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Sheepshead On Nearshore Reefs

The key to catching sheepshead on these close-in Georgia reefs is having the right rig to catch these bait stealers.

Ron Brooks | February 9, 2016

Sheepshead are where you find them, and for some anglers they are hard to find. This is especially true in the winter here in Georgia. But, many of us are looking in the wrong places—places where you caught them in the summer. Guess what? They aren’t there this time of year!

Ordinarily we can find sheepshead around bridge pilings, jetty rocks and oyster bars. But that’s during the summer months when the water is warm. As soon as the water temperature begins to drop, they leave these inshore locations and head for warmer water. And the warmer water happens to be offshore.

Although research on sheepshead is somewhat lacking because of its comparatively recent increase in popularity, most biologists think the fish are spawning in the winter when they are offshore. It stands to reason because by far the largest “heads” you will catch are those on the artificial reefs in the winter. These big guys are the brood fish for future generations.

The good news for Georgia anglers is that they are fairly easy to find offshore. Sheepshead still must identify with structure of some sort, and the artificial reefs, particularly those that are close-in, can hold a great number of heads this month. Several charters specialize in catching these offshore bait stealers, but you can find them on your own.

While a small boat is usually unsafe offshore, it does not take a high-powered fishing machine to catch these fish. On a good day, a 17- to 20-foot boat with a good bow is safe and comfortable. A good day in my book would be where the seas are running less than 3 feet and the winds no more than 10 knots. On a recent outing looking for heads, the seas were running 3 to 4 feet, so although it was a bit bouncy, it was still safe in our boat.

Almost every angler familiar with sheepshead will give you a sure-fire method to catch them. They will have their preferred bottom rig, preferred hook and preferred bait. Fortunately, the consensus of most of them is the method or some variation of the method we used when we found the fish on a trip in late January for this article.

Georgia is fortunate to have a number of close-in artificial reefs. The state has seen fit to build, or allow to be built, a number of these close-in reefs that can be accessed by the small boaters in good weather. In the summer, they are ideal for a number of species. In the winter, they are home to the sheepshead, black sea bass, an occasional grouper and red snapper—and lots of grunts.

We fished the TC reef, the KBY reef and the A reef and found fish on all three locations for this article. We had to pick the best day to fish, based on the January weather we encountered. In general the winter seas can be big, and heading offshore in a small vessel can be unsafe. But there are days that find the seas actually calm, and it’s those days you need to look for when planning a trip.

We headed out from the St. Marys River entrance to the TC reef first. The DNR maintains buoys to help you locate the reefs. They are designed to mark the general central area of the reef where there can be multiple reef locations. However on this trip we could not see a marker buoy on any of the locations we fished. Some of the locations are quite close to each other, while some can be a quarter mile or more from each other. This reef is about 4 miles north of the St Marys River entrance and a short, easy run.

Using our GPS, we located the TC area and three areas of bottom rubble. All three areas had fish marking on them, but one of them, (N 30° 47.010 — W 81° 24.015) had more fish than the other two, so we decided to position our boat and fish the one that looked the best.

We fished on the quarter moon on this trip, and that means that the water current was moving fairly slow. The current runs strongest on the new moon and the full moon. It runs much slower on the quarter moon phases. It all has to do with the gravitational pull of the moon and sun being greater at the new and full moon phases because the sun and moon are lined up together to aid each other. On the quarter moons, the gravitational pull is less, so the water current is less.

So, why is this important? It became apparent to us that the current was light, because we had an easy time getting the anchor to dig in and hold, although it took several attempts to get us positioned directly over the fish we were marking.

Once the anchoring chore was complete, we took our rods out to begin fishing. We used tackle that was slightly heavier than what we use for inshore sheepshead; these fish are generally bigger, and the slightly heavier tackle helps. We used a Penn Fierce II spinning reel spooled with 30-lb. monofilament line. We also used a Shimano Tekota 300 reel with 65-lb. braided line braid on a Bass Pro Extreme rod.

I like to use braided line when I bottom fish, particularly in deeper water. The waters we fished this day were from around 25 feet on one reef to as deep as 50 feet on the deepest reef. Setting a hook with monofilament line can be difficult in deeper water, particularly with sheepshead.

We got our fiddler crab bait from Buccaneers Bait and Tackle in St Marys. It’s a dependable bait shop that seldom runs out of crabs. We hooked a big, purple-back crab on each of our 2/0 hooks. The baits were sent to the bottom with 2 ounces of weight, and then cranked back up a few feet off the bottom. I like to use the smallest weight I can that will get the bait down. Heavier weights keep me from feeling the fish bite. Depending on the moon phase, you can experiment to find the lightest weight.

