Sheepshead on the Rocks
Our most consistent winter fish in this area is the sheepshead. This member of the porgy family primarily feeds on crustaceans which, for their own safety, usually hang out around rocks where they can hide. That’s where you usually find sheepshead and why most anglers catch more rocks than sheepshead.
To prevent erosion, most accessible shoreline in this area is lined with rip-rap or other snag prone material that creates a haven for crabs, etc. which attract sheepshead. Anglers fishing from a rip-rap shoreline can cast beyond the rocks and often find sand bottom in a channel; but this isn’t where the sheepshead are. Folks fishing from piers can get away from shoreline rocks and will fish straight down around the pier pilings that are encrusted with the barnacles that are one of a sheepshead’s favorite foods. You will see a lot of pier anglers using a long hoe on the pilings to scrape the barnacles and entice the fish to feed.
The typical “tourist” rig of a heavy lead pyramid sinker below two steel leaders attached to 4/0 hooks, just won’t cut it anywhere around here, especially for fishing around rocks. The tactic we suggest is a simple “controlled depth rigging” with a cork. Start with a 1 or 1/0 laser sharp hook attached to 18” of 20 lb. fluorocarbon with a small split shot crimped onto the leader away from the hook. Braided 10 lb. test line is our choice because of its zero-stretch sensitivity and thin diameter. Set your drag fairly tight to persuade these fighters away from the rocks quickly. The float should be small and barely able to suspend the shrimp and split shot. The pencil/cigar shaped floats used for panfish are just right. Determine the depth of the rocks and set the float for about a foot less. Now, chin hook a small shrimp and let it float near the rocks. The float keeps you in touch with the baits location; just wait till the cork goes down and set the hook. Snook, grouper and snapper will add to the variety of fish that fall for this presentation. This system works great at places like the Venice jetties, along seawalls, around pilings and anywhere with a rocky bottom near shore.
A spot we recently fished with friends from New Jersey was perfect for this technique. The seawall north of the Mote Marine facility in Sarasota has piers and rip rap along the edge of New Pass. It also has nearby parking, a bait shop and the Salty Dog restaurant. The Mote Marine facility is an entertaining place for non-fishing members of your group. The rip rap off the seawall forms a virtual reef bordering the deep channel. We were there on an outgoing tide and, by drifting our shrimp with the tide just off the “reef”, were able to land sheepshead and several small groupers on a rainy Sunday afternoon. All the groupers were short, as expected from an inshore spot like this. Still, averaging around 16” – 18” they pulled hard and sometimes hung us up in the rocks. With patience while giving them slack line, most swam back out and were landed. The sheepshead came home for dinner.
We have been cooking our sheepshead “in the shell” on the grill. This gives us two boneless, moist filets and keeps the grill clean. After lifting off the skin from the upper filet and freeing the skeleton from the bottom filet, this preparation results in a zero-waste way to enjoy sheepshead. Add the sides of your choice with a dry white wine and a gourmet meal is on your table.