hedrick's favorite sheepshead baits are China-back fiddler crabs, but small pieces of shrimp and barnacles also will produce fish. He usually has more success with self-caught, live fiddler crabs rather than crabs bought at a store.
Another trick to turn on sheepshead is chumming. Often overlooked by anglers, it's an effective technique but requires a little work.
If an angler is fishing near vertical structures such as bridge pilings, sea walls or other abutments, they can use a paddle or claw hammer to scrape the barnacles off the sides of the structure. The bits and pieces of barnacle will flood the water column and attract sheepshead.
It's one of Harris' prized techniques and reduces the amount of search time for finding feeding fish.
Place the slip float rig or Carolina rig in the path of the "chum," and it will improve catches. Also a couple of fiddlers dropped into the water from time to time will boost sheepshead.
The optimum tide for sheepshead fishing, whether rising or falling, is usually a hot debate topic.
Different water depths, structures and other factors will determine the best sequences of the tide to fish. Jetties and structures adjacent to an inlet are better when the tide is rising. The outgoing tide at the jetties at Georgetown and other inlets is probably the worst of the tide scenarios because the current will be extremely swift at the rocks.
Anglers usually fish close to big rocks at jetties during rising tide periods. However, the best sheepshead fishing is within the rocks. Perfectly-placed baits on top of the rocks and in the crevices usually produce the most action.
Hedrick's float technique works best at such times. He prefers to fish the rising tide from dead low to higher phases of the tide, casting directly into the rocks. Even the dead high tide is good, he said.
He prefers the rising tide at the inside of the jetties because baits can be fished slower, appear more natural to fish and are in the strike zone longer.
As the tide rises at these areas, sheepshead move into the rocks to feed just after the water begins to cover previously exposed areas. Since barnacles grow more rapidly in the upper portion of a water column, Hedrick's slip-float technique is ideal when fish are feeding close to the surface or have suspended at the upper third of the water column.
Fishing the bottom adjacent to bridge pilings in relatively shallow water (6- to 12-feet deep) usually offers anglers a chance to fish a portion of the falling tide, especially away from the main channel and near the shore at areas with lighter current. The best time to fish is during the ebb tide from half way out until the tide begins to slack, just before dead low tide.
Harris said he usually fishes either side of the low tide but prefers the rising tide after dead low. His slip-float technique also is effective then.
Surprisingly, even with sheepshead plentiful in coastal waters and a challenge to catch, few anglers specifically target them.
Sheepsheads also are tasty in a skillet and offer pure excitement as long as an angler learns the correct techniques.
Another tip includes having sharp and strong hooks as they often will be the difference in catching fish or losing lots of baits.
Know where and when to find sheepshead, have good equipment, learn to detect their subtle bites, then set the hook as hard as possible and put some of these bait-stealers in your ice chest.