Sheepshead On The Wrecks And Jetties
It's a great time to get after these tasty bait thieves.
Some things in this world are very predictable. It will be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. In between those two extremes, fish and game are much more active and easier to target. Well, the weather has warmed, the water temperature has come up, and the fish are on the move. This month is one of the best months to fish the Georgia coast. Fish—more specifically sheepshead—are on the move, and they are hungry!
Sheepshead, known as just plain “heads” in my world, migrate with the major changes in the weather. They prefer, as do most fish, to be in comparatively warm water. So, when the winter chills start and the water temperatures drop, they move out of the shallower water to offshore wrecks and reefs. The deeper the water is, the longer it takes for the temperature to change. In general, the deeper water is warmer in the winter than it is inshore.
With the water temps coming up, the ’heads have begun migrating back inshore. The inlets and sounds are the avenues they travel to get back toward the estuaries, and any type of structure that occurs along their migration path will hold them up for a time. I’m talking about docks, bridge pilings, rockpiles on the bottom and jetties. Jetties really ought to be at the top of the list. They are easier to find and fish than other types of structure.
We went searching for sheepshead in March to give you an idea of where you can locate them this month. We fished the jetties at the St. Marys River entrance, and true to their habits, the sheepshead had arrived. We weren’t covered up by any means, but we did manage a few fish. We knew that a couple of weeks later, we would catch many more.
We launched at the state ramp on the end of East Meeting Street. The ramp is a good one, and a tackle shop is close by on the same street. Buccaneer’s Bait and Tackle is one of the few, if not the only place to buy fiddler crabs in this area. James, the owner, is there seven days a week. He will even give you his cell phone number and meet you at the shop in off hours.
In past years, finding a bait shop open during the week was sometimes a challenge in St. Marys. But James has fiddler crabs. Fiddler crabs are the bait of choice for most ’head fishermen. If they aren’t available, which is rare, small, live shrimp or clam meat are both good substitutes.
We ran out to the jetties on a calm, foggy morning. My GPS was the main reason we could run in the fog. It is easy to be disoriented without one, and running up on shallow rocks will ruin your day.
We rounded the end of the north jetty and headed back toward the beach with the jetty on our left. About half way from the jetty tip and the beach we settled, and I dropped the trolling motor. I like to use the trolling motor to move in and out along the jetty locating fish. Once I locate some fish, I will, depending on the tide, anchor and fish in one spot. Anchor carefully, because wind and current can easily push you into the rocks.
I begin fishing by easing up to the edge of the rocks with the trolling motor. Then I drop my bait as straight down as I can along the edge. I lift and move the bait a foot or two, and drop it again. I do this until I feel a fish.
There are two types of terminal tackle I like to use for ’heads. I tie a 1/8-oz. jig head to my 20-lb. fluorocarbon leader. Or, I use a slip sinker above a swivel, a 10-inch fluorocarbon leader and a 1/0 or 2/0 hook. With either rig, I will hook up a single fiddler crab, two if they are small.
The reason I prefer the jig head is because a ’head bite is often so subtle you won’t feel it with a standard bottom rig. With a slip sinker and normal leader, the fish takes the crab bait in its mouth and usually does not move or run with it. If you have a long leader, you can sometimes lift your rod as much as a foot and not feel the fish. The jig head keeps me in constant contact with the hook so that when I lift my rod tip, I can feel a fish if he has taken the bait.
There are two reasons I fish as straight up and down as I can. First, I can make sure the bait stays in one place at a particular depth. The other is so that I do not lose my tackle. If you anchor away from the rocks and throw back to them, your bait—on either rig—will go down to the bottom.
If you move your bait, it will be dragged across those rocks. Invariably, you will hang up and end up breaking your terminal tackle off. There are a lot of people who avoid fishing the jetty rocks because they lose so much tackle.
If you are fishing straight down and you feel like you have hung on a rock, don’t jerk the rod. Simply shake and wiggle the end of the rod, and the hook will usually dislodge. This does not work if you cast away from the boat. It works quite well straight up and down. I have had many days fishing the jetties without losing a single rig.
“Lifting” is what a good ’head angler does. Fishing as straight down as possible, he lets his bait go to the bottom and then cranks once or twice on his reel. This puts the bait suspended in the water column.
