FOLLOW THE FISH
Capt. Pete Rapps
Wintertime here in Southwest Florida is synonymous with the arrival of huge flocks of snowbirds, but did you know that convicts arrive here in big numbers too? Yes it’s true, but these are much welcomed convicts…AKA Sheepshead fish. These fish begin to arrive in big numbers about this time each year to spawn. They inhabit many of our near shore structures, oyster bars and the deeper mangrove pockets in the back county river mouths. We call them convicts because of the black and white stripes they “wear.”
In addition to being called convicts, sheepshead are sometimes referred to as the convict fish, Seabream Sheepshead and Southern Sheepshead. They are distributed in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, with the densest populations being here in Southwest Florida. Sheepshead are also found in smaller numbers off the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America, south to Brazil.
The teeth of the sheepshead include well-defined incisors, grinders and molars. In the front of its mouth are the incisor- like teeth. These teeth look nothing like any other fish’s, but more resemble that of a human. I had an orthodontist out last fall, who was completely intrigued with the teeth of the Sheepshead. It was funny; he spent a good part of the day admiring the fish’s teeth.
Sheepshead are most commonly caught in our area in the 2-5 pound range and average 12”-18” in length. They must be at least 12” to keep and currently the catch limit is 15 per person per day. They are thought to live about 20 years and can grow to about 20 pounds. They reach reproductive maturity in about two years. During the fall and winter spawning season, they are thought to lay between 10,000 to 70,000 eggs every 28 days.
Sheepshead are omnivorous fish, feeding primarily on small crabs, oysters, clams and shrimp. The sheepshead uses its impressive teeth to crush shelled prey and to scrape barnacles from rocks and pilings.
Sheepshead are highly valued for human consumption due to their mild flavor and delicate white flesh. They are difficult to clean and fillet because of the sharp spines on their back and thick skin and scales. At the fillet table, I like to use a pair of thick gloves to handle the fish, and an electric fillet knife to cut through their thick skin.
When fishing for sheepshead, I like to use live shrimp with a 2’-3’ long leader made of 20# test fluorocarbon and a #2 hook. They will feed very lightly….. you will think a small snapper is nibbling on your bait. The trick here is to let him eat for a few seconds before trying to set the hook. It takes patience and discipline to hook these tricksters, but once you do it a few times, you will get the hang of it.
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