Sheepshead season in early stages, savy anglers hook up

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Dick “Redhook” Fye from Kokomo, Indiana, shows a nice sheepshead he caught while fishing at the Rod & Reel Pier.
Patrick Meko of Louisville shows off a 38-inch amberjack he caught Feb 6 while fishing offshore with Capt. David White of Anna Maria charters.
Peter Lofaso Jr., left, and Peter Lofaso Sr. double-teamed this tough amberjack Feb. 2, taking turns in the fight to get it to the boat. They fished offshore of Anna Maria Island in about 120 feet of water using live grunts for bait. The Lofasos also caught large red grouper, snapper and battled a goliath grouper until it pulled loose. They were guided to the fish by Capt Larry McGuire.
Ian True and Sam True of Anna Maria Island, Emmanuel Petkas of Georgia and Kevin Hendrickson of Virginia find success Feb. 2 with trout, pompano and mackerel on a guided fishing trip in Sarasota Bay with Capt. Warren Girle.

Fishing around Anna Maria Island remains consistent. Consistently good.

With spring-like conditions dominating our weather, fishers are venturing outdoors in droves to soak up the warm Florida sunshine and hook up with the bite and dinner.

Sheepshead season, which arrives with winter, is still in its early stages due to the mild temperatures in the waters, which leaves plenty of anglers filled with the anticipation of enjoying a nice fish fry.

Sheepshead are a favorite among fishers in our area. Whether you’re fishing from shore or from a boat, finding access to these tasty striped fish should be fairly easy as long as you do your homework.

If you’re a shore fisher, the advance scouting could be as easy as taking a walk on a pier. You can’t beat a meal at the Rod & Reel Pier and great views of Tampa Bay, where you can see the fish around the pilings.

Those who opt to fish from a boat should be able to find sheepies fairly easily, too. Most of the local reefs will be holding fish. And if you don’t have a GPS on the boat, try casting to the pilings at the bridges or the docks in the residential canals. As long as there are barnacles growing on the pilings, your chance of finding a sheepshead are pretty good.

Once you load your stringer or the cooler with fish, it’s time to enjoy a nice fish dinner. For frying purposes, my family and I like to cut the fillets into nuggets, bread and deep-fry them. For breading, we have a couple of favorites we like to use. One is Zatarain’s Wonderful Fish Fri. This one is easy. You simply put the mixture in a plastic bag, add sheep nuggets and shake vigorously, making sure all the pieces of fish are fully coated.

Another seasoning we like is Drake’s Crispy Fry Mix. With this seasoning, you make beer batter. It might make a little mess in the kitchen, but it’s worth the effort in flavor and a crispy texture. Just dip the nuggets in the beer batter — made by following the recipe on the box — and into the hot oil it goes.

And there they are. Tasty nuggets of goodness. A little of your favorite tartar sauce and a squeeze of fresh lemon and you’re eating some fine fish. What better way to enjoy a warm Florida evening in February? Bring on some cold beers and good company — just don’t forget the sheepshead.

Capt. David White of Anna Maria Charters is fishing inshore around local docks and bridges for sheepshead. Using live shrimp combined with a knocker rig is producing a bite for White and his anglers. Sheepies up to 6-pounds are being caught, as well an occasional black drum and redfish.

Fishing offshore for amberjack also is productive for White’s charters. For bait, White is casting free-lined pilchards, pinfish and blue runners to attract a bite. While targeting amberjack, he’s also hooking up plenty of bonito.

Jim Malfese, who helps folks get hooked up at the Rod & Reel Pier, says more numbers of sheepshead are beginning to arrive at Anna Maria Island’s northernmost pier. Pier fishers using live bait are reeling up convict fish with some consistency. According to Malfese, most of the regular anglers who target sheepshead anticipate the bite will steadily get better in the next couple of weeks.

Aside from sheepshead, pier fishers using bait up shrimp or use small jigs are hooking into a few pompano. Bouncing shrimp-tipped jigs along the sandy bottom outward from the pier is resulting in a bite. Flounder, jack crevalle and blue runners are being caught in the same fashion.

Capt. Warren Girle is drifting the deeper grass flats of Sarasota Bay for a variety of catches. Small jigs tipped with shrimp are enticing pompano to bite, as well as bluefish, ladyfish and jack crevalle. Switching over to a jig head combined with a soft plastic grub is attracting a bite. Spotted seatrout are readily eating these soft plastics when cast into deeper potholes throughout the flat.

Working docks and canals, where casting live shrimp is proving most effective for sheepshead, black drum and redfish on Girle’s charters.

Capt. Aaron Lowman also is working the nearshore structure with good results. With live shrimp as bait, Lowman is putting anglers on hogfish, porgies, sheepshead and white grunts. Dropping baits to the bottom around ledges and rock piles is the key to Lowman’s success, including mangrove snapper and juvenile grouper in these same areas.

Moving to the flats, Lowman is putting some Berkley Gulp shrimp to work. This popular, scented soft plastic combined with a 1/4-ounce jig head is leading many bites from redfish, trout and flounder. Working this lure on a slow retrieve and a bounce off the bottom is Lowman’s tip for success.

Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business is keeping busy on the water, drifting the flats of Anna Maria Sound in search of spotted seatrout. While doing a drift, Gross and his anglers are casting soft plastics combined with a jig head throughout the deeper grass flats and especially on the edges of the sandy potholes. This method of fishing is resulting in keeper-size trout, as well as a variety of other species — jack crevalle, ladyfish and bluefish.

Gross also is fishing nearshore structure for sheepshead. Live shrimp, fished on a bottom rig around artificial reefs, wrecks and rock piles is resulting in sheepshead up to 5 pounds.

Capt. Jason Stock is running his anglers offshore for hogfish. By fishing around reefs, ledges and wrecks with live shrimp, Stock is leading his clients to some of the best tasting fish available. Mixed in with the hogs are porgies, white grunts and mangrove snapper. Most hogfish catches are in the 2-pound range, although Stock says fish exceeding 5 pounds are not uncommon.

Trolling for grouper also is on Stock’s agenda. By trolling lipped plugs around inshore and nearshore reefs, Stock’s clients are hooking into gag grouper — some exceeding 30 inches in length.

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