Best Sheepshead Fishing Tackle and Baits

Best Sheepshead Fishing Tackle and Baits

This post is all about the best sheepshead fishing tackle and baits. Sheepshead are a hard fighting and great tasting member of the porgy family. They are found near structure in inshore saltwater bays, inlets, and near shore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. They feed primarily on crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs. Sheepshead range from Texas all along the coast up to new England.

best sheepshead fishing tackle and baits

One of the great things about fishing for sheepshead is that they are one of the less finicky fish species. They have saved the day for many an angler when the water was cool and dirty. Another great attribute of sheepshead is that anglers do not need a ton of skill to have a successful day. Once again, this is very basic bottom fishing with a few nuances. However, anglers will need the proper tackle, rigs, and bait in order to be successful.

The best sheepshead fishing tackle is a 7 foot medium or medium light action rod with a fairly limber tip. The best baits for sheepshead are live shrimp, fiddler crabs, sand fleas, oyster crabs, and clams. While sheepshead pull hard, they bite very lightly. A soft tip will allow anglers to feel the bite while a stout butt section enables the angler to horse the fish away from structure. The rod should be matched with a 3000 series real spooled up with 12 pound monofilament or 20 pound braided line.

Anglers fishing for sheepshead will do well using standard bottom fishing techniques. Sheepshead are almost always found either on bottom structure or close to vertical structure such as bridge pilings and piers. Sheepshead have an unusual set of teeth that they use to cross shells of mollusks and barnacles. They then devour the animal living inside the shell. Sheepshead are very seldom caught by anglers using artificial lures.

Anglers can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “Inshore Saltwater Fishing” for $5 by clicking on the title link. It is 23,000 words long and covers tackle, tactics, and species.

Capt. Jim Klopfer has been running fishing charters in Sarasota Florida since 1991. He targets a wide variety of species throughout the year. Many of his clients include children and novice anglers. Also, conditions are often less than ideal in the winter. Add to these factors the excellent eating quality, and you have several reasons why he targets sheepshead throughout the winter and early spring.

Best sheepshead fishing tackle

Fortunately, anglers seeking the best sheepshead fishing tackle can keep it quite simple. In fact, most anglers who do any inshore saltwater fishing most likely already own a suitable rod and reel combination. Sheepshead average from 2 pounds to 5 pounds and are normally found around structure. For this application, a medium spinning outfit works best. It allows anglers to enjoy the fight of the fish while still being able to handle it around structure.

Best 15 sheepshead fishing tips

The best all round spinning outfit is a 7 foot medium or medium light action rod with a fairly limber tip. While sheepshead pull hard, they bite very lightly. A soft tip will allow anglers to feel the bite while a stout butt section enables the angler to horse the fish away from structure. The rod should be matched with a 3000 series real spooled up with 12 pound monofilament or 20 pound braided line.

Anglers can click this link to shop Amazon for Penn rod and reel combos

“Fishing Lido Key is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”

Anglers can use a light conventional outfit as well. These are known to some as bait casting rigs. These are more appropriate for anglers vertically fishing over racks and other submerged structure. They are a bit more difficult to cast. However, they work very well when pursuing larger fish.

Sheepshead fishing rigs

bottom fishing rigs

There are several standard bottom rigs that work well for anglers sheepshead fishing. These include a dropper, or chicken rig, sliding sinker or Carolina rig, knocker rig, or a simple free line rig. Each has advantages and situations where they work best.

Freeline rig

The easiest and simplest fishing rig for sheepshead is to free line a live bait back to the fish. This rig simply consist of a leader, a hook, and a split shot or two if required. The advantages of this rig are that the bait land softly, resulting in a more delicate presentation. Also, with no weight, the fish can pick up the bait and move off without any resistance.

Florida saltwater fishing in winter

This rig is used primarily around structure such as docks and oyster bars in fairly shallow water. In deeper water, especially with any current present, the bait will not usually get down deep enough. It is extremely effective around oyster bars in the mouths of feeder creeks.

