Winter's hottest Gulf action is as close as the nearest concrete piling or deepwater dock pylon. The lowly sheepshead, with its distinct prison-striped paint job, is a robustly built, combat-ready, cold water target offering adventurous anglers unmatched rough-and-tumble action.
Location, Location. Typically, sheepshead relate to vertical structures; those where they suspend along its height or directly adjacent to it on the bottom. Targeting them is as easy as finding vertical hardscape (i.e., wood dock pilings, bridge pilings, permanent channel markers, oil rigs, etc.) with barnacles or other active aquatic growth. In most instances, those structures exposed to current, whether steady state or tidal, hold more fish than those in static waters.
Gear Me. Setting up on sheepshead is best done by parking the boat several yards downstream of "fishy" structure. Medium to stout spinning gear outshines baitcasting rigs in winter months as stiff seasonal winds make pitching and managing baitcasting tackle difficult (i.e., fighting backlashes). Spinning gear also excels when making short pitches or "flips" to structure. When the water conditions allow, opt for braid—as its no-stretch temperament helps forcibly coax hooked fish away from hostile, barnacle rich environments and into the boats box.
Rig Me. Carolina rigs excel when equipped with small, stout-shanked hooks (sheepshead strike quickly like a triggerfish with small mouths), lashed to moderately long leaders, a barrel swivel and 1/4 to 1/2-ounce sliding egg sinkers. The bait de jure, if you can track them down, is live shrimp—as these are difficult to get in winter, and present a culinary treat to these pinstriped saltwater piranha.
Ummm, Tasty Dude. Fish in the 2- to 3-pound range are favorites of many Gulf locals (larger fish quickly turn gamy). Nicknamed the "bay snapper," sheepshead bear an uncanny resemblance to red snapper. For many, their large bone structure and course scales makes cleaning a chore, however, arm yourself with a stout-bladed filet knife and the process is simplified greatly.
Spicy Sheepshead Sea Nuggets
Using a large mixing bowl, blend the eggs, milk, beer, mustard, Tabasco, and half of the salt and pepper. Place the fish nuggets into the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for an hour. Mix corn flour with the remaining salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper in a shallow dish. With a deep fryer preheated to 370 degrees, roll the nuggets in the corn flour mixture. Gently ease the nuggets into the fryer and cook until they float and turn golden brown. Drain the nuggets on a generous matt of paper towels prior to serving. Serves 4-6.