Fish ’Em Right
Sheephead seldom strike aggressively, and most commonly tap at the bait before wolfing it down. Proper tackle allows you to sense subtle bites, while providing the stopping power and lift to wrestle a big goat away from structure. Additionally, low-stretch braided line helps you set the hook with authority to better control the fish once the battle begins.
The key to getting bit is to keep the sinker on or very close to the structure. Sheephead feed mainly on critters clinging to the rocks or wreck. While they will swim up a few feet to investigate a possible meal, they won’t stray too far from the dinner table.
A simple trick helps save the leader when you snag a weight on the bottom: Tie an overhead knot just above the sinker to create a weak spot that breaks, saving you the hassle of replacing the entire rig. All you do is tie in a new end loop, another overhand knot, and loop on a new sinker.
Some of the best baits for sheephead include whole squid (live or frozen) and baby octopus (which you can buy frozen in Asian fish markets). Pin either bait a couple of times with the hook to keep sheephead from pecking it off. Once you feel the solid rap of a goat, wait until the fish bends the rod before setting the hook.
Sheephead have a bunch of teeth, crushers, and a leathery mouth and lips, so sinking a hook requires considerable force, especially when fishing deeper than 100 feet. The sweep of an 8-foot rod helps, as does a sharp hook and braided line. Keep the drag as tight as possible to prevent the fish from pulling line off the reel.
The winner of the fight is usually determined in the first five to 10 seconds of the battle. Pull the fish 10 feet away from the structure, and all that’s left are some fierce head shakes and last-ditch lunges for the bottom. Fail to get him away from snags quickly, and there’s a good chance you’ll lose.
While there are seasonal closures on sheephead in Southern California, I like to release every goat we catch. I don’t consider them particularly good table fare. Yet a live-fish commercial market has emerged for California sheephead — one that could significantly impact this species. And so I like to do everything in my power to make sure my children and their children will have goats to bust a long time into the future.