Louisiana Sportsman

Bringing in the sheep

Catch Cormier - November 12, 2012
Sheepshead will eat almost any fly resembling vegetation, small crustaceans, barnacles or small fishes.
Catch Cormier
Sheepshead will eat almost any fly resembling vegetation, small crustaceans, barnacles or small fishes.

Fly-rodders are a strange lot. There are those of us who will travel hundreds ó sometimes thousands ó of miles to catch a 10-inch fish, provided that fish happens to be the famed Gila trout or California golden trout. To land one of these rare species puts you in a very special list of folks.

As you sit with a gathering of fellow fly flingers, some bragging about their 15-pound redfish or 90-pound tarpon, you mention that measly 10-inch fish, and immediately everyone stares in amazement.

"What a grand catch, my good man! Too-doo, la-dee-dah, and cheerio, cheerio!"

Okay, some of us are not THAT strange!

Still, you have to wonder. On the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association fly rod category Top 10 List, there is only one entry for bluegill, two entries for spotted bass, five entries for king mackeral and a full 10 entries for ó sheepshead.

Sheepshead are so admired among some saltwater fly-casters that theyíve been given the nickname "Cajun permit," a reference to one of the wiliest fish that swims in the salt. Landing one earns bragging rights ó on par with those 10-inch coldwater trout.

Goat anglers are fanatics. My younger son Master Jake counts himself as one.

Several years ago, on a trip with my friend Jody Titone out of Port Sulphur, we entered a small pond where reds were moving along the north shoreline, and sheeps were holding to the south shoreline. Jody was at the front of the boat casting to reds, and Jake was in the back, casting to goats.

When the time came to switch positions, Jake asked to remain in the back. Jody thanked Jake for allowing him to keep the forward position.

Jake responded, "Donít thank me; Iím catching real fish and youíre not."

Glancing over the LOWA Top 10 list, one would think that the best time to catch the Cajun permit would be March through July, as nearly all the records were caught during this period. This happens to coincide with their spawning period, and so itís likely the fish are very active.

However, once water temperatures really cool down, the goats begin to school up in canals and in cuts off marsh bayous.

While the fish might not be record-sized, they make up for it in numbers. The opportunities to catch several on a fly ó and earn special status among your colleagues ó is best now until very cold weather arrives.

The question is always what flies to use? We know goats are omnivorous, which means they eat just about anything, including crusteceans, small fishes and even grass. In fact, a Lake Ponchartrain study showed that, by volume, 54 percent of their diet was plants.

Iíve heard that an unweighted green woolybugger is a good fly. Hard to think of anything more grassy-looking.

Before you fill your flybox with flies that imitate aquatic vegetation, be aware that barnacles, small crabs, shrimp and even small fishes appear to make up the bulk of their diet. At least, outside of Lake Pontchartrain.

When it comes to flies, itís no surprise small crab and shrimp patterns are good. However, anything that imparts motion with the tiniest of strips seems to work. That includes spoon flies, pink and black charlies, and bonefish bitters (a charlie with rubber legs).

Whatever flies you use, they need to be small, and any wings, tail or other appendages need only extend a small bit past the hook. Goats like to pick at their food, be it bait shrimp or flies.

My friend Dugan Sabins has probably caught more sheeps on fly than anyone else I know (including Master Jake). His secret is simple: On a cold day, he finds a deep hole or cut where the fish congregate. He then drops a pink or black charlie, and works it off the bottom real slow.

Since he uses a weighted floating fly line, he needs a long, limp leader to get the fly down. The leader is usually 8 feet long. The upper two-thirds of the leader ó the butt section ó is 20-pound monofilament. The lower half ó the tippet section ó is 14-pound fluorocarbon.

The fluoro holds up better to the dental work inside the goatsí mouths. Even so, itís advisable to check the line just above the fly often for wear.

Dugan watches the leader and end of the fly line; often the strike is so delicate that itís not transmitted to the rod. Instead, the tip of the line does a twitch.

At this point, he lifts the rod 45 degrees, and the game is over!

As my friend Jerald Horst is quick to point out, sheepshead are great table fare. So you can have your friends over for dinner ó something you canít do with a 10-inch trout.