As soon as the squid bait reached the craggy hulk 150 feet below, I felt a solid rap. Then the rod tip bowed over. Seconds later, I set the hook, and the first powerful dive of the fish pinned me to the rail. With the drag locked tight, it was mano a pescado, white knuckles straining to hold on as the brute dug for the wreck.
Eventually, I was able to raise the rod above horizontal and gain line as the fish uncorked violent head shakes and dove repeatedly, wrenching me back to the rail again and again. From the depths emerged the distinctive black-and-red of one of the West Coast’s most striking game fish — the California sheephead. After a quick weight check –– 25 pounds –– and a few photos, we released the knot-headed male, which local anglers affectionately call a “goat.”
With a life cycle that has each fish morphing from female to male as it ages, this Pacific member of the wrasse family displays magnificent colors. Younger females have an overall light-red hue, while older males develop a black head and tail with a bright-red band between, and a white chin, with the big ones sporting a hump on their foreheads. The state record by an angler in California is 30 pounds, 8 ounces, caught off Newport Beach in 2009 from a kayak. The spear-fishing record is 40 pounds, 7 ounces. The difference between the two records says a lot about how tough it is to land these fish with a rod and reel. Big goats possess incredible power and live in snag-infested, line-slicing habitats — what I like to call
Sheephead range from Point Conception in the north, to far below the Mexican border in the south. No matter where you fish along the Southern California coast or offshore islands, the key is to target rocks, kelp lines, reefs and wrecks — sheephead love structure. But if you want to hook a trophy, wrecks and isolated rocky outcroppings are the best hunting grounds. This is where the big goats graze, and fall months offer the hottest action of the year.
Unlike coastal kelp beds or the rocky island shores, wrecks and isolated rock piles don’t support big numbers of sheephead. Rather, such spots are often dominated by one to three home-guard goats, usually large fish that have chased away smaller sheephead to have the food supply to themselves.
Like other wrasses, sheephead nip away at the creatures that cling to rocks and wrecks. Equipped with a formidable set of bucked-toothed chompers and powerful jaws, they handily crush barnacles, mussels, clams, snails and crabs. Their favorite foods include shrimp, octopus and squid, but they will also eat a sardine or topsmelt.
If you’re targeting big sheephead, pick a wreck or outcropping in 60 to 175 feet of water. It has been my experience that structure in less than 60 feet does not produce trophy goats, nor have I caught many sheephead at all in water more than 200 feet deep.