Pre-spawn sheepshead still the focus for winter fishers
With recent cold fronts and strong winds, sheepshead remain the steady focus. Numbers are increasing around docks, piers and artificial reefs. These fish are schooling up to spawn, and it’s critical to find pre-spawn fish if you plan on catching the 4-6 pounders. Once these fish have spawned, you’ll see a decline in the bite and size.
In spots where you’re catching larger fish, expect to catch fish in the 1- to 2-pound range after they spawn. While fishing the piers where there is more pressure on these fish, it may be wise to switch up baits. The sheepies may bite on shrimp at first, and next turn their noses. Try carrying some live fiddler crabs or sand fleas so you have options. If you can get tubeworms for bait, your stringer will look more impressive than most. Sheepies love tubeworms.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business charters is targeting a number of species based on the weather conditions. On cold, windy days, Gross is dock fishing for sheepshead. On warmer days, redfish and spotted seatrout on the flats of Sarasota Bay are the target.
For the sheepies, Gross is anchoring close to docks and casting live shrimp with a knocker rig, putting his bait on the bottom. Sheepshead in the 1- to 2-pound range are the norm. While fishing docks, expect to catch flounder, redfish and black drum.
On the flats, Gross is combining a MirrOlure Lil John with a 1/4-ounce jighead to drift the flats in search of trout. By drifting and jigging, Gross is catching trout ranging 12-20 inches. While targeting trout with jigs, Gross also is catching flounder, bluefish and some stray mackerel.
By fishing sandy potholes adjacent to mangrove islands, Gross is finding decent numbers of catch-and-release snook. Live shiners are the bait of choice — if available. Average sizes of the snook are 22-26 inches, although bigger females are in the mix.
Capt. Warren Girle is targeting schooling redfish in Sarasota Bay using a variety of baits depending on the mood of the reds. To start, Girle is fishing top-water plugs like Sebile lures or Rapala Skitterwalks. These lures produce well in the early morning or during low-light conditions. As the sun rises higher in the sky, Girle is switching to soft plastics combined with a lead jig head. MirrOlure Lil John’s are preferred by Girle.
Finally, if the reds don’t cooperate, Girle has a surefire way to get them to bite. After catching a few ladyfish, Girle cuts them in small chunks and baits his hook. Casting to the outskirts of the school, Girle gets the “reluctant reds” to eat his offering. Upper-slot redfish were the norm in the past week.
By jigging the deeper flats of Sarasota, Girle is picking up an assortment of species — pompano, permit, bluefish, ladyfish and mackerel to name a few.
Finally, by jigging sandy potholes on shallow flats, Girle is finding good numbers of spotted seatrout. Average size is 15-20 inches, although fish up to 24 inches are being caught.
Grady Smith at Island Discount Tackle says sheepshead anglers are arriving in droves in search of some tasty zebra-striped fish. Small stout hooks and numerous varieties of terminal tackle used for sheepies are flying off the store shelves. Most sheepherders are purchasing live shrimp to try their luck. Others are using live sand fleas harvested on the beach with a sand flea rake.
On the flats, spotted seatrout and redfish are being caught on artificials or live bait. For artificials, Smith suggests a Berkley Gulp shrimp combined with a 1/4-ounce jighead. For live bait, shrimp is the ticket for success.
Finally, Smith says he’s hearing of some good catch-and-release snook action when conditions are favorable. Warm days and high tides are the recipe for finding this sought-after game fish.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says, “The sheepies are on the march.”
Pier fishers are flocking to the R&R to get in on the action. Preferred baits are live shrimp or fiddlers, although sand fleas are working, too. Expect to catch sheepies in the 1-2 pound range around the pier. There are bigger ones down there, but it takes determination or luck to get them to bite.
Black drum and flounder are being caught by pier fishers targeting sheepies. Both the drum and the flounder will readily take a live shrimp so be prepared for variety.
Finally, stray pompano are being caught at the pier. They haven’t arrived in good numbers, according to Malfese, but he expects the bite to turn on in the next few weeks. Most pompano being caught the past week were barely the minimum size of 11 inches to the fork of the tail.
Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier says everyone is concentrating on sheepshead this week. Fiddler crabs and sand fleas are producing a bite, along with live shrimp, although pier fishers using tubeworms are dominating the catch. Sheepies up to 2 pounds are being caught daily with a few bigger females mixed in.
Flounder also are taking up residence under the pier. Most are being caught on live shrimp or Berkley Gulp shrimp worked under and around the edges of the pier.
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