Carolina rig

The sliding sinker rig, known to many as a Carolina rig, is perhaps the most commonly used in versatile rig for sheepshead fishing. It consists of an egg sinker, which has a hole through the center. The running line goes through this whole and then a swivel is attached. The swivel both stops the sinker from moving any further as well as giving a place to attach a leader. A 2 foot to 3 foot leader followed by a hook completes the rig.

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The beauty of the Carolina rig is that the sliding sinker allows a sheepshead to pick up the bait and move off with it without feeling any resistance. This can be crucial on days when the bite is very light and delicate. The sinker weight can be changed and adjusted to match the current fishing situation. Water depth and current speed are the most important factors. Anglers should use the lightest weight possible to reach and hold the bottom.

Knocker rig

The knocker rig is similar to a Carolina rig with one big exception. The sinker slides onto the leader just above the hook. When lower down to the bottom, the sinker actually sits right on top of the eye of the hook. The main advantage to this rig is that anglers will know exactly where the bait is; when the sinker is on the bottom, the bait is on the bottom.

saltwater fishing in Florida with live bait

The knocker rig is most often used around fairly heavy structure where other rigs will snag the bottom. By keeping the hook in sinker and one location, hangups are limited. When the hook does snag, a sharp jerk of the rod tip will send the sinker up the leader and and sliding back down to the eye of the hook, knocking it free. This is how it got the name.

Dropper rig

Dropper rigs, also known as chicken rakes, are very effective for sheepshead as well. They consist of a sinker at the bottom, with hooks tied off on short droppers at different intervals. This allows anglers to present multiple baits at multiple levels at the same time. This is a standard bottom fishing rig which has been producing for many, many years.

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This is the rig to choose for anglers vertically fishing and drifting. Normally, a bank sinker is used. The sinker tends to bounce off of and rollover rocks and other obstructions. This does not work well on reefs and wrecks where snags are really bad. At some point, the rig will hang up on the bottom. This rig will catch a variety of other species for anglers bottom fishing off of structure.

Best hooks for sheepshead fishing

Obviously, what piece of sheepshead fishing tackle that anglers will need is a hook. Hooks come in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and strengths. For most sheepshead fishing situations, a #1 or #1/0 short shank live bait hook works well. Sheepshead have a very strong by and a stout hook is required. Many anglers have gone to circle hooks as well. When used properly, the hookup ratio is high in the fish are almost always hooked in the corner of the mouth. They are required in many parts of the Gulf of Mexico. #4/0 is a good all-around hook size.

Sinkers

Sinkers are another item that sheepshead anglers will need in their tackle boxes. However, only a few sizes and styles are really needed. A selection of egg sinkers from 1/2 ounce to 2 ounce, bank sinkers from 1 ounce to 4 ounce, and a couple bags of split shot will get the job done.

Leaders and swivels

Most sheepshead anglers tie their own rigs. Those do will need leader material and swivels. The leader strength is determined by the clarity of the water, the size of the fish being pursued, and the structure being fished. In most cases, 30 pound fluorocarbon leader is all that an angler needs. #10 black swivels are a good all-around choice. Most local bait shops to sell pre-made rigs for anglers who do not want to tie their own.

Best sheepshead fishing baits

As mentioned above, the vast majority of sheepshead are landed by anglers using natural bait. Occasionally, sheepshead will take it artificial lure, but this is the exception and not the role. Top sheepshead baits, either live or frozen, include shrimp, fiddler crabs, sand fleas, oyster crabs, oysters, and clams.

  • Shrimp
  • Fiddler crabs
  • Sand fleas
  • Oyster crabs
  • Oysters and Clams

Shrimp

The number one bait for anglers fishing inshore salt waters from the Carolinas south and around the Gulf Coast is shrimp. They are available at every bait store in that area. Live shrimp are very effective sheepshead baits. While some anglers consider some other baits more productive, it is hard to beat the convenience with which fresh or frozen shrimp can be obtained. Fresh dead shrimp works well, as does frozen shrimp.

