Sheepshead Spawning

I have always heard that when the sheepshead are spawning in the cooler months of Spring and Fall, the bite is on fire. That when they are hungry you will catch one, after another, after another. But I had never seen it for myself, so I decided to hit the pier to see if I could get in on the action.

It was still cold so I was bundled up. I had my windbreaker, thermals, and a jacket on over the top, along with a beanie. I knew the wind would be ripping and at barely 50 degrees it was downright cold, but I wanted to see if I could get the sheepshead’s attention. On the pier there is really no bad place to sheepshead fish. Any piling will work, but I decided I wanted to fish the left side out at the end of the pier where it opens up. The right side was way too crowded with fisherman pompano fishing and casting lures. Sheepshead eat the barnacles and other crustaceans on the pilings so that is the best place to target them, but any structure will do.

I have always heard that when the sheepshead are spawning in the cooler months of Spring and Fall, the bite is on fire. That when they are hungry you will catch one, after another, after another. But I had never seen it for myself, so I decided to hit the pier to see if I could get in on the action.

I arrived at the Fort Pickens Pier early one Wednesday morning in February. It was still cold so I was bundled up. I had my windbreaker, thermals, and a jacket on over the top, along with a beanie. I knew the wind would be ripping and at barely 50 degrees it was downright cold, but I wanted to see if I could get the sheepshead’s attention. On the pier there is really no bad place to sheepshead fish. Any piling will work, but I decided I wanted to fish the left side out at the end of the pier where it opens up. The right side was way too crowded with fisherman pompano fishing and casting lures. Sheepshead eat the barnacles and other crustaceans on the pilings so that is the best place to target them, but any structure will do.

I decided to only bring one rod with me to the pier that day, my Penn 7 foot light tackle pier rod with 30 pound braid. I wanted to keep things simple. When you are sheepshead fishing it is hard to do too many other types of fishing at the same time because it only takes the smallest tap, tap, and you are on. Having too many rods will result in missed fish, or your gear flying overboard thanks to a nice fish, and trust me, it happens a lot! I would like to go diving down there one day just to see the amount of rods, reels, and weights that are left behind. I could probably retire with the amount of lead I could collect, but that’s for another day. I wanted my limit of sheepshead.

When sheepshead are biting, they hit one of two things, crabs or shrimp. When one isn’t working, the other one often will. On this day I came armed with 4 dozen live fiddler crabs I bought from the bait shop. You can catch them yourself, but that requires time and effort. Sheepshead also have very small mouths full of human-looking teeth. These convicts, known for their black and white stripes, will snap a hook real quick with how powerful their bite is so it is important to bring lots of extra hooks. The smaller the hooks, the better. For my leader line, I like to use 15 or 20 pound fluorocarbon and a small ½ or ¾ ounce egg weight to tie on a carolina rig, which is simply a weight attached to a swivel connecting the leader line to the hook.

I dropped my bait down right next to the second piling on the left side of the pier and waited. Within ten minutes I had a bite. Missed him! Sheepshead are very finicky. There is a fine line between letting him eat the bait and setting the hook. Like I said earlier, they have very small mouths. I put another fiddler crab on my hook and dropped it back down. A few minutes go by and I feel the slightest tap, tap on my rod. I quickly set the hook and am hooked up. The sheepshead is pulling my light tackle Penn rod right under the pier, but I have my drag set nice and tight and crank down as my rod is doubled over nearly perpendicular with the pier. 

I get him out from under the pier and luckily someone behind me is prepared with a drop net. He drops the net down and is able to get the sheepshead in the net and hand line him up and over the pier. It was a stud, weighing 6.5 pounds. Luckily I was prepared and brought my cooler, but this big boy barely fit in there.

I had 5 more to catch and was off to a good start. I had seen a few caught that morning and it was only a little after 8. Normally the golden hour when they are chewing is between 8:00 am. and 9:30 am. If they are biting, everyone will be catching. At around 8:30 I hooked into my second sheepshead at the same piling I was fishing before. This time I dropped straight down and let the current take my line under the pier. It was quite a fight to get him out from under the pier and away from the structure.

One little brush against the piling and the fish is off. The piling and barnacles are razor sharp. Once I got him away from the structure I was ready for the net. There was someone waiting right behind me.

The sheepshead made one more run for the piling when he saw the net, and I held on as tight as I could, reeling quickly so he wouldn’t get away. Once I got his body turned up in the air and out of the water, it was over. He slid into the net and up and over the pier he went.

My second sheepshead of the day was a solid 4 pound fish. By this time it was a little after 9:00 am. It was the golden hour and sure enough, the fish were biting. It turned on so fast, everyone was catching. I dropped another fiddler crab down, and bam, I’m on again! This time the sheepshead was really pulling drag, fighting as hard as it could to get back down into the hole under the piling. I gained a little ground, and back down he went. But I wasn’t giving up that easy. I fought him hard, keeping tension on my line, reeling like a man on a mission.

I wanted my 6 sheepshead. I got him right at the top of the water and back down he went. This fish wasn’t giving up. I figured that had to be his last run, so I tightened my drag down just a quarter of a turn and reeled furiously. 

That did the trick. Once he couldn’t pull any more drag, I had all the momentum. A few more turns of the reel and he was tired out. A fellow fisherman dropped the net down and threw him over the pier. Now I had three in the cooler. 

I looked around and everyone was catching them. One after the other. You could literally see them swimming up and down the pilings by the hundreds. I caught my limit of 6 that day and then started giving them away to people who wanted a delicious dinner. It was crazy! Now I know what it’s like when the sheepshead are spawning at the pier. You better bring a bag lunch, plenty of fiddlers, and be ready for battle.

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