When a ’head takes a bait like this, it usually just sits in one place and grinds the crab or shrimp until it is off the hook. Then he spits the hook out. These guys are the premier bait stealers. You can see how a long leader would allow you to miss that subtle bite.
So my method is to put the bait down in the water column and up off the bottom. After a minute or so, I slowly lift my rod tip. If I feel pressure, I gauge whether the pressure is solid and not alive—like a rock—or whether I sense that a fish has the bait in his mouth moving ever so slightly. If I sense a fish, I lift a bit harder and begin reeling—slowly at first and then more as the pressure increases. I seldom make a hard hook set. My thinking is that as the fish feels upward pressure in his mouth, he will clamp down on the whole bait and hook and end up hooking himself.
I use spinning tackle because I like spinning tackle. I use 8- to 10-lb. test monofilament and a 10-inch, 20-lb., fluorocarbon leader. I don’t use a swivel, opting to put the line and leader together with a double surgeon’s knot. All of this is because I believe that the lighter the line and the less obtrusive the terminal tackle is, the more likely the fish are to bite.
Besides, a ’head weighing 8 to 10 pounds is a lot of fun on light tackle.
You may encounter some ’head anglers in jonboats using long cane poles. In years past, cane poles were actually the preferred way to catch sheepshead on the rocks. You have more control over a straight up and down presentation and can cover more area with a 16-foot cane pole. It allows anglers to anchor a bit off the jetty and still be able to put a bait down in the rocks. Try an 8-lb. sheepshead on a cane pole one time!
We fished the north jetty all the way out to the tip and then fished around the tip. Be aware at the end of the jetty that what you can see is not the end of the jetty. The water depth increases gradually as you move east from the jetty tip. At low tide, some of the big rocks are just under the surface even though you are quite a ways off the visible tip.
During the tide change, when the current has stopped, as it did about noon this day, you can fish straight down over these submerged rocks. We fished these underwater rocks and caught three fish before the tide started running back in; one of them was a slot redfish.
We moved to the south jetties in the afternoon. The tide was incoming all afternoon, so we fished and anchored on the north side of the south jetty. Technically, you are in Florida when you approach the south jetty. My conversations with both the Georgia DNR and Florida FWC folks indicate that as long as you have a license from either state, the entire river entrance should be fair game. But if you launched from a Florida ramp, remember that Florida’s minimum length for sheepshead is 12 inches. In Georgia, it is 10 inches. Both states have a 15 fish per angler limit.
If you can’t find fiddler crabs, try using small live shrimp. James sells live shrimp either by the dozen or by the quart. If the shrimp are small, which they are this time of year, you are better off buying them by the quart. I like to remove the tail end of the shrimp and then thread the live shrimp onto my jig head from the tail toward the head.
We did not chum on this trip, but sometimes I like to chum the water and bring the fish together in a feeding frenzy of sorts. I find some dock pilings at low tide and look for what we call coon oysters growing on and around the pilings. I use a spade-type garden tool and scrape off these oysters into a 5-gallon bucket. Then I take a sledge hammer and pound the oysters in the bucket. When I anchor because I caught one fish, I will pour some of this oyster soup in the water and let it settle under the boat. If there are more ’heads in the water there, it will be as if they heard a dinner bell. And, don’t be surprised if you catch a redfish or flounder there, because any fish frenzy automatically attracts all the fish in an area.
If you fish using the methods I have described, you should be successful even on your first trip for ’heads. Remember, you are using light tackle. Take a net. I can’t tell you how many nice ’heads I have lost at the boat either because I was too lazy to net them or I left the net home.
St. Marys is where we fished this trip. I should point out that the jetties at the mouth of the Savannah River can be just as productive. Use the same techniques. Elsewhere along the coast look for docks—particularly old docks—that are encrusted with coon oysters. The ’heads will be migrating back into the creeks as the water warms, and these old docks and pilings are some of their favorite haunts.
My preference at St. Marys is to fish the last of the outgoing tide and the first of the incoming tide. That’s because the entire jetty is visible and water is not washing over the top of the rocks. It’s easier to anchor and in my mind much safer.
Sheepshead are hard fighting and great eating fish. April is the time to catch a limit in short order, and the St. Marys jetties are just the place to do it.
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