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Fiddler crabs

Fiddler crabs are available at some coastal bait shops. However, they are much less prevalent than are shrimp and other baits. Serious sheepshead anglers catch them on the title flats at low tide. There are easy to see as a mass of them scurries about with their one claw shaking angrily up in the air. These are fantastic sheepshead fishing baits, perhaps the best of them all.

Sand fleas

Sand fleas, whose proper name is more crab, are a popular bait for anglers surf fishing for a variety of species. Live sand fleas are hardly ever sold at bait shops, though some do carry frozen ones. Most anglers catch them in the surf is a fish using special sand flea rakes. As the surf comes in, angler scoop out a bunch of sand and shell, sifting out the sand and hoping there’s a few sand fleas left.

Oyster crabs

Oyster crabs and other small crabs are also very good sheepshead fishing baits. However, anglers using these almost always have to catch them themselves. They are mostly found around rocks and oysters that are submerged at high tide but exposed at low tide. While quite a bit of effort to procure them, many sheepshead anglers consider it worth the trouble.

Oysters and clams

Oysters and clams are a very good an underutilized sheepshead fishing bait. They are easy to obtain and use. They can be purchased at grocery stores, fish markets and bait shops. Razor clams are favored in some areas. Clams are tough baits would stay on the hook well. Most anglers cut them into bite-sized pieces for the sheepshead.

Hooking sheepshead

Many anglers new to the sport of sheepshead fishing have a lot of difficulty hooking them. There are a couple mistakes that many novice anglers make. Capt. Jim will share a few tips and techniques which will help these anglers hook more of these feisty saltwater panfish.

What mistake many anglers make when sheepshead fishing is moving the bait too much. Capt. Jim likes to cast the lure out towards likely structure, or drop it to the bottom when fishing vertically in deeper water. Once the bait comes to rest on the bottom, the slack is reeled out of the line. The angler then holds the rod tip low and keeps the bait motionless while waiting for a bite.

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The bite usually begins with a fairly distinct “tap”. This is where many anglers make their first mistake, they want to move or gently lift the bait. That is a mistake! The best approach is to keep the bait motionless. Many times there will be a series of taps. However, at some point the sheepshead will either get the bait or picking up and move off with it.

This is where the other mistake comes into play. Once that slow steady pull is felt, many anglers want to set the hook. Again, this is a mistake and is especially true with anglers using circle hooks. Instead, the technique that works best for Capt. Jim is to real fast and hard while slowly lifting the rod tip up high. This will remove all the slack from the line and start the hook in the sheepshead’s mouth.

Sheepshead fishing spots

Just about any structure can hold sheepshead when they are in the area. Oyster bars are extremely productive and backwater areas were title creeks and rivers are prevalent. The same holds true for shallow water bays between the mainland and the barrier islands. The best approach when fishing oyster bars for sheepshead is to free line a bait out where the oyster bar drops off into slightly deeper water.

Docks and bridges are prime spots for sheepshead as well. These provide both overhead cover and shade as well as vertical cover in the form of pilings. Bridges and docks and water 10 feet or shallower should be fished a distance away and cast towards. Anglers fishing deeper bridges and docks can do so with a vertical presentation both knocker rigs and sliding sinker rigs work well.

Inlets and passes are prime spots to target sheepshead as well. Most have abundant structure in the form of docks, seawalls, bridges, and submerged rock piles. In many areas, these are the spots that sheepshead school up in big numbers to spawn. The best time to fish these areas is usually on the turn of the tide when the water slacks up. It is just too difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to anchor in the swift current. Knocker rigs and spreader rigs work well.

Reefs and wrecks in the inshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico will also hold plenty of sheepshead as well. Also, in some areas these tend to be the largest fish. Anglers can anchor or drift in most cases a vertical presentation with a spreader rig is the best choice.

In conclusion, this article on the best sheepshead fishing tackle and baits should help anglers catch more of these hard fighting and great tasting saltwater panfish!

