How to Catch Wary Sheepshead

Photo © Ron Brooks
Mark Duncan with a St Johns River Sheepshead. Photo © Ron Brooks

Perfect Weather

Jetty Fishing

Winter is when sheepshead make their way to the rocks and ultimately to near shore reefs for their winter and spring spawning. It’s the time of year that we catch huge – ten pounders – sheepshead on light tackle.

Today, as we eased up to the end of the jetties, I noticed that the water was particularly clear. I could see the bottom in 18 to 20 feet of water, something impossible in summer months. The huge boulders that make up the bulk of the jetty rocks, don’t just drop straight off to the bottom. They go down on a sloping line. Were you to drain the water you would see the triangular shape with a wide base on the bottom building to a rocky peak of sorts at the pinnacle. When you put water around them you can see that the water deepens gradually as you move away from the rocks. It’s important to know what’s underneath you!

In this clear, calm water, you can see everything that moves down there, and a school of ‘heads was working the rocks right under the boat. These were healthy fish – most over 5 pounds – and they were picking and feeding on and around the rocks.

I use a trolling motor to keep the boat positioned, because anchoring in these rocks can be dangerous. First of all you need a grappling anchor – one made of bendable rebar. Second, you must judge carefully to make sure your boat stays off the rocks. Wind and current dictate where and what direction you anchor. Trolling motors are just so much easier.

Sheepshead Tackle

But, this morning, the fish just did not seem interested. The least little bump we made in the boat sent a shock wave into the water and you could watch the fish react as they darted. So, we made sure we did not bang something or drop something in the boat. But, still, they did not seem to want our baits. They would look at them and nose them a bit, but they did not bite.

Adjusting to Conditions

Then as I maneuvered the boat, I moved back toward the rocks. This time I stayed about 25 feet off the rocks. The water was about 30 feet deep under the boat, and while I could see the bottom breakup pattern up next to the rocks, I could not see the fish.

Changing Presentations

This fishing is all about feeling your bait – staying in touch with your jig head. It means keeping a tight line and watching that line where it enters the water. No slack – literally. When the jig enters the water, you have about 25 or thirty feet of line out. As the jig sinks it will do so in an arc from the end of your rod – a small quarter of a semi-circle. By the time the arc gets under the boat, the jig is 25 or thirty feet deep – just the depth of water where the boat is sitting.

As the jig drops in that arc, it may – actually will is a better choice of words - come in contact with a rock outcrop. A small “tick” can be felt through the rod – but only if your line is tight. Sometimes you can see that tick if you’re watching your line where it enters the water. The key to catching ‘heads like this is to distinguish between a rock and a bite.

Feel the Bite

So – tick or bite? How do I tell the difference? When I feel something on my line – anything – I simply lift my rod slowly. It could be a tick or even just pressure on the line that was not there a second ago. Whatever – I lift my rod tip slightly. If the jig has hung a rock, I feel a solid, non-moving structure. I then shake the end of my rod – never jerking upward. That shaking will free the jig from a rock a huge percentage of the time.

If, when I lift the rod tip I feel movement – like something is moving slightly with my line, I lift higher and a little harder and begin reeling. It is usually a sheepshead, and it will inhale the bait that is apparently trying to escape. I have a very high hook-up ratio with my method – higher than most other anglers.

Well, moving away from the rocks worked today. The fish began to bite, and after my anglers learned to feel the rocks and shake off a hang-up, my re-rigging subsided substantially. We caught a limit of nice ‘heads.

Bottom Line

When you can see the fish, they can see you. It’s as simple as that. They may not actually see you, per se, but they see the boat and the reflections on the surface, and that makes them wary. So, when the water is clear, plan to move away and make longer casts. You will catch more fish.