As we wait for the cold grips of north Florida winter to pass, we start dreaming of the spring fish runs. Typically, the first species that is easily targeted is the Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus). These fish make for great table fare and can be caught in good numbers (see regulations below) when they migrate nearshore to spawn in the late winter and early spring.
Sizes and Regulations
The minimum total length required to keep this species is 12 inches. While the legal daily bag limit is 15 fish per person, most local anglers advocate only harvesting what you will eat or up to 5 a day. This is to help maintain local fish stocks from over fishing. There are plenty of sheepshead here locally and we hope to keep it that way for our future generations. You are also allowed to harvest them while spearfishing or gigging. The current regulations can be found at the FWC web page.
Species Description and Identification
This Species belongs to the porgy family of fishes and are the most easily recognizable member of this family. Their most distinct feature is their 5-6 vertical black bars against their grey-white body. Along with other porgies, the sheepshead have incisor-like front teeth, with molars set further back. While the Florida state record is 15 pounds, 2 ounces, the typical sheepshead is 10-24 inches long and weighs about 2-4 pounds. They have a single dorsal fin with 12 large, sharp, dorsal spines and an anal fin with 3 spines. Be mindful of these spines and of their sharp gill cover (operculum) when cleaning your fish as they can poke and cut you. This species can often be mistaken for juvenile black drum (Pogonias cromis). There are several key differences between the sheepshead and the black drum that can help you tell them apart. The most obvious difference is that the black drum has several pairs of barbels under its chin. Also, the black drum has only 4 black vertical bars, while the sheepshead has 5-6 bars. Another, less obvious difference is the dorsal fin. The black drum has one continuous, but deeply notched dorsal fin, while sheepshead’s dorsal fin has a more continuous profile. The black drum has a nearly straight caudal fin. Whereas the sheepshead has a much more forked caudal fin. A more in-depth overview can be found at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce’s website.
Habitat and Diet
During the late winter and early spring, the sheepshead congregate in large schools to feed and breed. They are commonly found near the jetties, oyster beds, muddy and rocky bottoms, around docks, and near bridge and pier pilings. Nearshore wrecks and artificial reefs in waters up to 40 feet deep are also good places to find sheepshead. Sheepshead will eat a variety of live and natural baits, which makes them an easy to catch. The most common bait anglers use is live shrimp, but they will feed on ghost shrimp, oysters, fiddler crabs, small blue crabs and even sand fleas.
Gear and Tackle
Sheepshead can be caught on relatively light tackle which makes for an awesome fight. A typical setup is a 2000-4000 class spinning reel with 15-20 pound braided or monofiliment line on a 7 foot, medium to medium light action, rod. There are two main types of terminal rigs used when targeting this species: the Carolina rig and the three way swivel rig. Both rigs will use a 14-24 inch leader between the hook and the swivel. The weight you use will mostly be dependent on the tide and current you are fishing in, but typically a 2-3 ounce weight is more than sufficient. Hook size will depend on angler preference and bait type but a circle hook ranging from 2 to 2/0 is most common. This fish has fairly good vision so you may need to use longer leaders and smaller tackle to get weary fish to bite.