It’s a tough fish to catch, but the rewards –– both in fun and table fare — are definitely worth wetting a line for sheepshead, and the inshore waters of Beaufort, S.C., are full of these toothy bait stealers.
Miles Browning of Beaufort grew up fishing for sheepshead along the concrete walls on Parris Island when his dad was stationed there as a U.S. Marine. He learned that fishing for these creatures was a constant battle between patience and anticipation.
“You’ve got to be patient enough to feel the bite, but you’ve got to anticipate the bite in order to set the hook in time. It’s the most challenging fish I’ve caught, and it’s been my favorite since the very first one I ever caught,” he said.
Over decades of fishing for sheepshead, Browning has developed a style he calls active fishing. Instead of just holding a bait still and waiting for a bite, he keeps his bait moving slightly at all times. He doesn’t use the typical Carolina rig that many sheepshead anglers do, and he also rarely uses fiddler crabs for bait.
“I use a jighead baited with oyster or clam meat. I fish around rock piles, concrete walls, bridge pilings and sunken trees. These waters, are full of that type of stuff. Sheepshead are around all of it. The sunken trees should have been there long enough for barnacles to get on them. Sheepshead love those,” he said.
Browning lowers his bait until he hits the bottom or the structure, then he very slowly begins reeling up, anticipating a bite the whole time.
“I will reel up extremely slowly, trying to keep the bait as close to structure as I can, touching it even. I use a No. 6 circle hook, and when I feel the slight tap of a sheepshead, I just reel faster and lift the rod tip. I use a medium-light rod. Most people like a stiffer rod, but this way works best for me,” he said.
“Since I’m constantly reeling, even though it is slower than Christmas, I’m staying active, which keeps me more ready for a bite. I get lazy just sitting there with my bait sitting still. I miss far fewer when fishing this way,” said Browning.
For his best locations, Browning likes leaving out of Port Royal boat landing and hitting sunken trees along the banks, and from the White Hall boat landing which he said gives easy access to numerous concrete walls and walls made of big boulders. These are prime spots for barnacles to attach themselves to, keeping sheepshead interested.