Nearshore reefs out of Murrells Inlet hold plenty of late-winter sheepshead

Nice sheepshead will blanked nearshore reefs out of Murrells Inlet during the winter and early spring. (Picture by Jeff Burleson)

Early spring is a unique time for saltwater anglers; there is always something to do to get a tug on the end of the rod and to bring fish back home for dinner.

Nothing says spring like floating in the ocean with a bucketful of live fiddler crabs and hunting down sheepshead. The fishing fires off at nearshore reefs with big, fat sheepshead in big schools, and the collection of nearshore reefs off South Carolina’s Murrells Inlet is one of the true meccas for these striped fish.

Justin Whitten of Ambush Sport Fishing Charters cashes in on sheepshead every spring, and he doesn’t have to go very far from his home base to find them.

“Sheepshead push off to the nearshore reefs in winter when the water gets cold,” said Whitten (843-685-9910). “They move to the reefs to spawn and feed on barnacles.”

The waters off the Grand Strand offer numerous shipwrecks and artificial reefs. Most, if not all of the reefs, will hold sheepshead during winter and early spring, but some are better than others.

“I prefer the reefs in 30 to 40 feet of water,” he said. “They are a little further out, but they get less pressure from other fisherman compared to the reefs closer to the Inlet. The reefs with less pressure are the best ones to fish.”

Sheepshead at these reefs will frequently shift around from place to place within the vicinity of the reef structure. Whitten will start on one side and drop for 20 to 30 minutes, and if he doesn’t start lighting them on fire, he’ll quickly move to a different part of the reef.

“The fish will shift around the reef on different days,” Whitten said. “We must find them sometimes, and we will even drop down a camera and pan around to see them. The camera is the easiest way to find them, but the water isn’t always clean enough to see them.”

A high-definition sonar unit with down-scan and side-scan capabilities can also help find good structure, and even the fish themselves. If anglers lack a high-definition system, just about any unit can show vertical structure where these fish hang out.

But all reef structure isn’t created equal. Some sections are better than others.

“The biggest pieces of structure hold them better than the smaller pieces,” he said. “We scan the bottom and set up on the largest piece of structure available and then go from there.”

Sheepshead eat a variety of foods, including crustaceans, small fish and even squid. The bait of choice is a fiddler crab. Whitten hooks a fiddler to a No. 1 or 1/0 J-hook on a typical Carolina rig, with an egg sinker and 14 to 16 inches of leader.

The reefs can be full of sheepshead, but they will also have black sea bass and black drum, and they all will pounce on a fiddler crab when dropped on their dinner plate.

“Sheepshead definitely share the reefs with sea bass and some other fish. We often pick through the by-catch to get to the sheepshead, but we will catch some keeper-sized black drum, sea bass and even a few chunky tautog, too,” he said.

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Jeff Burleson
About Jeff Burleson 1240 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.

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