Cooler weather signals start for sheepherding season

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Sheepshead. Islander Graphic: Courtesy FWC

As we settle into February, you can expect the fishing around Anna Maria Island to settle into its wintertime pattern.       With stronger colder fronts moving in and cooler water temperatures, we should begin to see a good influx of sheepshead moving into our area.

As these tasty fish prepare to spawn, they school up, making them targets for anglers. They’ve also been feeding heavily, which makes them more apt to eat a bait on a hook.

The key to finding sheepshead is structure. And what’s great is, structure can be anything — docks, bridges, reefs, wrecks and rock piles. For those who fish from land, the fishing piers and bridges provide a great environment to target sheepies. For those fishing from a boat, wrecks and reefs are a go-to during sheepshead season.  And docks in residential canals offer a spot out of the wind.

Now that you know where to find them, you need to consider what bait to use to catch them. Sheepshead like crustaceans, so you’re going to want to think along those lines. Live shrimp work well and are probably the most accessible bait to everyone. Other crustaceans — fiddler crabs and sand fleas — are great for bait. However, these require some effort on the fisher’s part, as they generally have to be harvested.

You can probably buy the fiddlers and I know you can buy sand fleas, but the ones you catch are superior to the store-bought baits. The fiddlers are hard to buy consistently and the sand fleas only can be purchased frozen, which is not a good product.

So, if you want to use sand fleas, you’re better off hunting your own with a sand flea rake — a tool with a long handle and a wire basket fixed to one end. You drag the basket in the sand at the shore break and, with a little luck, you’ll sift out some fleas. This may not be as easy as you think. You may have to do some searching to find the right beach. With beach renourishment along Anna Maria Island, sand flea populations have diminished so some searching may be required.

As for fiddler crabs, they’re also not so easy to procure. First, you need to find areas where they are abundant. Usually, areas that are exposed during low tide along the shore where numerous mangroves exist are ideal. Again, doing your homework to find your target area may take a little time and effort. And once you find an area, you’ll want to keep it a secret, so no one else raids your bait spot.

I remember growing up here as a boy being sworn to secrecy by my father about our fiddler crab spots. Showing up to catch your bait and discovering someone else had already been there was never a good sign. Sometimes it would take hours to find a new spot. And those were hours you weren’t fishing.

Catching fleas or fiddlers may not be for the average angler, but, there’s always shrimp. Live shrimp are readily available for purchase at your local bait shop and don’t require a lot of hassle. A 5-gallon bucket and an aerator complete the preparation. And, with a bit of cash to purchase shrimp, you’re on your way.

For the experienced sheepherder, I’m sure you know a few other baits that work well, maybe best. And, you’re in luck because I’m not going to mention them. Your secret is safe with me. It boggles my mind the way people will give up their hard work to find fish just to post it on Facebook.

Now you’ve got bait and you generally know where to look for sheepies. As far as rigging goes, I suggest using a small, stout hook. Sheepshead have a boney mouth that can do a number on a normal hook. You’re going to be fishing around structure, so a fluorocarbon leader of 20- to 30-pound test might be a good idea, too. Add weight to the rig to secure your bait close to the bottom and you’re in business. And remember, a keeper sheepshead needs to be 12 inches in length and your daily bag limit is eight fish.

On my Southernaire charters, I’m seeing the beginnings of the sheepshead bite.

I’m putting 8-10 sheepies in the box a day and rounding out the bite with black drum and catch-and-release redfish.

I’m seeing an abundance of bonnethead sharks along the beaches, which is fun for some anglers but a nuisance for others. Jigging over deep grass areas is producing a few pompano, but I’ve yet to hit the gold mine. I predict that as we progress through February and into March, we’ll see better numbers of these fish — little golden nuggets in a fry pan.

Capt. Aaron Lowman is finding his best action while fishing ledges and other structure in the Gulf of Mexico. Finding a window to fish these nearshore areas can be challenging, but if you fish when conditions are favorable, be ready to hook into a lot of fish.

Using live shrimp on a bottom rig in these areas is resulting in hogfish, Key West grunts, porgies, mangrove snapper and sheepshead. All of these fish are suited for the frying pan.

On windier days when the Gulf is not accessible, Lowman is fishing docks and seawalls in residential canals, where the waters are calm. In these areas, black drum, sheepshead and catch-and-release redfish are being caught on live shrimp.

Capt. Warren Girle is following a winter-type pattern of fishing to lead his clients to successful days on the water. Casting live shrimp around docks and seawalls is resulting in numerous catch-and-release redfish, most measuring 16-24 inches.

Along with the reds, Girle is putting clients on black drum, sheepshead and an occasional flounder. This fishing is most effective on the colder days of winter. It also provides some shelter from the wind when the weather is less favorable for fishing in open waters.

On warmer, less windy days, Girle is fishing over deep grass flats in open water, where casting jigs is attracting variety, including bluefish, jack crevalle, spotted seatrout and, most importantly, pompano.

Lastly, fishing in the Gulf around reefs and ledges is producing action on sheepshead, mangrove snapper, Key West grunts and juvenile groupers.

Capt. Jason Stock is keeping his clients entertained with big amberjack. These AJs come in the 80-pound class and are worthy adversaries for even the most experienced angler. Goliath grouper are another “big catch” that Stock is putting anglers on. These fish, which remain in the water for a quick release, are in excess of 250 pounds.

Catching fish for dinner also is on Stock’s agenda while offshore. Mangrove and lane snapper are being caught frequently, as well as Key West grunts, porgies and almaco jacks.

Capt. David White of Anna Maria Charters is fishing inshore for a variety of species. Sheepshead are providing the best action, with some topping out at 21 inches. Using small pieces of fresh-cut shrimp on a weighted jig ensures a good set. Black drum and pompano are being caught on shrimp and are being found along sandy shorelines and some grass areas. Catch-and-release redfish are keeping White’s clients busy, too. These fish are being caught while dock fishing in canals.

Jim Malfese at the R&R Pier says pier fishers baiting with live shrimp are finding a bite. With patience and persistence, fishers are catching some sheepshead, black drum and whiting. Catch-and-release redfish are in the mix on some days.

Casting jigs from the pier is resulting in some action, especially on jack crevalle. An occasional mackerel is being caught on a jig as well, although targetable numbers are not apparent. The best bet for a bite is to soak live shrimp under the pier on a bottom rig.

Send high-resolution photos and fishing reports to fish@islander.org.