Fishing – 02-22-2012

Sheepshead bite heats up to spite warm weather


The beginning of the big winter sheepshead bite is on target.

Good numbers of the convict fish are showing at the Rod & Reel Pier and the Anna Maria City Pier, in addition to all wrecks and nearshore reefs in Tampa Bay and just off the beaches.

Whether you are a boater or a shore fisher, now is the time to cast to some fierce fighting fish, not to mention the pleasure at the dinner table.

To catch these tasty striped fish, you first need to know what gear to use. Most pier fishers like to use a short, stout rod and a reel spooled with heavy line. A setup like this means business — no muss, no fuss. Set the hook and slap your fish on the dock.

The reason for using this combo is simple. When you’re fishing around barnacle-studded pilings and other structure that can cut your line, you to have to be able to control the fish and get it topside before it cuts the line.

If you try to play one of these fish, there’s a good chance it’ll wrap your line around a piling, resulting in a lost fish.

Next, you need some small, stout hooks, leader materials and lead. For hooks, a size 4 will suffice. Just make sure it’s a durable, thick gauge hook. This aids in both the hook set and removal of the hook after the fish is caught.

Sheepshead have an extremely bony mouth that aids them in crushing crabs and other crustaceans. A strong sharp hook is required to pierce through the mouth of the fish.

Also, when removing a hook from a sheepshead’s mouth, a strong hook won’t bend as easily, saving you from having to re-rig after every fish.

For leader material, 30-pound fluorocarbon will suffice. As far as lead is concerned, you’ll have to evaluate how the tide is moving to determine how much weight is needed.

Now, let’s talk bait. Sheepshead can be extremely finicky at times so make sure to carry an assortment of favored baits. There are a number of live baits that work; it’s just a matter of having the right bait at the right time. Some of the baits used for sheepshead can be labor intensive to collect, like tubeworms or oyster crabs, while others, such as shrimp and fiddler crabs, can be purchased at a bait shop.

There are five proven baits for sheepshead in this area — tubeworms, oyster and fiddler crabs, sand fleas and shrimp.

If you’re willing to dig tubeworms, you’ll have the ultimate sheepshead bait. It may be hard to find tubeworms, and it takes most of a morning to dig up a sufficient number.

The same applies for oyster crabs — which are like candy to a sheepshead, but an angler could spend a whole morning tipping over rocks to find them. There’s also some labor involved in sand fleas. First, a sand flea rake or sifter is needed. Sand fleas are found in the shore break by sifting the wet sand.

But anglers can also use live shrimp or fiddlers, and both can be purchased at bait shops, which makes things a little easier — just pull out your wallet, and you’ve got bait.

Now that we’ve got bait and tackle taken care of, it’s time to go fishing. If you’re fishing without a boat, there are three fishing piers on Anna Maria Island. All are holding sheepshead, so your chances are good for catching one. If you’re in a boat, try fishing around bridges, docks, wrecks and reefs to find the bite.

Remember, sheepshead have to be 12 inches in length with the tail pinched, and you can keep 15 per day per person.

Good luck and happy herding.

Tom Cassetty at the Rod & Reel Pier is seeing stringers of sheepshead hanging from the dock. Yes, it’s that time again. Pier fishers using live oyster crabs for bait are reeling up sheepies in the 1- to 3-pound range. “We’re not catching our limits, yet,” says Cassetty, “but we’re getting awfully close.

With the limit of sheepshead at 15 fish per person, close is pretty good.

Along with sheepshead, pier fishers are hooking up some flounder in the sandy bottom areas adjacent to the pier. Live shrimp is a good offering to get these flat fish to bite. Most of the flounder being caught are under the minimum size limit, but some pier fishers are reeling up larger fish.

Last but not least, pier fishers using live shrimp are catching decent numbers of black drum. Pound for pound, these fish give a great fight and they’re not bad as table fare if you cook them the same day. Most of the drum caught at the pier are ranging 14- and 18-inches.

Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier is seeing good numbers of sheepshead landed daily. Pier fishers in the know are using live oyster crabs or tubeworms to get the bite. The catch is averaging 15- to 18-inches in length and weighing up to 2 1/2 pounds.

Other catches at the pier include flounder, jack crevalle and some blue runners. Fishers using live shrimp are catching flounder around the edges of the pier, while the blue runners and jacks are hitting small white jigs cast and quickly retrieved.

Capt. Warren Girle is fishing nearshore structure catching a variety of species. To start, he’s bringing in decent numbers of bonito by flat-lining live shiners or shrimp behind the boat. Bonito may not be meant for the dinner table, but they sure provide drag-screaming action for whoever is holding onto the rod.

Also on the nearshore structure, Girle is catching flounder up to 18 inches. He says live shiners or shrimp cast to the sandy areas around the structure is producing fish for the frying pan.

To finish out the reef trips, Girle is catching near limits of sheepshead and a few mangrove snapper. For both of these fish, Girle is using live or fresh-cut shrimp pieces to get the bite.

Moving to the flats of Sarasota Bay, Girle is finding redfish and spotted seatrout. By fishing the sandy potholes on lower tides, Girle is catching redfish in the 16- to 32-inch range on live shrimp. The same applies for the seatrout, although the top length was 22 inches.

On the deeper flats, Girle is catching ladyfish, Spanish mackerel and an occasional pompano on a 1/4-ounce jig head with an Exude Dart. Also, when fishing these deeper flats, Girle likes to drift fish to cover more area and increase the bite.

Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business charters is working nearshore structure with good results. To start with, he’s catching sheepshead up to 5 pounds on live shrimp. When targeting sheepies on the reefs, Gross likes to use a baited knocker rig.

Along with the sheepies, Gross is catching good numbers of Key West grunts and triggerfish by the same method with impressive numbers of fish coming to the boat.

Moving to the backcountry, Gross is working the flats of Sarasota Bay for spotted seatrout. He likes to use a 1/4-ounce jig head tipped with a new penny MirrOlure Lil John to target these trout. His average catch was slot-sized fish 15- to 20-inches, although his clients reeled in a few bigger ones. While jigging for trout, Gross is also catching pompano and keeper-size flounder.

Around rocks and docks in the bay, Gross is targeting redfish, with live shrimp on a knocker rig which is producing keeper-size fish.

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