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 – 1 August 2020. Bookmark this page (Windows CNTRL+D, MAC CMD+D) so you don’t lose it.]
What RATINGS Does the Sheepshead Get?
Size: 3/10, Fight: 3/10, Difficulty to Catch: 4/10, Taste: 10/10
INDEX to Sections in this Guide:
- Sheepshead FACTS
- WHY catch sheepshead?
- WHERE are sheepshead found?
- What do sheepshead EAT?
- HOW to catch sheepshead – Techniques
- WHEN is best for sheepshead?
- GEAR to use for sheepshead (our best recommendations)
- LAWS in Your State
- How to COOK sheepshead for the ultimate meal?
HOW To Catch Sheepshead | Guide
PRO TIP – Sheepshead fish are also called Sheepies, Jailbirds, Convicts, Sheeps, Cheaps, and Bait Stealers.
Species: Archosargus probatocephalus
Similar Species: Grunts (Pinfish), Porgies, Snapper.
Conservation Status: Least Concern as identified by IUCNRedlist.org.
Length: Sheepshead grow to a maximum size of around 30 inches.
Weight: The average sheepshead is
World Record Size: The biggest sheepshead ever caught came from Louisiana on April 16, 1982 when Mr. Wayne Desselle of New Orleans caught the biggest sheepshead every measured and photographed. Here they show it laying next to a yardstick. This sheepshead is about 28 inches long. This huge sheepie weight 21 lbs. 4 oz. Wayne caught it on a live shrimp.
Florida Record Sheepshead: The biggest sheepshead fish to come out of Florida happened way back in 1981 when E. Lechler pulled in a sheepie weighing 15 lb. 2 oz.
Sheepshead State RECORDS
Description: Sheepshead 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.
Sheepshead are common in certain areas of the world. Please note the map below showing where sheepshead are resident.
WHY Catch Sheepshead?
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 Sheepshead. Catch a couple and broil them in your oven with the recipe at the bottom of this page. That’s why!
- Sheepshead are SO DELICIOUS. One of our top 3 tasting fish. Others are Pompano and Wahoo.
- 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 Sheepshead?
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 sheepshead. 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.
What Do Sheepshead EAT?
- fiddler crabs
- stone crabs
- mud crabs
- sand fleas
- sand crabs
- fresh shrimp
- oysters & mussels
In short, any crustacean, barnacle, anything with a shell. The mouth of the sheepshead 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 for Sheepshead?
Mud crabs! 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 you’re 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 Sheepshead – Techniques
From a Small Boat – Kayak, Canoe
Keep your mud crabs in a bucket they can’t get out of, and make sure they’re not in direct hot sun. They hide under oysters 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. Artificials 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 sheepshead anyway.
WHEN Is the Best Time to Catch Sheepshead?
I think anytime is a good time to get out there and try your luck at finding sheepshead. 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.
Sheepshead 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 7′ GX2 Inshore Rod for Baitcasting Reel – Best 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:
Best Reel for Sheepshead?
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
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 Sheepshead?
Twenty pound (20#) braided line is going to be perfect. Use the 20-lb monofilament as well. Don’t go too heavy, Sheepshead are smart and will avoid those with heavy lines.
Best 20 pound Test Braided Sheepshead Line– (125 yards)
Best Sheephead Hooks?
The best hooks for sheepshead are 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?
My favorite hook for sheepshead is the Gamakatsu size 1. I’ve used this hook for over a decade to catch big sheepies. Find them HERE.
Mustad Ultra Point short-shank size 1 hooks are great for Sheepshead. Find them HERE.
Best Rigs for Sheepshead?
First of all, no rig is needed. You can freeline (line+hook) a small crab on one of the hooks above to catch sheepshead. That’ll all you really need. Or, you can use one of the sheepshead 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 sheepshead 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.
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 sheepshead.
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.
The thing with sheepshead 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 sheepshead, but I don’t 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 sheepshead!
Sheepshead LAWS in Florida
Gulf and East Coast Waters
In July 2018, the law was changed for sheepshead 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.
Sheepshead Harvesting Methods
- hook and line
- cast net
- spear or gig
These Florida laws will be adopted for Federal waters as well.
Sheepshead 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 sheepshead in.
How to COOK Sheepshead?
The first sheepshead 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 sheepsheads 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. Sheepshead 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 sheepshead and other fish a few times a month for about a decade.
Out in the yard, at the dock, wherever, spray your sheepshead 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 sheepshead 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 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 sheepshead, 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 sheepshead 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.
Sheepshead Guide Resources
- NOAA Photo Library (https://photolib.noaa.gov)
- IUCNRedlist.org (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/170223/1296293)
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/sheepshead/)
- Pensacola News Journal (https://www.pnj.com)
Image credits (top to bottom):
Fishing Tacklebox Essentials
Fish Scale (Digital and up to 110 lbs.)
Florida Fishing Identification Booklet – 5×7″ Laminated (Waterproof)