Top 15 sheepshead fishing tips

Top 15 Sheepshead Fishing Tips for Anglers

This article lists the top 15 sheepshead fishing tips. Sheepshead are a very popular and tasty bottom fish. They are members of the porgy family. In the United States, they are found all along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the eastern seaboard up to the mid Atlantic. Sheepshead school up in large numbers. Once located, anglers can put a lot of fish in the boat in a short amount of time. Sheepshead are very good to eat, though they have a large rib cage and are difficult to clean.

Capt Jim has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. Anglers who are interested in purchasing the equipment that he uses and writes about in his articles can do so HERE on the PRODUCTS page.

 

Best 15 sheepshead fishing tips

Sheepshead are a structure oriented fish. They are found around bridges, jetties, docks, oyster bars, seawalls, and submerged ledges and rocks. They feed almost exclusively on crustaceans. Very few sheepshead are caught by anglers using artificial lures. Fishing with live, fresh dead, or frozen baits on the bottom near structure produces the most fish. They are a staple of captains running fishing charters throughout the southeast United States.

Anglers can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “Inshore Saltwater Fishing” for $5 by clicking on the title link. It is 23,000 words long and covers tackle, tactics, and species.

Sheepshead range all along the Gulf Coast and east coast as far north as Canada. However, the greatest concentration is found from North Carolina south and around to Texas. Cooler months are generally best as this is when they spawn. In the northern parts of their range, sheepshead will school up and spawn in the summer.

1) Live bait is best

As mentioned before, very few sheepshead are caught by anglers using artificial lures. It does occur, but rarely. Some fish just prefer the “real thing”, and sheepshead are one of those species. Live, freshly dead, and frozen baits account for the vast majority of sheepshead that are landed by anglers. Live and frozen shrimp are the most readily available and thus popular sheepshead baits.

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In most angling situations, live bait is the best choice. Preferred baits vary by region. Shrimp, mole crabs (commonly known as sand fleas), and fiddler crabs are the top baits. Live shrimp are the most universally used bait for sheepshead. They are available at just about every coastal bait shop. Some serious sheepshead anglers prefer fiddler crabs and sand fleas over shrimp. However, in most instances these baits must be procured by the angler. Oyster crabs and worms are caught by anglers looking around rocks on a low tide.

2) Sheepshead fishing tackle

Fortunately, no special tackle is required when targeting sheepshead. The same inshore fishing tackle used for speckled trout and redfish will work fine when bottom fishing for sheepshead. A 7 foot medium action spinning rod match with a 3000 series reel is perfect. Many anglers prefer braided line and its increased sensitivity as sheepshead will often times bite very lightly. Anglers targeting very large sheepshead around heavy structure may need to bump up the tackle and use light conventional gear.

The Penn Fierce 3000 rod and reel is a very good choice for anglers targeting chasing sheepshead and most all other inshore species.

Anglers can click this link to shop Amazon for Penn combos

“Fishing Lido Key is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”

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In many instances, vertical presentations work best. This means that no casting is required. This makes sheepshead fishing a great option for anglers with less experience. Slightly heavier tackle can be used in these instances.

Read more about sheepshead tackle and baits

3) Terminal tackle for sheepshead

Basic bottom fishing tackle is all that is required for anglers sheepshead fishing. A selection of egg sinkers and bank sinkers from one quarter ounce to 2 ounces, split shot, live bait hooks in several sizes, swivels, and several spools of leader material between 20 pound and 40 pound test are all that is required.

Every angler has his or her favorite hooks for bottom fishing. Circle hooks work well for patient anglers who can resist the urge to set the hook. Live bait hooks work well, too. Whichever hook style used, anglers should make sure that the hook is stout. They are required to turn a nice fish in cover as well as being easier to remove from the sheepshead’s mouth.

4) Hide the hook

Sheepshead can be very fussy at times. For most fishing applications, a #1 or #1/0 short shank live bait hook works best. Some anglers prefer circle hooks as well; a #3/0 circle hook is a good all round size. In either case, anglers should try to hide the hook in the bait as much is possible. This is easy with shrimp as it can be threaded onto the shank. Anglers using sand fleas and fiddlers should hide as much of the hook in the bait as possible.

