The Spring time sheepshead spawn is one of my favorite times of the year to fish. Sheepshead migrate to the waters of Pensacola Beach during the middle of March to spawn near structures like bridges and pilings until mid-April. They are so thick in some places, you can see hundreds of them swimming right beneath the surface of the water. Anglers wake up before dawn just to get a spot at their favorite piling to get a chance at catching a freezer full of the black and white convicts with human-looking teeth.
The best place to target sheepshead is by fishing next to a structure like a dock or bridge piling. Some of the best places to target them in Pensacola and Pensacola Beach include the Three Mile Bridge, Bob Sykes Bridge, Pensacola Pier, and the Fort Pickens Pier. You can catch them in shallower waters and in deep holes. It just depends on what water depth they are holding at. One of my favorite places to target sheepshead during the Spring spawn is at the Fort Pickens Pier, located at the very end of the island in Fort Pickens National Park. The pier pilings are covered in barnacles and oyster shells, a favorite treat for sheepshead.
What Rigs do I Need?
When the sheepshead bite is on, they will eat anything you throw their way. Some of their favorite foods include fiddler crabs, live shrimp, sand fleas and oysters, but you can catch them on fresh dead shrimp too. My bait strategy typically consists of getting 3-4 dozen live fiddler crabs and shrimp. I like to have a variety of baits. Typically if one isn’t working, the other will make the bite turn on if they are being finicky.
One of the best parts about pompano fishing is the bait you can use to target them. Pompano mainly feed on crustaceans so you have a wide variety of bait to pick from. Live shrimp will do the trick, but sometimes that’s not what they are feeding on. A little variety on the menu goes a long way, so switch up your baits until you figure out what they are chewing on.
Another great bait to try is sand fleas. Sand fleas can be caught with your hands in the surf where the water meets the sand. You can also catch them using a sand flea rake (link), or buy some at your local bait shop. Sand fleas are at the top of the pompano’s menu.
But sometimes they can be finicky, so having a bag of FishGum or FishBites on hand(link) is also a good idea. These baits are mesh strips of crab, shrimp, and sand fleas all mixed into one and make for a great bait when nothing else is working. One great bait presentation is a small sand flea tipped with a small piece of fish gum on the same hook. The pompano can’t resist it!
You can also try your luck with a pompano jig. Pompano jigs come in many different sizes and colors, and will get the job done just as well if not better than a weighted rig on the bottom.
Fighting a sheepshead on a light-tackle rod is one the funnest ways to catch them. There is nothing like feeling the tap, tap, tap of the sheepshead chewing on your bait, setting the hook, and reeling up as your rod is doubled over. These fish fight very aggressively, oftentimes making several deep runs back to the bottom, and don’t tire out quickly. Some can get upwards of 10 pounds or more so it is important to always keep tension on your line and keep pressure on the fish until it reaches the surface of the water.
Clean and Cook
Sheepshead is some of the best tasting fish you can eat. There are many ways to prepare it. You can throw some Zattarans blackening seasoning on it with some salt, pepper, lemon, garlic, and butter, and cook it on the grill, or fry it up using your favorite fry seasoning. I personally like Zattarann’s New Orleans style fish fry. Add a little cocktail sauce or tartar sauce for dipping, and your favorite beer and enjoy! Don’t forget to take a kid fishing!
Bryant Calvo is the owner and operator of ReelPensacola.com, Pensacola Beach’s go-to for fishing rod and gear rental, offering hands-on tips and tricks for everything fishing.