Shepherds of the Dock - Texas Fish & Game - February 2013 Shepherds of the Dock - February 2013 Sheepshead wranglers find powerful nibblers under docks, pilings, and piers...outstanding action for an angler on a budget. By John N. Felsher
Rapidly falling tides pulled baitfish, shrimp and other creatures from their protective cover into open water. Unable to fight against the flow, small crabs drifted with the current toward the Gulf of Mexico. Standing on the dock, we scooped several crabs about the size of a silver dollar as they floated past.
We broke the claws off the diminutive crustaceans to make them more appealing to predators. Through the back shell near the flattened "swimmer" leg, I hooked a lively crab to a 1/8-ounce long-shanked jighead and flipped it a few feet upstream. The tide pushed it back under the dock.
After the crab hit bottom, I pulled it up about a foot when something gently tugged on the line almost as if pulled by the tide. I set the hook and the rod bend double as the unseen fish bulldozed straight for the pilings. Few other fish fight like sheepshead; they hunker down in the cover, daring anglers to dislodge them.
Sometimes sarcastically called "bay snapper," and many names unfit to print, this pugnacious member of the porgy family does not attract much enthusiasm. However, this incredibly powerful beast can provide outstanding sport. In addition, sheepshead give anglers without boats excellent opportunities to catch tackle-busting brutes without spending a fortune.
"Sheepshead are one of the more abundant sport fish along the Texas coast," advised Art Morris with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Corpus Christi Field Station. "The highest population is in Corpus Christi Bay. Rockport and Port Aransas also have a lot of sheepshead, but they are found all up and down the Texas coast. They are really popular among anglers who do not have boats and cant afford to hire guides."
Sheepshead can reach impressive sizes for fish frequently found near seawalls and marinas. Most run in the 2- to 5-pound range, but Wayne Gilstrap horsed in the Texas state record, a 15.25-pounder from Lower Laguna Madre that hit a live shrimp in 2002. The world record came from neighboring Louisiana, a 21.25-pounder caught off the old concrete seawall on Lake Pontchartrain within the New Orleans city limits.
Like Gilstraps toothy beast, sheepshead love live shrimp. Although they prefer crustaceans or shellfish to finfish, sheepshead hit various natural baits including minnows, cracked clams, squid, cut bait and other morsels. Above all, they relish small live crabs. With powerful jaws and crushing human-like teeth, they also munch barnacles attached to pilings.
"Those teeth are designed to scrape barnacles off hard structure," Morris explained. "Sheepshead eat anything they can break apart with their teeth to get to the good parts inside. The best places to fish for sheepshead are around jetties, reefs and other hard structure."
Photo: John N. Felsher
Often, the best fishing occurs beneath an anglers feet. On docks over deep water, vertically dangle baits next to pilings. Jig baits up and down very slowly at various depths. Sheepshead might lurk on bottom or hover next to a piling. Use as little weight as possible, just enough to hold baits down in the tide.
Despite their powerful jaws, impressive dental equipment and incredible fighting prowess once hooked, sheepshead gingerly nibble baits and seldom rush to attack prey. Old-timers used to say, "Set the hook before it bites." Almost timidly, sheepshead may examine morsels before tasting them, but can quickly strip bait from a hook. However, they generally dont spook easily and may remain in place as long as food keeps coming to them.
Often, anglers dont even detect subtle strikes, perhaps just a slight tug. Sometimes, the line simply feels heavy or mushy. Anglers may think they snagged an old crab trap or perhaps even the pilings. However, when these powerfully pugnacious porgies begin to move, all doubt vanishes.
To attract sheepshead, many dock owners toss cracked clams or oyster shells into the water. Many people also throw old bait or food scraps off their docks. To put sheepshead into a feeding frenzy, scrape crusty pilings with shovels or rakes to crush and dislodge barnacles. Sheepshead quickly home in on the scent and meat pieces in the water. After a few minutes, drop a live shrimp, quarter-sized crab, fiddler or other morsel as close to the piling as possible.
"We catch many sheepshead around the docks and concrete walls in the Port Aransas ship channel," said Capt. Charles Newton of Redfish Charters in Rockport (361-729-8220/www.redfishcharters.com.) "We also catch a lot of sheepshead by the jetties around Port Aransas and Corpus Christi, especially in February and March. When fishing for sheepshead, we use small hooks and bait them with small crabs or live shrimp. Sheepshead also hit dead shrimp and are a lot of fun to catch."
For the best sheepshead action, drop baits near fish cleaning stations. After filleting their catch, anglers toss heads, backbones and scraps into the water. That attracts shrimp, crabs and small fish. Sheepshead venture forth from among the piling forest to feed upon the small creatures and scraps.
Around fish cleaning stations, toss free lines with live bait. Hook a small live crab through the back of the shell near the "swimmer" leg. Allow the bait to swim naturally near cover, but just beyond entangling structure. Cracked crab pieces with the top shell removed also work.
In Texas, the best fishing typically occurs in winter or early spring as sheepshead prepare to spawn. Thats when anglers generally catch the largest fish of the year. In the right spot, anglers can often boat many sheepshead without moving.
"Any time of year is a good time to fish for sheepshead, but most people target them during the winter," Morris said. "Spawning occurs in February and March near offshore jetties, rock piles and reefs. They are largely underappreciated by anglers and could actually use more pressure."
Sheepshead saved many a day when redfish and trout wont cooperate. Without spending much money, anglers can enjoy a relaxing day sitting on a dock or seawall while challenging abundant and toothy tackle-busting monsters that taste great and dare anyone to pull them from the water!