Poor Man’s Lobster

Start putting sheepshead in your ice chest, and you’ll wonder why you ever threw these tasty fish back.

The morning hadn’t gone well. We’d only caught one speckled trout — the only bite we’d had.

“Let’s go over to the jetties,” I suggested to my fishing partner. “Maybe we can take some flounder or a stray redfish over there.”

On the first cast, my buddy caught a sheepshead and asked, “You want to keep this thing?”

“Absolutely,” I answered, “and any more sheepshead we catch.”

As we moved closer to the rocks, we saw flashes of silver just under the foam around the jetties.

“Those sheepshead are on the rocks as thick as a covey of quail on a pile of corn,” my friend said.

For the next three hours, we caught sheepshead until we had a full ice chest, and then we caught and released sheepshead until we had sore arms.

When we returned to the dock and started cleaning the fish, several of the other anglers who came in with only one or two specks and reds looked over our catch and snickered.

These anglers didn’t realize that we’d caught some of the finest-tasting fillets that would grace the table of a Friday night fish fry. We soon had Ziploc bag after Ziploc bag full of what many call the poor man’s lobster. If you want fillets to fry up in your fish cooker, then bet on the sheepshead.

Before speckled trout, redfish and flounder fishing heats up, snapper arrive, and cobia start making their run, search for rocks and pilings and the zebra-looking fish that call these areas home for a mess of good-eating fish to tickle your tastebuds and please your family and friends.

I thoroughly enjoy catching fish, but I also really like to eat fish. Of course I like to catch and release tarpon and marlin. However, I primarily come from a background of “eat what you catch.”

When I went to college, I wore blue jeans before students thought of them as fashion statements. My family ate rough fish when most other anglers threw back triggerfish, redfish, spadefish, amberjack, sheepshead and other fish many anglers considered “trashy” at that time.

We learned that under the sheepshead’s goofy-looking shape, protruding teeth and unusual colors lay mighty-fine fillets that could rival the taste of lobster and red snapper.

My love affair with the sheepshead started back when offshore anglers used steel rods and reels and fished with cotton handlines to catch snapper.

During the winter months, the sheepshead come inshore in many of the estuary areas and often far up coastal creeks. You almost always can locate them around rigs, bridges, dock pilings, jetties and wrecks near shore, where barnacles and stone and fiddler crabs live.

Often in a morning of fishing, you can fill up a cooler with more sheepshead than you want to clean. Although the sheepshead has a large stomach cavity, it has a nice fillet across the top of its back and down near its tail. You can broil this fillet with some lemon and butter, or boil it with crab boil and serve it with lemon and butter just as you do lobster tails. I’ve fooled many an unknowing dinner guest with what I’ve called “de-tailed lobster meat” — actually a sheepshead fillet.

But most of us who catch and eat sheepshead don’t want the rest of you to know the delicious flavor of a sheepshead fillet, probably due to the fish’s diet of shellfish. We don’t want to create a run on sheepshead like Paul Prudhomme did when he introduced the world to blackened redfish.


How to Catch Them

If you’ll remember a few things, you won’t have trouble catching sheepshead.

Sheepshead have small mouths and live in barnacle-encrusted places. Therefore you have to fish with abrasion-resistant line.

But because sheepshead easily become line-shy, you won’t find using heavy line the answer. You have to fish with an invisible, often small-diameter, very-tough line, which you can discover many varieties of on the market today.

Also sheepshead don’t like lead. Although you may have to use some lead to get your bait down to the sheepshead, the farther you put it away from the bait, the better your chances for getting sheepshead to bite.

In a perfect world with a gently moving tide, I’ll use a piece of dead shrimp on a small hook, cast it upcurrent on spinning tackle and let the tide pull my bait into the area where the sheepshead hold.

If that’s not possible, I’ll fish with an egg sinker up the line, a barrel swivel below the egg sinker, 2 to 4 feet of leader tied on the bottom eye of the barrel swivel and a hook in my bait on the end of the leader in a faster-running tide.

You can’t use a spinning or a baitcasting rod with a soft tip due to the sheepshead’s tough and toothy mouth.

Although not an aggressive striker, the sheepshead becomes a tough foe on light tackle by pulling hard and using its flat shape to its advantage.

Generally you won’t have trouble hooking the sheepshead. But getting that fish away from the barnacles, rocks, rigs or wrecks may cause you to lose your sheepshead fillet.

Although you’ll find sheepshead to be masters at cutting lines on barnacles, big sheepshead also effectively straighten hooks, which makes them very challenging. The challenge comes in getting sheepshead into your boat and convincing them to ride home to supper with you.

Once you get the fish in the boat, don’t think you’ve won the war. Sheepshead sport sharp gill plates and very sharp dorsal spines, and love to fight.

The average-sized sheepshead will weigh less than 4 pounds each. But if you find a school of big ones, you may catch some 5- to 7-pound sheepshead. The world-record sheepshead was a 21.25-pounder caught in 1982 in New Orleans’ Bayou St. John by Wayne Desselle.

Sheepshead live throughout the continental coastal waters from Nova Scotia through the Gulf of Mexico, with the greatest concentrations generally reported in Southwest Florida.

But according to Dr. Bob Shipp, chair of the Department of Marine Science at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Ala., they don’t range much farther south than that.

“The West Indies have no sheepshead, and the Central and South America populations are weak and poorly known,” he said.

Sheepshead have powerful jaws they use to crush and eat small shellfish and marine animals, including barnacles and crabs. You can start a sheepshead feeding frenzy by using a flat piece of steel attached to a pole and knocking the barnacles off a piling. The sheepshead will move in and begin to feed on all that bait in the water.

Or you can catch some crabs — sand crabs, fiddler crabs or blue crabs — mash them up, shells and all, and use them for chum when fishing around rocks, wrecks, reefs or rigs where you know sheepshead hang out. Often sheepshead will follow the chum right up to your boat. Then by baiting with small pieces of crab or shrimp, you can have a great time catching the fish.

Although many Gulf Coast anglers take sheepshead for granted and often discard them from their catches, many Snowbirds who come down from the North during the winter months stock their freezers with sheepshead fillets.

In recent years, part of the tradition along the Upper Gulf Coast of not keeping and eating sheepshead has come about due to the difficulty of cleaning these fish with their somewhat tough outside skins, heavy scales and strong fin spines that extend inward into the fish’s flesh.

However, with the invention of the electric knife, we’ve learned to fillet and skin fish like sheepshead quickly and easily. But since our grandparents didn’t “waste their time” fighting the sheepshead for its fillet, our parents haven’t either, and often neither do we.

But if you put some of those sheepshead in your cooler, take them home, fillet them and try that white-flesh, mild-flavored meat, you’ll wonder why you haven’t filleted them and eaten them all your life.

During these windy months, when the speckled trout and redfish often get lockjaw and the flounder don’t want to feed, if you’re out of fillets in your freezer, head to the bays in the Gulf of Mexico, and catch a mess of these fish.

You don’t have to tell your buddies where you’re going or inform your family and friends what they’re eating. Just tell them you’ve gotten your hands on some lobster tails.