5) Fishing sinker weight is important

top 15 sheepshead fishing tips

As in most fishing situations, the rule of thumb when bottom fishing is to use the least amount of weight needed to get the bait to the bottom. This results in a more natural presentation as the bait slowly sink through the water column that settles on the bottom. Anglers fishing shallow water with little current will do fine with just a split shot or two. Anglers fishing in passes and inlets with a lot of current will need several ounces.

Sliding egg sinkers are the most popular sinker used by anglers sheepshead fishing. They allow line to slide through as the fish moves off with the bait, feeling no resistance. They can also be used in the chicken rig or “high-low” rigs. Bank sinkers do work well for anglers that drift and fish in heavier currents.

6) Sheepshead are structure oriented

Sheephead will rarely be found very far from some type of structure or cover. Seldom are they encountered in open water or grass flats. Bridges are well-known to produce plenty of fish. Docks can also be extremely productive. Other productive structure would include oyster bars, submerged rocks and ledges, jetties, and artificial reefs.

top 15 sheepshead fishing tips

Current also plays a role in fish position on the structure. Generally speaking, fish will face into the current as they feed. This is true whether stationary or moving around. Often times, sheepshead will form schools and move about as a bunch in search of food. Anglers should not stay at a spot too long if no action is found. This is especially true when fishing docks. Ten docks may provide very little then the eleventh one will be loaded with fish!

7) Leader diameter can make a difference

Though not really thought of as leader shy, there are times were anglers will need to go to a lighter leader. This is particularly true in clear water which often occurs in the cooler months. 30 pound test fluorocarbon leader’s work well in most instances. However, if the bite is slow, dropping down to 20 pound test may result in more action. Conversely, if the wind blows and churns up the water, anglers fishing heavy structure can bump it up to 40 lb or 50 lb leader.

Florida saltwater fishing in winter

8) Sheepshead bottom fishing rigs

There are several bottom rigs that work well when sheepshead fishing. The sliding sinker rig, also known as a Carolina rig, is probably the most popular. It consists of an egg sinker with a hole in it which the running line goes through. A swivel is then tied on, followed by a 2 foot piece of leader and the hook. This rig allows the sheepshead to pick up the bait and move off with it without feeling any resistance.

A knocker rig is a variation of the sliding sinker rig. The difference is that the leader goes through the sinker below the swivel. This allows the way to sit right on the eye of the hook. There are two advantages to this rig. One, it results in the bait being right on the bottom with the weight. Secondly, the weight at the eye often results in anglers freeing the hook from underwater snags more easily.

bottom fishing rigs

Another popular ineffective sheepshead fishing rig is the high low rig or chicken rig. Many anglers are familiar with this setup. The sinker, usually a bank sinker, is tied to the bottom of the leader. A hook or multiple hooks is tied at various levels above the sinker. This allows anglers to fish multiple baits at various points in the water column. It is an excellent presentation went fishing vertically. This is also a great choice when drifting a likely sheepshead fishing spot.

9) Frozen baits will produce when sheepshead fishing

Fortunately for anglers, there are times when sheepshead are not all that fussy. Also, there will be times when shrimp boats can’t get out and live bait become scarce. While live bait is often preferred, frozen shrimp, sand fleas, and fiddler crabs will produce sheepshead. It is important to thaw a little bait at a time as anglers fish. Bait that is completely frozen will often break. Conversely, bait that is thawed out too long can get soft and fall off the hook easily.

10) Other sheepshead baits

sand flea

While fiddlers, shrimp, and sand fleas are the three most popular sheepshead fishing baits, there are other baits that will produce. Some areas have oyster crabs. These are found around rocks and jetties on a low tide. They resemble stone crabs to a degree. However, they do have a different color. Mollusks such as oysters and clam strips can also be used.

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11) Sheepshead hooking techniques

It is often said by veteran sheepshead anglers to “set the hook just before they bite”! Of course, this is an exaggeration. However, Sheepshead are notorious for being very light biters. They will often remove the bait from the hook while the angler feels nothing at all. That said, there are some techniques which will help anglers improve their percentage converting bites to fish. Just keep in mind that this will be lower when targeting sheepshead that it will be when targeting other species.

