Saturday, December 3, 2011

Winter Fishing for Convicts

With winter quickly approaching, many anglers have put away their fishing gear and wait for the “spring thaw” to once again put it to good use. If you’re fortunate enough to live in the southeastern U.S., and if you enjoy saltwater fishing, don’t be so quick to stow away your fishing gear! The winter months often provide some great fishing for sheepshead.

Many folks in these parts refer to sheepshead as “convicts” or “convict fish.” This isn’t, of course, just because of the black stripes on the fish that resemble a typical convict’s attire. These fish are bait thieves. They can be extremely difficult to hook, even when you’re angling in water clear enough to see the crafty robbers. Sound like I’m speaking from experience? Sad to say, I am.

The first time I tried to catch sheepshead was on a pier in northern Florida. The water was clear, and I could see the fish moving from piling to piling, feasting on the barnacles that encrusted the wooden posts. Another angler on the pier gave me a fiddler crab to use for bait, and I dropped it right in front of the fish. They gobbled it readily, but I never even felt or saw movement on the line. I repeated the process numerous times, and every time, I got the same results – nada. Zip. Nothing.

I gave up on sheepshead for years and focused on “normal” species like reds, trout, flounder, cobia, and sharks. Then, a few years ago, I found myself back on that same pier, and once again, the convicts were ganging up around the pilings. I was determined to catch some this time. I had some sand fleas that the grandkids had caught, so I used them as bait. I cast my line under the pier and slowly retrieved it. Bingo! I landed my first sheepshead – ever. I continued this technique, with more success. If you’ve been skunked by convicts before, you might want to put these saltwater fishing tips to use.

As for sheepshead bait, I prefer sand fleas. In my opinion, fiddler crabs are too large, and they’re too easily crushed. Sand fleas have less surface area. Barnacles are good, too, but they’re usually harder to get. My ex-father-in-law used to catch sheepshead with bits of shrimp, but I haven’t had any luck with that – probably because other fish, like puppy drum, whiting, and spadefish steal the bait as soon as it hits the water.