Herding Morehead City’s sheep

sheepshead
Fishermen can catch some tasty sheepshead on a regular basis at the State Port wall.

Underutilized and underrated, convict fish can make for some sweet seafood dinners. Here’s how to put them in your corral.

While easing across the no-wake zone at the State Ports in Morehead City, Matt Lamb was paying a lot of attention to just how the tide was moving and how strong it was flowing. He had several buckets of fiddler crabs and sea urchins. And the gameplan was to invite some tasty sheepshead home for dinner. The velocity and direction of the tide would determine exactly where the day would begin and how it would progress.

Lamb, who owns and operates Chasin’ Tails Outdoors on the Atlantic Beach causeway and guides whenever he isn’t in the shop said sheepshead fishing in the Morehead City and Atlantic Beach area is underrated and underutilized. He has found good numbers of these fish wearing the convict stripes. And he hasn’t explored many other areas that he feels would be productive.

“Sheepshead have a well-deserved reputation for being elusive and hard to catch. But that isn’t necessarily as true as it used to be,” said Lamb. “I want to say they haven’t started biting any harder, but with some of the baits we are using now, they often do. The big improvements everyone can count on have been with the current versions of low-stretch and high-sensitivity lines. Also, light and very sensitive rods make it easier for even novices to feel the light bite. They can be testy, but on those days when things are working right, sheepshead fishing is a lot of fun. And you can stock your freezer.”

Sea urchins are great sheepshead baits

“We might as well start with the good stuff,” Lamb said. He lightly grasped a sea urchin and lifted it from a bucket. “The first thing when using these is to trim the spines really close,” he said. He used a pair of heavy-duty scissors to remove most of the length of the spines.

“There are two trains of thought regarding hooks with sea urchins, and I have had pretty good luck with both,” he said. “One is to use a larger hook and insert it all the way through the shell and out the center underneath. The other is to use a smaller hook and lightly grab the shell underneath, with the point sticking out through the center.

“Why don’t you drop this down right beside that piling and see if anyone is home?” he said while pointing to a piling off the stern.

Fiddler crabs are the most common bait

Lamb picked up another Carolina rig with a smaller hook and impaled a fiddler crab on its point. The hook entered the crab’s shell by its flipper leg and did not exit. The crab wiggled freely, and Lamb dropped it over. In what seemed like a mere matter of seconds, Lamb’s rod twitched. He reared back to set the hook, bending the rod deeply.

In a few seconds, Lamb reeled in a nice black sea bass. He said that when using fiddler crabs, a big issue is that everything that swims likes to eat them.

Next, Lamb lost a fiddler crab and then caught a hogfish. So he switched to a sea urchin and dropped one to the bottom. Suddenly, he tensed and then reared back to set the hook, but missed. Rebaiting as quickly as he could, he dropped back down in the same spot and missed another strike.

When his third sea urchin was crushed without a hookup, he switched back to a fiddler crab and said he hoped the bait switch would work. It did. This time, the sheepshead was aggressive, sucking in the bait and the hook.

Lamb set the hook hard and his rod bent deeply. The tip pulsed as the fish turned sideways and surged to resist being pulled toward the surface. Shortly into the fight, it made the mistake of running out away from the piling. Lamb seized the opportunity and quickly rushed it toward the surface. Once the sheepshead was in the net, Lamb began to relax and breathe easily again.

The bait switch is a good tactic

“That usually happens the other way,” Lamb said. “Usually, I miss a couple of bites on crabs and switch to a sea urchin, and the sheepshead has gotten aggressive and bites hard enough to get the hook. Even though it was backwards, I hoped switching baits would work, and it did.

“Look at the teeth in this fish. They are amazingly similar to human teeth. These sharp teeth at the front are for biting through sea urchin shells and prying barnacles and such off pilings and rocks. Those teeth farther back in his mouth are like our molars. They’re are for crushing everything up so he can swallow it.”

