Sheepshead: the Carolinas’ winter fish

Jetties and any other structure that holds barnacles are great places to fish for sheepshead, which bite good even during winter months. Marc Deschenes caught this one along the Charleston Harbor jetties. (Pictured by Brian Cope)

Sheepshead bite all winter in a variety of locations

One of the most winter-friendly fish for anglers in the Carolinas is the sheepshead. Whether you’re fishing inshore, at the jetties, nearshore reefs, or even offshore, you can find plenty of hungry sheepshead this month.

Anglers struggling with a case of cabin fever can get through the doldrums of winter with a half-day or full-day trip in any inshore creeks featuring bridges, docks, downed timber or rock walls. Many of the bigger sheepshead move offshore for winter, but plenty “resident” sheepshead stay inshore and thrive around these structures.

With most fair-weather anglers staying off the water, these fish are relatively unbothered, less wary than they will be in a couple of months but just as sneaky. Some anglers experience more bites from these convict fish in February than at any other time of year, but their hookup ratios aren’t much better.

The No. 1 rule to sheepshead fishing this time of year, according to many anglers who pursue them, is to focus solely on this species during a trip.

“For the best chance at catching sheepshead, you can’t dabble with other species” said John Long, who owns East Columbia Sports Shop and is a part-time resident of Ladys Island, S.C. “You have to target sheepshead in a very specific way that isn’t effective for any other species. Instead of making long casts, this is a yo-yo game, dropping bait straight down very close to structure, and then reeling straight up.”

Simple bait, tackle

Long prefers fiddler crabs as sheepshead bait, but this time of year, they can be difficult to catch. He sometimes supplements his bait bucket with fresh oyster meat collected from barnacle clusters in the areas he targets sheepshead.

The tackle for catching sheepshead is pretty basic. Long prefers a medium-heavy rod with a fast-tip, 15-pound line and a 3/0 hook. He uses big, pinch-on weights about 12 inches above the hook, adding a 1-ounce sliding sinker above that pinch-on weight when the current is running really strong.

Get vertical

“Find some structure with barnacles and drop your bait straight down so the bait is close to those barnacles,” he said. “Sheepshead swim up and down looking for an easy meal among the barnacles. They expect to find something either touching or very close to those barnacles. If your bait is a foot away from it, you’re way out of the strike zone.”

Long said setting the hook on a sheepshead is also different from hooksets for most other species.

“When you’re fishing for trout, redfish, flounder … just about anything other than sheepshead, you can hesitate when you think you’re getting a bite,” he said. “You can wait for a second confirmation, and you’re likely to still hook that fish. But that’s not the case with sheepshead. If you think you’ve been bitten, it’s already too late. You need to set the hook as soon as you feel anything different. It won’t usually feel like a bite at all. It will just feel different, and only for a split second. That feeling is the sheepshead sucking the bait in and spitting the hook out. It’s that quick.”

Long uses this same approach in creeks with downed trees, bridge pilings and pier pilings. He also uses it at rock-lined walls.

Electronic needs

Other than the depth and perhaps the amount of weight needed to get their bait down, anglers fishing nearshore and offshore reefs target sheepshead the exact same way Long does. Using and understanding electronics comes into play much more for these anglers.

Inshore, it’s common to be able to see the upper levels of barnacle-encrusted structure or to know where that structure is from seeing it ay low tide. But nearshore and offshore, using electronics is the only way to find structure, and it’s the only way to know where to anchor.

Anglers fishing in these locales often find wrecks that hold sheepshead, but seasoned sheepshead anglers look just as hard to find live bottom — areas with natural structure like living coral and other plant matter. Sheepshead often gather in big groups along such bottom.

Ocean aggression

Like their inshore counterparts, sheepshead in deeper water will bite fiddler crabs, and many anglers collect plenty of them before heading offshore. But shrimp are also very effective here. Anglers also report they fish are usually much more aggressive than those inshore. The theory is that there’s much more competition from other fish than inshore, so the fish bite more solidly.

And while inshore sheepshead specialists will occasionally catch an unintended species, it happens much more often in nearshore and offshore waters. Black sea bass are commonly caught by accident, so anglers fishing these locales should come prepared with a lot more bait than they expect to need.

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Brian Cope
About Brian Cope 1872 Articles
Brian Cope is the editor of CarolinaSportsman.com. He has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, and videography. He is a retired Air Force combat communications technician, and has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of South Carolina. You can reach him at brianc@sportsmannetwork.com.

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