Sheepshead an underrated catch, meal

Published 2:52 pm Monday, March 23, 2009

Coming to a saltwater jetty or piling near you – a bait-stealing bandit nicknamed the convict fish because of its alternating black and silvery white stripes.

More commonly known as the sheepshead, this inshore species doesn’t hold the status of the spotted seatrout (speckled trout) or red drum (redfish). But come March along the Alabama Gulf Coast the member of the porgy family provides a fishing bonanza for those willing to sacrifice a little bait and terminal tackle.

Capt. Rob Kritzmire, a fishing guide out of Romar Marina in Orange Beach, depends on sheepshead this time of year before fishing for trout and redfish gets consistent.

“We start catching them in late January and February but March is really when it gets good,” Kritzmire said. “We had a good warm front this past week and they really started moving to the jetties and pilings. They go offshore to spawn and then they start coming back inshore this time of year. We’ve got about three weeks left of good fishing. By the middle of April, they’ll scatter.”

Sheepshead live around anything that will hold barnacles. While rock and concrete jetties and pilings are fished most often, the gas rigs (inshore and nearshore) will hold sheepshead, as well as small wrecks, bridges, oyster reefs and inshore reefs.

Chris Denson, marine biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division, said live shrimp and fiddler crabs are the most common baits, although some people prefer hermit crabs.

“Some people take a hammer and break the hermit crab shell and put the crab on the hook,” Denson said. “Sheepshead tear them up. Some people will take the meat out of an oyster and use it.”

When you hook a sheepshead, getting the fish turned quickly is the key to success, according to Kritzmire.

“They hang real close to the structure, so when you get a hook in one you have to get him out of the structure as quick as you can,” he said. “As you know, barnacles and fishing line don’t mix.

“Sometimes they bite real finicky and you can lose a lot of bait. You’re also going to lose some lead and hooks because you’re fishing structure. They’re in the rocks, eating from the rocks, so you’ve got to get your bait down there with them. That’s the reason you lose a lot of tackle and get hung up a lot. But that’s all part of structure fishing.”

While the most common size for keeper sheepshead is 3-5 pounds, Kritzmire said they grow much larger. Biologists say they can get as big as 22 pounds, but that one must have been caught in a net.

“I’ve been in some 10- and 11-pounders before,” he said. “We call them Jurassic Park sheepshead. The big ones don’t have any teeth left. They have big scars where they’re rooting around in the barnacles. They look like an old dinosaur.”

Kritzmire uses No. 2 and No. 4 bronze J hooks with about a ≤-ounce weight, depending on the current, above a swivel and an 18-inch to 2-foot leader.

“I usually use 15-pound test line because of being around the rocks,” he said. “You could probably fool them better with 10- to 12-pound line, but all you have to do is touch a barnacle and it’s over.”

Sheepshead have large eyes and can easily spot a silver-colored hook. Sometimes even the bronze hooks don’t fool them.

“I’ve had times when they would eat the shrimp around the hook,” Kritzmire said. “They would eat both sides of the shrimp and leave the hook. We had to start breaking the shrimp into pieces to hide the barb. You have to keep a tight line to try to feel for the bite. A lot of times people think it’s a little bitty fish, but it’s a sheepshead stealing your bait. Sometimes, you’ll get one to eat and go, but most of the time you just feel a little tap-tap. Those are the smart ones trying to eat around the hook.

“Once you get one hooked, they give you a good fight. They get sideways and they’ll strip some drag. The good thing is they don’t usually make but one good run.”

Although there is no size or bag limit in Alabama, Kritzmire doesn’t believe in filling the ice chest.

“Ten, 12, 15 fish, that’s plenty,” he said. “We believe in conservation and leaving some for tomorrow.”

Surprisingly, the sheepshead fishery in Alabama is considerable despite the lack of publicity. According the National Marine Fisheries Service data, the number of sheepshead taken by recreational anglers were only slightly less than speckled trout during the last seven years, on average. And because of their size, the sheepshead annual average catch comes in at just more than a million pounds, while the speckled trout average annual catch weighs in at slightly more than a half-million pounds.

 “It’s a surprisingly large recreational fishery in Alabama,” Denson said. “Commercially, over the last 8 years, we averaged 286,000 pounds worth about 50 cents a pound. The commercial fishermen target the large aggregations that move offshore in the fall. When the water starts to warm up, the fish move back inshore.”

Denson said Marine Resources is monitoring the fishery and urges anglers not to keep the smaller fish.

“There hasn’t been any stock assessment done,” he said. “We’re steadily collecting data on sheepshead for a future stock assessment. The smaller fish are generally mostly head. They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re two years old, so you want to throw back the smaller ones.”

Undoubtedly the reason sheepshead sometimes get a bad rap – other than the bait-stealing antics – is they are difficult to clean. However, I can assure you the resulting fillet of white, firm flesh is well worth the effort. Preparation can be done in a variety of ways.

For grilling or broiling, Kritzmire suggests taking aluminum foil folded into a pocket, a sheepshead fillet topped with onions, a pat or two of butter, salt and pepper or lemon pepper seasoning and a jalapeno slice if so desired. Put it on a hot grill and when the fish flakes it’s ready.

“You just put the foil on the plate and eat out of it like a bowl,” Kritzmire said. “There’s no mess that way. Of course, it’s hard to beat fried sheepshead like grandpa used to do it – some Zatarain’s Fish Fry or cornmeal, hot oil and you’re ready to go.”

Denson said to make a faux West Indies salad, place the filets in a cheesecloth bag and drop it in boiling water laced with salt and crab boil to taste. Take the filets out the cheesecloth and flake into bite-size bits and top with your favorite dressing. Those bits added to the pot makes a tasty seafood gumbo.