What started as a subtle, barely noticeable nibble turned into a major tug of war when the striped fish steadily yanked line from the reel and bent the rod almost to the breaking point as it lumbered toward the rocks.
Big sheepshead love hard structure such as the twin rocky jetties marking the mouth of Perdido Pass near Orange Beach, Ala. They also frequently lurk around bridge or dock pilings, reefs, petroleum platforms, wrecks, or any other solid structures that hold barnacles. Anglers often see sheepshead munching barnacles, crushing the sedentary crustaceans growing on rocks or pilings with their molar-like flat teeth.
“In the spring, sheepshead congregate in big numbers around the rock jetties at Perdido Pass to spawn,” advised Marty Starling of Salty Dog Charters in Orange Beach. “They’ll also hold around the Highway 182 Bridge pilings. They eat the barnacles and crabs on the rocks. They really like fiddler crabs and even eat small oysters.”
Sometimes called convict fish for their striped coloration and an innate ability to quickly and easily steal bait from hooks, sheepshead can provide incredible action on light tackle. One of the most abundant and powerful fish in coastal waters, sheepshead rely upon brute strength rather than speed and flash. They often hunker down in entangling cover and dare anglers to bring them to the boat.
Often overlooked by anglers seeking speckled trout or redfish, sheepshead can grow up to 20 pounds. On April 1, 2015, Branden Collier topped the Alabama state record for sheepshead with a 13-pound, 9-ounce fish he caught just west of Perdido Pass near Fort Morgan by Gulf Shores, Ala. He caught it on a hermit crab.
“Often, the bigger sheepshead will be in the Gulf of Mexico,” Starling explained. “The close platforms off Fort Morgan are good places to look for big sheepshead. Many new reefs they put out north of Perdido Pass can also hold some good sheepshead, flounder and speckled trout.”
Catching sheepshead doesn’t take much finesse, but it does require stout equipment. With powerful jaws studded with strong teeth, sheepshead can mangle tackle. They frequently bite hooks in half or pop lines.
Despite their powerful jaws and impressive dental equipment, sheepshead gingerly nibble baits and don’t rush out to attack food. Almost timidly, they examine morsels before deciding to taste them. Often, anglers don’t even detect subtle strikes. Sometimes, the line simply feels heavy or mushy. Anglers must pay attention to subtle tugs. A sheepshead can quickly strip bait from a hook.
Sheepshead occasionally hit flies or other lures, but prefer natural bait. They’ll readily gobble live or fresh shrimp, but also eat live minnows, clams, squid and sometimes even cut bait. More than anything, they relish small, live blue crabs, or fiddlers.
Since they commonly hang around jetties, seawalls and docks, sheepshead offer outstanding opportunities for boatless anglers to land powerful fish. To keep more sheepshead around their favorite fishing places, some people crack clams, or crush crabs and dump them into the water. Other people use rakes or shovels to scrape barnacles off rocks or pilings to chum for sheepshead.
Many anglers without access to boats walk out on the Perdido Pass jetties to tempt sheepshead. Besides sheepshead, they might also catch pompano, redfish, speckled trout, flounder, Spanish mackerel, and other fish. People with boats can find a variety of fish in the Gulf of Mexico and the rich estuary north of Perdido Pass.
“Perdido Pass can be an exceptional place to catch a variety of fish,” Starling said. “The fishing is different every time we go. One day, we might catch redfish and flounder. The next day, we might catch sheepshead and pompano. Mackerel sometimes come up all the way to the shoreline. Right outside the pass are some big sandbars. That’s a great area to fish for king mackerel.”
Perdido Pass separates Alabama Point from Florida Point at the mouth of the Perdido River. It connects Perdido Bay with the Gulf about two miles west of the Alabama-Florida line. The Perdido River flows about 65 miles from Escambia County near Atmore, Ala., and forms a portion of the Alabama-Florida line.
“The Perdido River estuary is a good place to look for speckled trout,” Starling recommended. “Redfish are all over the bays. Anywhere that people can find bait is usually a good place to fish. When I go fishing, I just look at the water and let it take me where we need to go.”
For booking trips, call Starling at 251-979-2447. On line, see saltydogcharters.net.
Top Photo: Christine Carpenter holds up a sheepshead she caught while fishing with Marty Starling of Salty Dog Charters at Perdido Pass