After catching that sheepshead, the bite slowed at the particular spot on the Port wall. So Lamb moved down a few pilings and started fishing again. Almost immediately, his rod tip bounced, and he set the hook. The short runs around the piling indicated it was a sheepshead. Shortly, Lamb led it to the net.

He rebaited with a sea urchin and dropped it back into the same spot.This strike took a little longer, but soon Lamb was working another sheepshead to the surface. After catching a third fish from this set of pilings, the bite slowed and Lamb moved. He tried several more spots along the Port wall and then moved around the corner at the port to where the train trestle crosses beside the Radio Island Bridge. He eased through the bridge pilings and up to a piling on the trestle.

Stay on the move when sheepshead fishing

“Sometimes they are biting a little better here,” Lamb said. “The tide definitely has to be moving, and this is a little more open, so it moves a little differently. I don’t know exactly what the difference is, but sometimes it makes a difference.”

The bite wasn’t hot, but it was steady. Moving along the trestle, Lamb picked a few sheepshead from the pilings, and several more seafood dinners were placed in the fish box. Occasionally, one would bite aggressively. But most were subtle nibbles. The combination of sensitive rods, sea urchins for bait and braided line kept them nibbling long enough for Lamb to feel the bite and set the hook.

Lamb pointed out several docks and said he’d caught sheepshead around them on other trips. He figures sheepshead hold on almost every dock and all the area’s bridges. Sheepshead, he said, feed on barnacles and mussels that live on the pilings and crabs that stop to rest for a while. He said he has also had them grab live shrimp when fishing around the pilings for other species.

Lamb said sheepshead are there to be herded along much of the structure in the no-wake zone at the State Port. The keys are having a moving tide, good bait, sharp hooks, a lot of patience. Quality equipment that is sensitive enough to feel the often subtle bites is also a big help. It may be difficult to believe, but sheepshead are special on the dinner table, too. Their meat is white and almost as mild as flounder, which is why so many people try to develop the feel and patience to catch them.

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — US 70 and NC 24 Lead to Morehead City from most areas of the state, connecting through I-85, I-77, I-95 and I-40. Public ramps in Morehead City include one on the city’s waterfront for smaller boats only, another beside the Radio Island-Morehead City Bridge on US 70 and another behind the Crystal Coast Welcome Center on US 70. In Beaufort, one public ramp is between Town Creek Marina and the airport and the otehr is on Front St. beside the site of the former Beaufort Fisheries menhaden-reduction plant.

A public ramp in Atlantic Beach is almost directly behind Chasin’ Tails Outdoors, but there is no parking. Sheepshead are present in the Morehead City area from early spring through late fall; they become more active as the water warms into summer. Larger fish are often caught during the fall as they have been feeding heavily all summer.

TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Spinning or baitcasting tackle that will handle flounder or red drum should fit the bill for sheepshead, including medium action rods and reels spooled with 12- to 17-pound test. Braid is preferred because it cuts through the current better, requires less weight to hold in place and is more sensitive to subtle bites. Braid’s lack of stretch can help move sheepshead away from rocks and pilings that might cut the line. Most fishermen use a Carolina rig with a 1- to 2- ounce egg weight and 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. Hooks can be small (series 18412 Gamakatsu) in 2/0, or large octopus 02147 in 7/0. Large hooks are for sea urchins and smaller ones for fiddler crabs and shrimp, the three preferred baits.

FISHING INFORMATION/GUIDES — Capt. Matt Lamb, Chasin’ Tails Outdoors, 252-240-FISH or www.chasintailsoutdoors.com, Capt. Noah Lynk, Noah’s Ark Charters, 252-342-6911 or www.noahsarkfishingcharters.com; Capt. George Beckwith, Down East Guide Service, 252-671-3474 or www.downeastguideservice.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Crystal Coast Visitors Bureau, 1-800-SUNNY-NC or www.crystalcoastnc.org.

MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855 or, www.captainsegullcharts.com; SeaLake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185 or www.thegoodspots.com; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567 or www.greasechart.com, GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277 or www.gmcomaps.com.

Click here to watch a video about sheepshead fishing on rock jetties.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1171 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.