Welcome to our “How to Catch Sheepshead – A Complete Guide” where we give you from A to Z how to catch this tricky prison-striped fish with a head that looks like a sheep.

Sheepsheads are a tricky fish to catch sometimes, but absolutely EPIC EATING! Possibly our personal favorite fish to eat. Find out which bait, lures, rod, reel, and best areas to catch SHEEPIES now.

[Page Updated – 14 August 2022. Bookmark this page (Windows CNTRL+D, MAC CMD+D) so you don’t lose it.]



Size: 3/10,  Fight: 3/10,  Difficulty to Catch: 4/10,  Taste: 10/10

INDEX to Sections in this Guide:

PRO TIP – Sheepsheads are also called Sheepies, Jailbirds, Convict fish (convicts), Sheeps, Cheaps, and Bait Stealers. Some call them fish with human teeth and fish with ugly teeth.

Florida sheepshead fish drawing for detailed examination showing dark bands.
This drawing is close to the real-life coloration of sheepshead fish. Light with 5-7 thick dark bands.

Sheepshead Fish Facts

Species: Archosargus probatocephalus

Similar Species: Grunts (Pinfish), Porgies, Snapper.

Conservation Status: Least Concern as identified by IUCNRedlist.org.

Length: They grow to a maximum size of around 30 inches.

Weight: The average is less than a pound.

World Record Size: The biggest ever caught came from Louisiana on April 16, 1982 when Mr. Wayne Desselle of New Orleans caught the biggest one every measured and photographed. Here they show it laying next to a yardstick.

This one is about 28 inches long. This huge sheepie weighed 21 lbs. 4 oz. Wayne caught it on a live shrimp.

Florida Record: The biggest fish to come out of Florida happened way back in 1981 when E. Lechler pulled in a massive fish weighing 15 lb. 2 oz.

Sheepshead State Records

Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) State Records, USA.
State records for sheepshead in the United States. © Salty101.com

Description: They look very much like big pinfish that are light-colored and with dark almost black bands encircling the fish like a belt. The fish looks like it is in a prison uniform and is sometimes called the convict fish.

Range/Distribution: .

Common in certain areas of the world. Please note the map below showing where they are resident.

Why Catch This Fish?

If you get a chance to fish in Florida, there are a couple of fish you’re going to want to target. Some you target for the thrill of it – like Tarpon, Snook, Cobia, Amberjack. Others you target because they’re just so difficult to catch – like Bonefish.

Still others, you target because they are the best-tasting fish you may ever eat. THAT is the Sheephead. Catch a couple and broil them in your oven with the recipe at the bottom of this page. That’s why!

  1. They are SO DELICIOUS. One of our top 3 tasting fish. Others are Pompano and Wahoo.
  2. Sheepshead can be a CHALLENGE. They’re not hard to find, but they can be hard to catch if you don’t have the right rig. Check out our rig and catching suggestions below.

Where To Find Sheephead Fish?

Habitat –  Any structure in the shallows to about 30 meters. Usually within the first 10-20 meters of the surface. Even as shallow as 2-3 feet. Toss your live or dead bait over by the concrete piling, pier, bridge, or any vertical manmade surface in the ocean and you might find sheepies there.

They love rocky and barnacle-covered areas. They will chew barnacles and eat crustaceans. Their mouth is like a vice and they chew up shell and all, extracting the organism and spitting the shells.

It isn’t difficult to locate some of these wiley fish. I found some at the end of the canal near our apartments on Highway 60 in Clearwater. I found them on piers like the Sunshine Skyway and Gandy Bridge over in St. Petersburg and Tampa.

I found them over at Sebastian Inlet. They’re ubiquitous and fun to catch because you can usually grab a whole mess of them. The limit now is 8 per person, so it’s an easy way to catch a meal for the family.

Florida sheepshead fish from the front showing the teeth.
Sheepshead teeth don’t look all that different from human incisors!

Diet – What Do They Eat?

