At the heart of the matter is what to do to protect a popular and interesting fishery, and protecting the convict-striped, plate-shaped species at its most-vulnerable point is a key.
"The worst thing you can do to any fishery is overharvest it during that species' spawning aggregate," said Wallace Jenkins, a biologist with the marine division of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "That's what may occur around our offshore and nearshore reefs during the winter when sheepshead migrate offshore to spawn."
Guide John Ward of Charleston's Affinity Charters (843-693-2460) doesn't rely on catching that one perfect day out of a week of rough weather to travel to those reefs to catch sheepshead. He and his clients have all the inshore sheepshead action they can handle fishing around structure on the creeks and rivers that surround Charleston.
"A lot of sheepshead will move out to the reefs during the winter but it's a misconception that they completely vacate the inshore waters," Ward said. "The key to finding sheepshead while inshore fishing this time of year is finding the right kind of structure."
Ward looks for a creek or river that carries a minimum of four feet of water during the low-tide phase. What makes a location even better is to find fish-holding structure such as piers, docks, rip-rap walls or blowdown trees, especially when they're located on an outside bend.
"The current will wash out the outside bend and make a deeper hole," Ward said. said. "Sheepshead love to bunch up in a deep hole during the winter. It affords them better protection from predators, and it helps them stay warmer."
Ward is not a big fan of fighting the current when he's fishing for sheepshead. He admits that they tend to feed and subsequently bite better in moving water, but because he wants to fish as close to vertical as possible over the structure, he prefers to start at dead-low tide and fish the first half of the incoming tide.
"I want to anchor up using either a conventional anchor or Power Pole so I can fish straight down," he said. "That helps detect those famous quick bites without having to fight current or line angle. I'm also not concerned about putting the boat right on top of the fish. Sheepshead don't seem to be as spooky as other fish, especially during the winter - maybe because they're used to hiding under boat docks. I've had days where we could sight-fish for them right under the boat, picking them off the rocks as we fished."
For the close-quarters combat, Ward switches from his typically stout 7-foot inshore rods to a 6-foot medium or medium-light spinning rod outfitted with a 10- to 20-pound class spinning reel spooled with Power Pro braid and tipped with a standard and simple Carolina rig.
"The rig is a ½- to ¾-ounce weight with an 8-inch section of fluorocarbon leader tied to a barrel swivel behind the weight," he said. "I like the shorter leader because it takes the play out of the line and telegraphs bites better through the braid."
Current regulations require the use of circle hooks for sheepshead as part of the snapper/grouper complex regulations, but this requirement will expire - and likely never return - at the end of the month.
"The circle-hook requirement is not included in our recommendations," SCDNR's Jenkins said. "We're looking more to the creel limit to reduce impact on the fishery. If we required circle hooks for sheepshead, it would be the only state-regulated fish that carried that requirement, and given the nature of the fish's feeding habits, we don't see any benefit to requiring circle hooks."
It's difficult to imagine having to catch a sheepshead using a circle hook. It's just as difficult to imagine fishing for sheepshead without using fiddler crabs. They come in bite-sized packages; they stay on the hook considerably better then most other baits, and they're readily available in most bait shops. Fiddlers are the "crickets of the sea" when fishing for saltwater panfish, and Ward recommends having at least a ½-pint of fiddlers per person for a ½-day of sheepshead fishing.
"Haddrells, The Charleston Angler and Atlantic Bait & Tackle all know to carry fiddler crabs during the winter," Ward said. "About the only time they get scarce is when there's a cold snap down in Florida, where most of the winter crabs come from, while we're having good weather up here and everyone is out fishing."
If such an untimely event occurs, Ward has found success using frozen clam strips, oysters, or live shrimp which are all readily available as a substitute this time of year.
HOW TO GET THERE - Charleston is most easily accessed from I-26 and US 17. Three of the most-popular public boat ramps are in Charleston County: Remley's Point on the Wando River, just north of US 17 off County Road 56; Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant off SC 703, and Wappoo Cut on Wappoo Creek at the SC 171 bridge near the intersection of SC 171 and SC 700 between West Ashley and James Island.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Inshore fishing for sheepshead during the winter is not all that different from fishing any other time of year. Sheepshead prefer hard-surface structure where their two primary food sources, crabs and barnacles, flourish. Other than the obvious hard structures that can be seen from miles away - bridges, jetties, commercial docks and piers - also look for sheepshead to congregate around rip-rapped rock walls, smaller piers and blowdown trees in smaller creeks that hold a minimum of four feet of water at low tide. If possible, tie off to the structure so you can fish vertically and reach a variety of depths. Sheepshead tend to congregate tightly during the winter for protection from predators. Start at low tide on an incoming tide and present fiddler crabs on 10- to 20-pound tackle. A short leader is recommended.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. John Ward, Affinity Charters, 843-693-2460, http://www.affinitycharters.com/; The Charleston Angler, Charleston, 843-571-3889 and Mount Pleasant, 843-834-2095, http://www.thecharlestonangler.com/; Atlantic Game & Tackle, Mount Pleasant, 843-881-6900; http://www.atlanticgameandtackle.com/; Haddrell's Point, Mount Pleasant, 843-881-3644, West Ashley, 843-573-3474, http://www.haddrellspoint.com/. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Best Western Patriots Point, Mount Pleasant, 843-971-7070; LaQuinta Inn & Suites, Charleston, 843-556-5200; Town & Country Inn/Conference Center, Charlotte, 800-334-6660.
MAPS - Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, http://www.mapsunique.com/; Grease Chart by Nautical Publications, 1-800-326-3567 http://www.greasechart.com/; Capt. Seagulls's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, http://www.captainseagullcharts.com/; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, http://www.thegoodspots.com/.