The best approach is to cast the bait out or lower to the bottom and allow it to settle. The angler should then remove all slack from the line and keep the bait motionless with the rod tip low. The bite often begins with a few subtle “taps”. It is very important not to move the bait at all while this occurs.

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At some point, the sheepshead will move off with it and the angler will watch the rod bend. At this point the angler should real quickly while slowly raising the rod. It is important to not try to set the hook. As a charter boat captain in Florida, I have found that this is the best technique for hooking and landing sheepshead.

12) Tide considerations when sheepshead fishing

As in most saltwater fishing applications, tide is a crucial element. Current flow will often times position fish on structure. The best approach is to anchor up tide from the structure that is to be fished. The angler can then present the bait back with the current. This results in a natural presentation. It also lets the sent continue down current, hopefully pulling other fish off of the structure.

Sarasota sheepshead fishing

Passes and inlets are great spots to catch sheepshead. Here on the West Coast of Florida, they school up in huge numbers and structure in the passes to spawn. However, it can be very difficult to fish the passes and inlets when there is a strong current flow. Anchoring is difficult and a lot of weight will be required to get the bait to the bottom. Finally, there is the safety factor as these can be busy boating spots, particularly on the weekends. The best times to fish the passes are on the changes of the tide, as this is when the current eases up enough to fish and anchor more easily.

13) Fishing for sheepshead offshore

While Sheepshead are plentiful in the inshore waters, angler should not neglect ledges, wrecks, and artificial reefs. Most coastal areas have this type of structure, often close to shore. These can be sheepshead hot spots in the late winter and spring.

Sarasota sheepshead fishing

Many anglers overlook natural ledges when targeting sheepshead. This is a mistake! While larger artificial reefs attract many sheepshead as well as anglers, ledges will hold some very nice fish. They also get less fishing pressure due to the fact that they are smaller and more difficult to locate. Another benfit is that other desirable species such as snapper, sea bass, and flounder are commonly caught on these smaller ledges.

14) Sheepshead cleaning tips

While sheepshead are fantastic eating, they are difficult to clean. They have very sharp dorsal fins and large, thick rib cages. I have found that the best fish to keep for dinner are the nice fat, chunky fish between 14 inches long and 18 inches long. It is just my preference, but I generally release the larger specimens. Most of these are females that are full of eggs at the time of year that we target sheepshead.

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The best way to clean sheepshead is to insert the tip of the fillet knife between the dorsal fin in the back of the fish. Anglers will find a little “flap” here that facilitates this process. Then, the knife is worked down the backbone in both directions. The tip of the knife can be pushed all the way through emerging from the bottom of the fish. In order to save the blade of the knife, the fillet can be ripped off of the rib cage by hand once at that point.

15) Cooking sheepshead

Sheepshead are a very versatile fish. Once cooked, the meat is firm and white. It is a great fish for chowder! It also does very well fried, grilled, baked, and broiled. Blackened sheepshead is delicious and very easy to prepare. There really is no wrong way to prepare these tasty bottom dwellers, as long as they are not overcooked. Florida anglers can find current sheepshead regulations on the FWC website. They do change occasionally.

In conclusion, this article listing the top 15 sheepshead fishing tips will help anglers catch more of these tasty and hard fighting bottom fish. What is your favorite sheepshead bait?

Sarasota Sheepshead fishing

Sarasota Sheepshead Fishing

Sarasota sheepshead fishing is fun for all anglers.  They are a great fish for anglers of all ages and experience levels. They are widely distributed along the Gulf Coast and up the East Coast to New York. Sheepshead put up a great battle and are fine table fair.

