How to Catch Sheepshead

Published on 05/17/2023 · 6 min readConventional Fishing Expert Michael Matey lays out his top tips to help you catch more sheepshead, from the right gear and bait to the best locations to find them.
Michael Matey, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Michael Matey

Photo by Michael Matey

Sheepshead are one of the most sought-after fish in the southern half of the United States. They’re tasty, abundant, and they put up a good fight. There’s not a lot more you could ask for in a sport fish. They’re found almost everywhere. If you fish at the beach, in canals, under bridges, or at offshore wrecks and artificial reefs, you’ll almost certainly run into a few black and white striped fish with funky teeth. Sheepshead are a fun fish to target for kids as well as seasoned anglers. This guide will cover everything you need to know about how to catch the notorious sheepshead.

What Gear to Use

Choosing the right gear for sheepshead fishing is actually pretty simple. It’s not much different than the gear used for targeting other saltwater species like snapper or snook.

Sheepshead can vary in size a lot, so you’ll want a setup that can handle a wide spectrum of fish. Start with a 7’ medium or medium-heavy spinning rod. Temple Fork Outfitters Tactical Inshore Rod is a perfect rod for a sheepshead setup. Pair this rod with a 2000-4000 sized spinning reel. The Daiwa BG Saltwater Spinning Reel is a great option as a reel to pair with. These rod and reel size parameters will ensure your setup can handle any size sheepshead on the other end of your line. If you choose to use a rod and reel other than the ones I mentioned, make sure they’re rated for saltwater and give them a solid rinse with freshwater after use to avoid rust.

For line, spool your reel with 10-20lb braided line. Then tie on about a 1-2ft 20lb fluorocarbon leader. Tie this leader line using a double uni knot. There are multiple benefits to using a fluorocarbon leader. It’s clear so it’ll be almost invisible in super-clear saltwater. Also, it is much more abrasive-resistant than braided line. This is especially important when targeting sheepshead since they’re usually caught around sharp barnacles and oysters.

What Bait and Tackle to Use

100% of a sheepshead diet is crustaceans. You can throw a bait fish or a bait fish imitating lure at them all day long and they won’t bat an eye. They can be caught on crustacean-imitating artificial lures, but it is incredibly difficult so I’d almost never recommend it. You’re going to need live or dead bait to maximize your odds of catching sheepshead

Shrimp

Photo by etiennegirardet

The most common bait used for sheepshead is shrimp. You can find shrimp at almost every bait shop within the vicinity of saltwater. They can be alive, fresh, dead, or frozen, but live shrimp is usually the most effective. Shrimp are one of the most abundant creatures in the ocean so sheepshead are used to munching on them. There’s an old saying that everything in the ocean will eat a shrimp, so there’s a good chance you’ll get some bycatch as well while fishing with them!

Crabs

Photo by phouy Sonedala

Crabs are a primary food source of a sheepshead’s diet. They use their flat molar-like teeth to crush through the hard shells of crabs with their powerful jaws. There are multiple species of crabs that are used as bait for sheepshead and every avid saltwater angler will tell you a different species is the best, but they all work. I’ll briefly cover a few of these and how to aquire them.

  • Fiddler Crabs - You can find fiddler crabs in muddy marshy areas. You can collect them by hand or throw a cast net on them. They are also sold in many bait shops (this is my preferred method for acquiring crabs)
  • Mangrove Crabs - Mangrove crabs can be found anywhere where there are mangroves. They are quick, so they can be difficult to catch
  • Blue Crabs - Blue crabs can be found anywhere there’s saltwater. They’re often caught in crab traps or using a bait net when flowing through a pass or jetty. Larger blue crabs will need to be cut into quarters to be used as bait for sheepshead.
  • Sand Fleas - Sand fleas are the little creatures you see coming out of holes in the sand at the beach. They can be captured by hand or by using a sand flea rake as the water rushes out in the surf.

How to Rig the Bait

Photo by Michael Matey

Sheepshead have super strong jaws with eerily human-like molar teeth. They use these teeth to crush barnacles and crustaceans to get to the meat inside. Because of these teeth, they can be tricky to get a good hookset on. There are a few tips and tricks I employ to increase my hookup rates.

One of the most effective and common sheepshead rigs is a simple shrimp on a jig. It’s been tried and tested by sheepshead anglers for years and quite frankly, it works! Since sheepshead like to nibble on their food before fully swallowing it, they tend to steal your shrimp for a free meal quite often. A technique I use to prevent this from happening is breaking off small pieces of shrimp and keeping them very close to the point of the hook. This forces the sheepshead to bite down right into the hook instead of ripping the shrimp off of the jig. When you feel a small tap on the rod tip, you’ll want to set the hook hard immediately.

Oftentimes sheepshead will be in deep water or strong current. You’ll need some extra weight to get your bait down to them. A knocker rig (also known as a sliding sinker rig) is the best way to accomplish this. Knocker rigs are a circle hook with an egg weight that can slide up and down on the line. This allows for the bait to move freely through the water as well as ensuring you’re setting the hook into the fish and not the weight itself.

Finding Sheepshead

Photo by Michael Matey

Finding feeding fish is one of the most difficult and important aspects of saltwater fishing. Sheepshead are no exception. Regardless of where you’re fishing, there are a key few features to look for when trying to find sheepshead.

Sheepshead are ALWAYS going to be found around structure. I can’t stress this enough. Whether you’re fishing at the beach pier, in a canal, or five miles offshore, you’ll need to find structure to find them. This structure can be dock pilings, rock piles, concrete walls, or bridge posts. Anywhere there are barnacles growing, there’s a good chance there will be sheepshead feeding.

Current is another super important aspect to look for. Saltwater fish like to sit in the current and feed on their preferred choice of bait as it gets pushed to them by the current. This allows them to spend the least amount of energy possible to get a good meal. Current is dictated by the tides, so you should check the local tide chart in your area before heading out and fishing. You want to fish in between the low and high tide or vice versa because this is when the current will be flowing the hardest.

The last item to take into account is temperature. While sheepshead are around all year, they become much more prevalent in cooler water during winter months. The highest concentration of sheepshead will be found when the water temperature is between 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Conclusion

Sheepshead fishing is a whole lot of fun to target but can be a daunting task for a beginner angler. But with this guide, you now have everything you need to know to get out there and start catching some striped toothy fish!

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