Winter anglers should target sheepshead, black drum
Sheepshead are beginning to make a good showing around docks, rocks and reefs in the surrounding waters of Anna Maria Island.
These fish are still pre-spawn, so expect to catch a lot of small males as well as some oversized females. From my experience in the past week, there are a lot of fish in the 2- to 3-pound range and fish up to 6 pounds are found every so often in the mix.
When fishing the reefs, live shrimp is a great way to fill the box. I like to break the tail off of the shrimp and insert a circle hook through the meat and out through the top of the shell. A properly-sized egg sinker resting just above the eye of the circle hook completes the rig. Some of you know this as a “knocker rig.”
When fishing the local piers for sheepies, you may want to try shrimp, but have some other bait ready if the shrimp doesn’t work. Live fiddler crabs and live sand fleas are popular among pier fishers looking to hook up some sheepies. First, the pinfish don’t seem to nibble these baits off the hook like they do shrimp. Second, either of these baits are hard for a sheepshead to pass up.
Finally, the best bait for sheepies, whether fishing piers or reefs, is a tubeworm, also called plumed worms. These worms live within drinking straw-sized tubes that poke out of the sand near the low-tide line.
Finding these worms can be tough, and there’s definitely a learning curve when it comes to digging them up and storing them for later use. With this said, a little determination can lead to a bountiful reward when using tubeworms for sheepshead bait.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business charters is working reefs and rocks in Tampa Bay for sheepshead. Gross is marking structure on his depth finder, then dropping a jig to mark the spot while he anchors the boat. By dropping fresh-cut live shrimp to the bottom, Gross’ clients are reeling up sheepshead to 4 pounds. As a bonus, Gross is catching keeper-size flounder in the same areas.
Moving to the grass flats, Gross is targeting redfish and catch-and-release snook. For both species, Gross is castnetting shiners for bait. With shiners running small, Gross suggests scaling down hook size and adding a popping cork. The cork keeps your bait out of the grass, and aids in casting small baits. Gross says he likes to use a Paradise popper rigged with 20-pound fluorocarbon tied to a No. 4 Owner mosquito hook.
Jamie Foster at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge South Fishing Pier is seeing a variety of action occurring just outside the doors of the bait shop.
To start, pier fishers using live shrimp are catching sheepshead and flounder around the pier structure. For the sheepies, fresh-cut live shrimp on a small stout hook is suggested. Add enough weight to the line to keep the bait next to the pilings and start fishing.
For flounder, a whole live shrimp fished on the bottom with either a hook and weight or a jighead works.
Pier fishers using silver spoons or Gotcha plugs are still catching Spanish mackerel and bonito toward the far end of the pier. You can simply stand on the pier and wait for the schools of either species to swim by feeding on bait, and quickly cast to the outskirts of the school to start plucking out your catch.
Capt. Warren Girle is working Sarasota Bay for a number of species. He’s drifting in search of pompano, using small, yellow bullet-head jigs tipped with shrimp, and his clients are reeling up keeper-size fish.
Along with pompano, expect to catch Spanish mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish, trout and, if you’re lucky, a stray permit or two.
Moving north, Girle is targeting redfish around the mangrove shorelines at Long Bar in Sarasota Bay. Girle warns that you’ll need stealth to sneak up on them. For bait, Girle is using cut-bait or shrimp. Average size of the reds this past week was 24-28 inches.
Steve Oldham at Island Discount Tackle says it’s a good time of year to walk the beach just after sunrise in search of pompano. Arm yourself with a light spinning outfit and a pompano jig, and you’re in business. Simply walk the beach, plugging the jig until you locate the bite. Expect to also find bluefish, small mackerel and ladyfish.
Sheepshead are next on the list. Whether you’re fishing the piers or fishing structure from a boat, you can bet on catching some tasty convict fish. When fishing the piers, you may want to be somewhat strategic in your approach. Live fiddler crabs or sand fleas are a great offering but, if you’re really determined, you can’t go wrong with tubeworms. As labor intensive as this bait is to harvest, it’s worth it. Tubeworms are like candy to sheepshead.
Lastly, flounder are being caught along the island shorelines. Berkley Gulp shrimp on a red jighead is the ticket to catch some flat fish. Whether along the beaches on the Gulf side or in the canals on the bayside, flounder catches up to 20 inches are being reported.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says the sheepshead bite is happening. “We had a few days this week when they bit really well,” says Malfese.
Pier fishers using live shrimp are taking home dinner, while those willing to gather fiddlers or sand fleas are cashing in with sheepshead up to 2 pounds.
While targeting sheepshead, pier fishers are reeling up another black-and-white striped fish, the black drum. Black drum feed on the same baits as sheepies and commonly inhabit the same areas. Drum up to 5 pounds are being caught daily.
Finally, pier fishers using Berkley Gulp shrimp on a jighead at the R&R are reeling up respectable-sized flounder. Fish up to 18 inches are being caught by slowly dragging a jig along the sandy bottom next to the pier.
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