Sheepshead are a member of the porgy family.  They arrive in the Sarasota area around Christmas and stay until early April.  The sheepshead run peaks in February and March.  Sheepshead are bottom feeders and are taken almost exclusively by anglers using live, fresh dead, or frozen bait.  Live shrimp are the most popular bait.  They spawn around structure such as submerged rocks, docks, bridges, and oyster bars.

sheepshead fishing

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Many of my northern clients confuse our Sheepshead with their “sheephead”. It is an entirely different species. The northern sheephead is considered a trash fish with no real food value. Our Sheepshead, while difficult to clean, is fantastic eating. Sheepshead also put up a great fight, using their wide bodies to pull hard against the bent rod. Imagine a bluegill on steroids and you have a sheepshead.

Sarasota sheepshead fishing tackle and baits

Capt Jim has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. Anglers who are interested in purchasing the equipment that he uses and writes about in his articles can do so HERE on the PRODUCTS page.

Most anglers targeting sheepshead using spinning tackle. Conventional tackle can be used, especially when fishing vertically. Many anglers fishing in the Gulf of Mexico prefer conventional tackle. Spinning tackle is certainly more popular for inshore anglers. It allows them to present baits both vertically and also to cast the bait towards some likely structure.

A 7 foot spinning rod with either 12 pound monofilament or 20 pound braided line is ideal. A 30 inch piece of 30 pounds fluorocarbon leader is tied onto the running line. Anglers can attach the leader using a line to line not such as the double Uni-knot or a number 10 black swivel. A #1 live bait hook or #3/0 circle hook completes the rig.  Anglers fishing the inshore Gulf of Mexico are required by law to use circle hooks.  The reason for this is than invariably other reef fish such as grouper and snapper will be caught.  Circle hooks allow for a healthy release.

sheepshead fishing

Sliding egg sinkers are used to keep the bait on the bottom. The general rule of thumb is to use the lightest sinker possible to get down and hold the bottom. The sinker can be slid onto the running line ahead of a swivel.  Then the leader is attached to the other end of the swivel. The leader can be attached without a swivel.  The sinker is then allowed to ride on the eye of the hook. This is what we term a “knocker rig”. Both allow the sheepshead to pick the bait up and move off without feeling the resistance of the weight.

Dedicated, experienced sheepshead anglers have their favorite secret bait. Sand fleas, oyster crabs, fiddler crabs, and others are well kept secrets. Many anglers consider fiddler crabs in particular the top sheepshead bait. They are an effective bait and are relatively easy to collect. But the reality is that shrimp catch plenty of sheepshead. I use live or frozen shrimp whenever I target sheepshead on my Sarasota fishing charters. They are easily obtained and are very effective

Sarasota sheepshead fishing structure

sheepshead fishing

Sheepshead will almost always be found near some type of structure. Here in Sarasota, we began our sheepshead hunt near the passes. Both big Sarasota pass and New Pass have deep water, good current flow, and plenty of structure. This makes for ideal sheepshead habitat for anglers Sarasota bottom fishing.

The best time to fish the passes is during times of slower moderate current flow. It is just too difficult to fish when the tide is running hard. Anchoring is difficult and a lot of weight is required to keep the shrimp on the bottom. During these times of high current flow, docks and 6 to 10 feet of water that are near the passes can be very productive spots.

Sarasota sheepshead fishing techniques

Anglers fishing the passes can choose to either anchor or drift. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Drifting is a great approach when tides are slack. It allows anglers to cover some water without drifting to quickly over the fish. Snags are more of an issue from a drifting boat on a Sarasota fishing charter.

sheepshead fishing

I anchor most of the time when sheepshead fishing. The boat stays exactly where I wanted to, and once the bite gets going the fishing can be fast and furious. Structure in 8 to 20 feet of water hold most of the sheepshead. Other species such as gag grouper, mangrove snapper, gray snapper, pompano, and flounder will also be taken.

Sheepshead are notorious for their ability to take bait off a hook without being caught. They are world class bait thieves! One mistake many anglers make when sheepshead fishing is trying to “set the hook” when a bite is felt. This really applies to all fishing with live or cut bait.

Here is the technique that I teach my clients when sheepshead fishing on my charters. When sheepshead take a bait, anglers will usually feel a “tap” or series of “taps”. It is crucial that the bait be kept perfectly still while this occurs. Eventually, the angler will feel a steady pull while the rod tip bends. The angler should reel quickly, taking up the slack, then slowly raise the rod tip. This will result in a much higher hook-up ratio. If the fish is missed (which will happen many times) the hook is re-baited and cast back out.