  • shrimp
  • fiddler crabs
  • stone crabs
  • mud crabs
  • barnacles
  • sand fleas
  • sand crabs
  • fresh shrimp
  • oysters & mussels
  • barnacles
  • mollusks

In short, any crustacean, barnacle, anything with a shell. The mouth of the sheepheads fish is lined with very strong grinding teeth like our molars. The roof of their mouth is also lined with crushing boney teeth. They can easily chew up barnacles to reach the meat.

Sometimes you can hear them above a pier chewing barnacles. If you ever wanted to attract some sheepshead, scrape the side of the pier and let the barnacles float into the water, the sheepies will come if they’re in the area.

Best Bait to Use on a Hook?

Mud crabs are fantastic bait for all porgies! Find the brown mud crabs in the muddy oyster flats – roll the oyster clusters and the mud crabs will be underneath. Any size works.

Collect at least a few dozen because the attrition rate (loss rate) while your fishing, is sometimes severe. You’ll want to have enough bait that you don’t need to go looking for more mud crabs in the middle of fishing.

How to Catch – Techniques

From a Small Boat – Kayak, Canoe

Keep your mud crabs in a bucket in your kayak that they can’t get out of, and make sure they’re not in direct hot sun. They hide under oysters and rocks for a reason. To stay cool!

Paddle up to your favorite boat dock, pier, concrete wall, or anything vertical in the water and prepare your live bait. Live bait is always best, but we’ll also tell you how to give artificial lures a try as well.

Artificial lures don’t do too well with sheepies because they are destroyed by the very strong chewing action of these fish. Still, if you can’t find live bait you’re going to want to try to catch yourself some anyway.

When Is the Best Time to Catch Them?

I think anytime is a good time to get out there and try your luck at finding some of these convict fish. Once you do find a productive spot, you can go back time after time and not fish the area out.

There are hundreds of thousands of these fish and when one area loses too many, more come from elsewhere. There’s a good reason Florida State allows 8 fish per day per person.

That’s 2,920 sheepies per year if you were serious about it!

Some people are serious about this fish and go almost daily. There are people fishing for sheepies to use in restaurants because the taste is so amazing.

Gear – Light, but Strong

Best Rod for Sheepies?

Literally anything. Any UglyStik will work well, as will just about anything, like a piece of bamboo with line on the end of it. There’s no reason to set the hook hard with these fish.

Using circle hooks to release the sheepshead after catching doesn’t require setting the hook at all. Sheepies are caught by any and everyone who has the time and patience to find them.

Ugly Stick 7′ GX2 Inshore Rod for Spinning Reel (Sheepshead) – Best all-around 7-foot Inshore Rod for Sheepshead and other fish

Ugly Stick 6.5-7′ GX2 Inshore Rod for Baitcasting Reel – Best 6.5-7 foot Inshore Rod for Baitcasting

Keep in mind, that if you’re getting a baitcasting reel – you’ll need a baitcasting rod with this finger grab:

Rod for baitcasting reel.
Make sure you get the right rod for your reel – this style is for baitcasting reels. If there is no finger-grab like this, it is for spinning reels.

Best Reel for Sheeps Head Fish?

Spinning Reels

Which type of reel you use for catching Sheepshead doesn’t matter. Much like the rod. The important part is the hook, line, and bait.

Very high ratings; Made in America (Seattle, WA.)
Best Penn Sheepshead Reel 1

Very high ratings; Made in America (Seattle, WA.)
Best Penn Sheepshead Reel 2

Baitcasting Reels

I just prefer baitcasting reels for all my fishing. I think they are better made and they seem to last longer. I enjoy maintenance on them, and I think they are more solid and harder to break.

Best Baitcasting Reel 1, Made in America (New Jersey)
 Best Abu Garcia Brand Baitcasting Reel 1

Best Baitcasting Reel 2, (Offices in USA)
 Best Shimano Brand Baitcasting Reel 2

Best Line for Sheepies?

Twenty pound (20#) braided line is going to be perfect. Use the 20-lb monofilament as well. Don’t go too heavy, these fish are smart and will avoid those with heavy lines.

Best 20 pound Test Braided Line– (125 yards)

Best Hooks?