There are lots of theories on terminal tackle setup for sheepsheads, and I have tried all of them. One common error I’ve seen amongst sheepshead fishermen is many tend to use a bottom finder, dropper rig or chicken rig, which means their weight will be at the bottom of their leader with a hook tied to a looped, off-shoot on the leader. For most bottom fish, this rig works well. But this rig takes away from your ability to feel the sheepshead, so it’s not a good rig for sheepshead.

The best rig I have found for heads is a standard bottom rig with a swivel and weight above the main line. Above the swivel is an egg sinker on the main line, anywhere from 2 to 6 ounces, depending on the current. Below the swivel is the short, 10- to 12-inch-long, 25-lb. test fluorocarbon leader tied to a 2/0 hook. I use standard O’Shaughnessy J hooks. The shortness of the leader is the key to catching more fish.

These bait stealers, convict fish or whatever you call them are experts at stealing your bait. Sheepshead usually don’t “strike” a bait and move off with it. Their mouths are designed with heavy crusher teeth. They move to a crab bait and gently take it into their mouth. They then crush the crab to eat the good part, and then spit the hook right back out. You may never even feel the fish bite if you are not paying attention.

There’s a trick to feeling them, and that is to lift your rod tip about a foot and see if you feel resistance. Since you are fishing straight down and off the bottom, that resistance will almost always be a fish, and usually a sheepshead. We call it “lifting” for sheepshead. If the resistance is there, continue lifting a little higher as you begin reeling. The fish will think their meal is escaping and hold tight as you set the hook. This method is the reason we use a shorter leader and an egg sinker. A heavy sinker on a dropper rig will not allow you the sensitivity.

We caught a few sheepshead and a lot of grunts at TC and then moved on about 10 miles NNE to the A reef (N 30° 55.910 — W 81° 15.987). There are multiple reef dump sites on the A reef. The GPS coordinates I gave you are where we found the largest concentration of fish.

Once again it took a few tries to get the boat anchored properly. If we were right over the reef and fishing straight down, we got bites. If the boat swung off the reef, we got nothing. Your boat is going to swing back and forth on the anchor. Just try to place the anchor so that the middle of that swing keeps you over the reef.

I like to use a marker buoy on the exact spot where my fishfinder marks fish. I drop the buoy and then put the boat in neutral to observe which way the boat will drift. This tells me which direction to move away from the marker to drop an anchor. Then it’s a matter of letting enough anchor line out to drift back to the marker. You can be 10 yards off of a reef structure and never get a bite. The fish seldom stray far from their protection.

As a bonus on this reef, we found a school of black sea bass. I thought the season was closed, but as it turned out, the season for black sea bass was and is open with a limit of five fish per person and a minimum total length of 13 inches. I should have checked ahead of time. But I now have a fix for this problem. I downloaded an app to my phone that the SAFMC puts out and keeps updated. It lists all the managed fish with current regulations regarding season closure, length and bag limits. If I had that app up and working, we could have taken home some beautiful sea bass filets. The app is named “SA Fishing Regulations,” and it is available for iPhone/iPads and Android, as well. As long as we were within sight of land, which was at all of these locations, we had a signal.

Making the circular route back toward St Marys, we stopped at the KBY reef. After several attempts, we finally got the anchor set right and began to fish. We almost bypassed this reef to come in early. I’m glad we didn’t because it had the largest population of fish we had found yet. Make sure you try N 30° 47.163 — W 81° 16.636.

The bite was steady with a fish on almost every drop. And the action was continuous with a number of legal sea bass coming up. We actually got frustrated with the sea bass because they seemed to steal the bait and get hooked before a sheepshead had a chance to get to the bait. These sea bass school in the middle of the water column over a reef, while the heads tend to stay closer to the bottom. The sea bass took the bait on the way down.

There are 22 artificial reefs on the coast from Savannah down to St. Marys. Of these, 13 are within 10 miles of the shore and easily accessible on the right day. In my experience, the reefs in 50 feet or less water hold more sheepshead. The shallower reefs, less than about 30 feet, tend to hold less. We only fished three of them on this day, and we found fish on all three. You can see more information about them at the DNR Coastal Division website: http://coastalgadnr.org/sites/uploads/crd/pdf/Reef/ReefBooklet.pdf.

Pick your day—one with light winds and calmer seas—and plan to head out for an ice chest full of sheepshead in February. The limit is 15 fish per person with a minimum fork length of 10 inches.

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