Sarasota sheepshead fishing docks and canals

Sarasota is fairly developed. This means a myriad of residential canals, all of which have plenty of docks. Docks are great places to target sheepshead from December through March. As previously mentioned, docks in 6 to 10 feet of water with a little current flow are perfect. The best technique is to anchor a cast away up current of the dock. Anglers then pitched baited hooks towards the pilings.

Sarasota sheepshead fishing

Often times we are faced with windy conditions during this time of year. Docks and canals along Siesta Key and Lido Key offer protection from the wind, giving anglers on Sarasota fishing charters the chance to enjoy a productive day when they may perhaps be forced to stay home otherwise. Black drum, redfish, flounder, snook, and other species will take a shrimp meant for sheepshead.

Oyster bars can be an overlooked sheepshead hot spot. The best bars are those that are just covered up on high tide and drop off into four or 5 feet of water. Sheepshead will cruise the edges of the bars in search of oyster crabs and other crustaceans. A hook with just a light split shot will get the job done.

Sheepshead fishing in the Gulf of Mexico

There are several artificial reefs just off the Lido Key beaches. These reefs consist of concrete rubble and the remains of bridges and other structure. They lie in 30 feet of water to miles offshore. When the seas are calm, they can be terrific spots to target sheepshead. I will often times catch my largest fish of the year in these locations. All three inshore reefs hold fish, but all are different. 

The Roehr Reef is the smallest and the closest to shore. It holds sheepshead as well as other bottom fish.  Only three or four boat can fish it at once.  The Fisher Reef has some very good structure and is a bit further out, right off of New Pass.  Several boats can fish there at once.  The Silvertooth Reef has a ton of structure scattered out over a large area.  It is very good for sheepshead along with bottom fish and mackerel.

Natural ledges in the same areas will also hold sheepshead along with mangrove snapper and gag grouper. These ledges are small and difficult to locate, but once found can be highly productive. Most anglers don’t take the time to find a spots, so they get less fishing pressure than do the artificial reefs.The best way to locate these ledges is to key a sharp eye on the bottom machine while trolling. Most anglers do some trolling for king mackerel or Spanish mackerel at one time or another.  This is a great way to find good bottom fishing spots.

Sheepshead fishing top spots in Sarasota

The Rocky structure at the north end of Siesta Key is a fantastic Sheepshead spot in the winter and early spring. Deep water, plenty of structure, and good current flow attract and hold the fish.

Docks along bird key in the northeast part of Siesta Key are proven Sheepshead spots. They are a great option when title flow and the passes is too strong. Also, no matter how stiff the breeze, there is usually a protected side to fish.

Docks and rocks and New Pass are productive as well. New Pass is also a bit more protected from the weather. The new pass bridge is a fish magnet, holding sheepshead and just about every other bottom fish species. Bait is easily obtained at the New Pass bait shop near the bridge.

The Ringling Bridge pilings hold plenty of sheepshead as well. The bridges and 10 to 12 feet of water and has plenty of structure for sheepshead and snapper. Drifting near the pilings with the bait as close as possible is a great technique. The New Pass Bridge, Siesta Drive Bridge, and Stickney Point Bridge all hold fish as well.

Docks in Roberts Bay south of the Siesta Drive bridge hold plenty of sheepshead and black drum. They are great spots to fish when it is blowing hard, offering protection from the open Bay.

The channel edges in the no wake zone in the Intracoastal Waterway between the mouth of Phillippi Creek and the Stickney Point Bridge are another good spots of fish on breezy days.

Artificial reefs off of the Lido Key beaches are easy accessed on a nice day and hold a lot of sheepshead in the cooler months. Anglers can get a list of the reefs and coordinates HERE.

Capt Jim Klopfer

(941) 371-1390

captklopfer@comcast.net

1059 North Tamiami Trail Sarasota, Fl 34236