Sheepshead, also called Convict fish or Bait Stealer, is some of the best inshore and nearshore sportfishing, especially during this spawn. It’s rewarding because pound for pound, they put up an excellent fight on light tackle, have higher creel limits than Redfish and it is one the tastiest fish to come out of this water. It’s challenging because they have very small mouths compared to the size of their body with powerful jaws and mammal like teeth. Often you have to haul them away from the structure before your line gets broke off from barnacles on the structure. Sheepshead aren’t aggressive by nature so you have to pay attention or they will slurp the bait off your hook. Don’t let them get the best of you! Remember they are called “bait stealers” or convict fish for a reason. Bring plenty of bait and be prepare to go through some tackle! A good rule of thumb is 4-5 fiddler crabs or other bait of choice to catch a Sheepshead.
Fiddler crabs have proven to be the most consistent bait and our bait of choice but Sheepshead will also eat sand fleas “live” or fresh dead shrimp, cut pieces of fresh blue crab and oyster pieces. Sheepshead are common from 1-4 pounds and plentiful in the 5-7 pound range in Mobile Bay. During the Spawn, it is common for anglers to routinely catch 10-plus pound Sheepshead at the gas wells and pilings scattered throughout southern Mobile Bay. The key is structure, anywhere you find structure (piers, oyster beds, wells/rigs, jetties) that has barnacles. You can also have success catching Sheepshead on Oyster Shell reefs during the spawn.
We catch Sheepshead using light spinning tackle with a rod that has a fast tip so we can get a good hookset. We use 15-20 lb fluorocarbon leaders with a small, very sharp circle hook (1/0 preferred). They have tough mouths so use the sharpest hooks. We place small pinch weights located about 12 inches from the hook but in a strong current we may also use a small swivel with a quarter to half oz. egg sinker and about 16 inches of fluorocarbon leader. Drop the bait straight down or cast up current. You want to let the current drift the bait into the strike zone. It is important to keep your line tight so you can feel the fish. Most anglers lose their bait because of a slack line.
If we see green algae on the rocks, jetties or pilings we move on. Algae means too much fresh water and you need to find more salinity. With all the rain in January and February we are fishing the far south well heads in Mobile Bay and the nearshore wells a few miles offshore. We will cast 4 or 5 times in all directions to locate the fish then try and start a feeding frenzy by either scraping barnacles off the structure or we might bring a bucket of fresh crushed oyster shells that we throw up current around the structure. Before moving to another spot make sure you cast in all directions from the boat. Sheepshead are circling vertically in the water column and usually 10 feet in either direction can be the difference in finding the strike zone.
I don’t know which is better catching a mess of Sheepshead or eating them. It’s not as fishy tasting as some other local species. They have a white, flakey fillet that can be prepared in numerous ways. My 1st introduction to Sheepshead was at an outdoor grill party with a self-serve Taco Bar. It was very entertaining and the tacos were delicious. I was hooked and have adjusted this recipe to my taste which will feed 6 hungry adults easily.
Grilled Sheepshead Soft TacosIngredients for Taco Mix: 3 fresh limes 1 halved the other two cut in wedges to be used when making the taco. Place the wedges in a small serving bowl for later. In a large serving bowl add the following: 1/2 cup of shredded cilantro, 2 cup of fresh diced tomatoes (use canned diced plum tomatoes if in a pinch), 2 jalapeno peppers deseeded and finely chopped, one medium red onion chopped, 2 cups of angel hair coleslaw, ground black pepper and kosher salt to taste, fresh lime juice from one of the lime halves. Mix all the ingredients together and set this serving bowl aside.
Ingredients for the Taco Spread: In a medium serving bowl combine 1 cup of mayo, 1 cup of Sour Cream, 1 teaspoon of smoked chili powder, 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1 teaspoon of paprika, 1 tablespoon of chipotle hot sauce and mix all the ingredients thoroughly, set aside for later. (I have used a full packet of Taco Bell packaged seasoning from the grocery on a camping trip instead of the spices and it was good.)Note: Both the Taco Spread and Mix can be prepared well in advance and kept in the refrigerator or your guests can participate in the prep work. You can cook the fish fillet inside on medium heat in a large skillet and it will be fabulous, however, we prefer the outdoor grilling experience for taste, presentation and we enjoy making it an event for our dinner guests.
Preparing Sheepshead: 2-3 lbs of Sheepshead fillets generously covered in olive oil and set out on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle Fillets on both sides with either Old Bay Seasoning, Emeril’s Essence Seasoning or Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning. I have used them all and liked the results.
Grilling Tacos – On a Gas Grill preheated to medium hot (about 400 degrees) quickly place the fish fillets on a preheated stainless steel or aluminum disposable grilling tray used for veggies/fish. Grill with lid closed for 3 minutes, then open the lid and flip the filets. Close the lid again and cook for and additional 2-3 minutes depending on size of fillets. Pull the fish fillets off the grill and put them back on the wiped down cookie sheet, cutting each fillet in 3rds (long length works best).Set all three bowls (Taco Mix, Taco Spread and bowl of lime wedges) and the grilled Sheepshead on taco bar/table and have have all dinner guests present and ready to make their tacos. Grilling the soft taco is a very fast process!
I explain to everyone my recommendation on making their tacos (order in which to place the ingredients).
Making The Taco – use a spoon to spread taco sauce on the grilled taco shell, place Sheepshead fillet in a straight line through the center about an inch from each end, spoon the taco mix on the Sheepshead fillets, squeeze a fresh lime wedge on the mix, and the last step is to sprinkle a few drops of your favorite hot sauce on top (I use Louisiana Hot Sauce) fold it over and dig in!
Grilling Soft Tacos – I prefer the 12″ large soft taco but regular size tacos will also work. Use a plastic spray bottle filled with water and 3 tablespoons of cooking oil. Mist both sides of soft tacos.. I can only cook three at a time myself because it goes fast and you don’t want to burn them. Place the soft tacos on the grill still at 400 degrees cook for 30 seconds. Work them up with a spatula and flip them as quick as you can cooking the other side for 20 seconds (tip: if it is sticking give it a few more seconds it’s still moist). Three dinner guests should be standing with their plate in hand for you to place a fresh grilled flour taco. I then wait until the first two people have finished making their tacos and then begin the same process to grill three more soft tacos. After I eat, we start the entire process over again for seconds.