The best hooks for sheepshead’s strong mouths are very strong and very sharp. We use chemically sharpened 1/0 hooks by Owner and Gamakatsu when not using the jig heads we recommend below. They’re a little more expensive than others, but hookups are better. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?

Silver Gamakatsu sheepshead hook.
Gamakatsu Sheepshead Hooks – The Standard IMHO. Find them HERE.

My favorite hook for sheepies is the Gamakatsu size 1. I’ve used this hook for over a decade to catch porgies of all kind. Find them HERE.

Dark silver Mustad Ultra Point hook for sheepshead fish in Florida.
The Mustad Ultra Point short-shank size 1 hooks work great. Find them HERE.

Mustad Ultra Point short-shank size 1 hooks are great for many fish. Find them HERE.

Note, some people prefer a long shank hook with a wide gap. Some prefer circle hooks.

Best Rigs?

First of all, no rig is needed. You can freeline (line+hook) a small crab on one of the hooks above to catch them. That’ll all you really need. Or, you can use one of the fish catching rigs below. Let me know how you do!

1.) Weighted Jig-head – 4/5 ounce to 4 or 5 oz. weighted triangle/diamond style jig heads (Brand: Bottom Sweeper, 1 oz.) with a wide gap are best for sheepshead when you want to get the bait on the bottom. Use the heavier jig-heads when the current is very strong.

Bottom fishing leads to more hookups than floating the bait off the bottom because the fish tend to suck the entire bait into the mouth, and are hooking instantly. Sometimes they can bait-steal when the hook is floated. We prefer bottom fishing for sheepies.

Sheepshead jig head for perfect presentation of bait on the bottom.
This exact jig head sets the bait in the perfect position on the ocean bottom.

Quarter-size blue crabs on the hook work very well. Remove legs and paddle-tail and cut the crab with scissors into one-fourth crab chunks. Put the hook in through one of the legs and out through the body.

2.) High-Low Rig – Can buy rig already made. Go heavy with 20-25 lb. monofilament rigs for porgy fish like sheepies.

High-Low Rig for catching sheepshead fish in Florida.
This amazing High-Low Rig graphic is ©Vern Lovic. 🙂

3.) Carolina Rig – 1/0 All-purpose bait hook, strong swivel, egg sinker 1-5 oz. 20 lb. braided main line, 20-25 lb. monofilament leader.

Carolina Rig for catching sheepshead fish in Florida.
This amazing Carolina Rig graphic is ©Vern Lovic. 🙂

The thing with catching them near structure is that they are hanging out at some depth, and you have to figure out where they are. Start at the bottom, drop your rig straight down and hit the bottom.

Wait 10 seconds. If no bites, crank it up a yard (3 feet) and wait 10 seconds. No bite? Keep coming up 1 yard after every 10 seconds stop. Once you find where they are, continue fishing that depth.

Best Artificial Lures

Everyone has a favorite artificial lure for this fish, but I don’t ever use them. I know it’s fun to outsmart the fish and make them bite a plastic lure, but I just find the challenge to be too much.

They’re sometimes difficult enough to catch, I don’t need to ramp up the challenge!

So, I don’t use artificials. I don’t suggest you do. I suggest any kind of crab on one of the short-shank size 1 hooks above, dropped straight down alongside some structure. That’s going to be a winner. Forget artificial lures for sheepies.

Bag Limits and Laws in Florida

Gulf and East Coast Waters

In July 2018, the law was changed for sheeps head limits dropping it from 15 fish per person per day down to 8 fish per person per day with a limit of 50 on any vessel. This is a drastic change, but will likely only hurt people who were catching for their family restaurant.

Eight fish per day is still far too many to eat for an entire family. We’d like to see them drop it down to 3-4 fish, to be honest. The population of Sheepshead over the years seems to be dropping. This is in our own experience and from friends we’ve spoken with.

Sheepshead Law in Florida

  • Up to 8 fish of legal limit taken per day per person.
  • The 12-inch minimum is still in effect.
  • Sheepshead must not be taken with double or treble (any multi-hook) rig with live or dead bait. Snatching is also prohibited.

