Sheepshead – the convict fish

A sheepshead’s dental work is suited perfectly to cracking crabs, barnacles and mollusks.

Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus, are often called convict fish due to the vertical black bars on their sides. This is undoubtedly enhanced by their ability to pilfer bait from a hook without a fisherman ever knowing he was having a bite.

Sheepshead range from Cedar Key, Fla., north to Nova Scotia, which puts North Carolina pretty much in the middle of their range. Tarheel State fishermen enjoy a season that begins in early spring and lasts until late fall.

Juvenile black drum are sometimes confused with sheepshead until their mouth is opened and the teeth are visible. Sheepshead have a set of teeth that are amazingly similar to humans, with incisors and molars.

Sheepshead are drawn to rocky bottom or areas with vertical structure that hold a lot of barnacles, mussels, crabs and such. Sheepshead use their incisors to separate the barnacles and mollusks from the structure and then crush them with their large molars to reach the meat inside the shell.

Sheepshead have smaller mouths that are very tough, and sharp, durable hooks are required to hook them consistently. Fish weighing up to five pounds are common, and sheepshead are considered large at any size above that, being recorded in excess of 20 pounds. A sheepshead weighing eight pounds or more is eligible for a citation from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. The state record sheepshead weighed 19 pounds, 4 ounces and was caught off Oregon Inlet in 1999.

Sheepshead are included in the reef-complex fish group as designated by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC). The daily creel limit is 20 in aggregate with other reef-complex fish.

In federal waters — 3 to 200 miles offshore — circle hooks must be used to catch sheepshead. North Carolina has not adopted the circle-hook regulations in state waters (inshore and up to three miles offshore) but has adopted the federal bag limit. There is no minimum size for sheepshead.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1169 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.

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