Harvesting Methods

  • hook and line
  • cast net
  • seine
  • spear or gig

These Florida laws will be adopted for Federal waters as well.

Bait Restrictions

Oysters have a season, so if harvesting oysters as sheepshead bait, do be aware that there are rules governing their use. Visit this Florida department for rule clarifications on oysters.

Barnacles can be harvested, scraped, year-round. Harvesting up to 100 lbs. per day is allowed. Barnacles scraped from underwater surfaces can be effective chum and bring the sheeps head in.

How to Cook Them?

The first one I ate was just because so many friends (all anglers) were telling me how delicious the fish was on a plate. It doesn’t LOOK so appetizing, but when I did finally broil myself some, I was hooked for life.

This is one of the top 3 tasting fish I have ever had in my life. Only Pompano and Wahoo with a walnut sauce even come close.

TIP – adult Amberjacks are known to have worms and parasites. Just another reason to leave them off the dinner table. When given a choice, choose the smaller fish – for every species!

RECIPE #1 – Vern’s Mind-Wrecking Baked Sheepshead

I caught and ate a lot of these fish when I lived in Tampa, Florida. I’d just throw the kayak in the channel and head out into Tampa Bay when I couldn’t find sheepies from our dock or the bridge at the end of the dock.

I stuck to one main method to prepare fish because I just found it the best, the healthiest way to cook fish. This is one of those fish that doesn’t need much added – and whatever you add should complement the taste, not disguise it. Here’s how I made them along with other fish a few times a month for about a decade.

Out in the yard, at the dock, wherever, spray your freshly-caught fish off real good to sand and slime, anything off the fish. Scale the fish outside on the inside of a big trash bag to keep the scales from flying and the neighborhood from stinking up.

Clean the fish by gutting it and removing the organs to the trash bag placed outside.

That’s it. I mean, I cook the entire fish whole like this to keep the skin on and the fats to cook out of the fish. Many people fillet fish. I never got that. I tried it and the fish tastes bland. Leaving the skin on adds a lot of flavor to the fish.

If you don’t want fish flavor, why are you eating fish? To eat the fried breading you’ll put on it? Throw some cheese in bread crumbs and fry it, forget about fish.

This is a sheepie fish-lovers’ recipe!

Cut off the soft tail part, and all fins with strong fish-scissors – you should have a pair of fish-scissors like these. With a sharp knife, cut 3-4 inch-long slices into the flesh of the sheepshead on each side – go about 1/2-inch deep.

Prepare a large piece of foil-lined with cut garlic, real butter, onions or greens or whatever else you want to flavor your fish with.

I sometimes used cumin or curry to change it up with other fish, but with this fish, I really just loved to use real butter and garlic, maybe some sweet onions. WHAT A TASTE!

Melt and pour, or just place hard slices of butter in the gut of the fish and over the outside so when it melts it will seep into the slices. Wrap up the foil and cinch it in the top center so you seal up the fish in the foil.

Poke some holes in the top of the foil – just tiny slices a half-inch long, about four of them to let some steam out. You don’t want it sealed up, and you don’t want all the steam to escape either.

Preheat your oven to 500°F or higher, a very high setting – and when it’s ready, set the sheepshead in the foil on a middle or high-middle rack and close it up.

Depending on the size of the fish, you’re going to cook the fish very quickly like this, maybe in 10 minutes.

You’ll also heat your kitchen up to 150 degrees. Ha! But, that’s Vern’s style. I like to cook it quickly because 1.) I hate dry fish that cooks too long and cooks the flavor out. 2.) I am usually starving and want to cook that sheepshead as fast as I can.

Check the fish in 8-10 minutes. Remove the pan and open the foil. Watch your face, or the steam will wake you up! Using a fork, just open one of the slices you made and see if it’s cooked through.

Better to check the thickest part of the flesh because when that’s cooked – you’re done.

If you check a thin portion and it’s done, the thicker parts might not be done yet and you’ll remove it too early from the oven. If done – great! If not, check every 5 minutes until done. It almost always takes just 10-15 minutes unless it’s a gigantic fish.


Image credits (top to bottom).

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