Why tough it out in the marshes trying to catch reds and specks when you can head just off the coast for no-limit fishing for sheepshead, which your grandparents considered to be one of the best fish in the Gulf?
The call to Doc Fontaine seemed perfunctory, a mere formality — almost pointless. After all, traditionally, mooching a Grand Isle camp for a weekend in February ain’t too hard.
It’s not exactly the height of the tourist season.
“Pelayo will be by to pick up the camp key a little later,” I quipped. “His cousin Zack’s in from Atlanta for Mardi Gras. We’re taking him on a sheepshead meat haul. Pelayo’s also bringin’ ya some of our famous sheepshead ceviche and some button-buck fajitas, as requested by Trisha.”
“Super!” Doc replied. “She really went wild over both items at the Saints/Detroit victory paaawty!”
“We noticed,” I replied. “Trisha and just about everybody else. And even after the San Francisco game paaaw-ty — when just about everybody had lost their appetite — she was still snorking them down. And, heck, between Pelayo and Eddie and me we shot four button bucks as guests on Artie’s lease this year, along with two spikes and a 4-point. None of the bucks were over a year-and-a-half old! So we got plenty DYNAMITE venison for our paaaw-ties this caaaw-nival season!”
“That’s GREAT to hear!” Doc whooped. “Congrats! — Serious munchies on the way!”
“Yeah, we had most of those young, delicious bucks on camera for weeks. And were really PUMPED to get ’em — when they finally ventured out during daylight.”
“Wow! You mean y’all finally got that fat forkhorn we saw on game cam pics at the Christmas paaawty? ” Doc asked.
“Yeah!” I whooped.
“Da one where you couldn’t see the ribs ’cause it was so fat?”
“Yeah DAT’S the one! The one where everybody in the room was yelling ‘Choot him! Choot him!’ while Spencer fumed and finally STORMED outta the room in a serious hissy fit!”
“Yeah, you rite!” Doc laughed. “And now we’ll be munching out on him for several paaawties! But I gotta tell ya something, Hom-Boy-Da — Spencer and Priscilla have the camp key. They’re heading down to Grand Isle after the Endymion parade. Plenty of room, however; you guys just ….”
“Well, it’s YOUR fault!” Doc shot back. “Remember last Mardi-Gras week y’all took Spencer’s brother and sister-in-law, Sid and Valerie from New York, sheepshead fishing to those shallow rigs right off Fourchon. Remember how they flipped out? Remember them raving, ‘Never caught so many big, delicious, tough-fighting fish so fast and so easily in MY LIFE?’
“That trip of y’all’s put all their usual hit-’n-miss speck fishing trips with Spencer to shame. It totally soured Spencer’s guests on those tedious — and often fruitless — winter speck fishing trips. Yeah, Priscilla’s sister and brother-in-law instantly got hooked on sheepshead! Especially after we grilled some up that night, and bronzed some fillets in hot butter and topped them with shrimp/wine sauce. And you made some of your special sheepshead ceviche. Remember?”
“I remember alright!”
“Well, this carnival those New Yorkers are back — and DYING to get after sheepshead again. So Spencer and Priscilla are hosting them at my Grand Isle camp for the weekend, then coming back for Mardi Gras day. That Valerie kept raving about sheepshead. Saying how she usually goes back north with a little sandwich bag of dinky speck fillets. Last year she went home with half a dozen huge gallon bags crammed with chunky sheepshead fillets. Says her neighbors in the East Hamptons voted her Hostess of the Year for always serving such delicious fish at her dinner paawties.”
Doc had a point. It WAS my fault. Always happens. Without fail, out-of-staters absolutely FREAK when they’re turned on to late-winter sheepshead meat-hauls to the shallow rigs. And who can blame them?
Oh, I know, I know some people — especially some guides — (claim to) limit-out on specks every single trip, even in late winter. Some people know every hotspot every single day even in February.
Fine. I salute them. More power to ‘em.
Then there’s the rest of us, who find inside winter fishing a pretty hit ’n miss thing — usually heavy on the miss.
Carnival season (when many outta town friends and relatives visit us down here in South Louisiana) doesn’t generally coincide with our best fishing season — unless you’re after sheepshead and other meat fish at the shallow structures off our coast. Then it’s — quite literally — the most consistent and fastest “catching” of the year, and for some of our toughest-brawling, tastiest and most versatile fish.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from The Picayune Creole Cook Book: “Perhaps the best fish in the Gulf,” it rhapsodized about sheepshead, circa 1911. “This fish is delicious in any of a wide number of modes of preparation.”
The key to filleting them is using a sturdy-bladed boning knife and cutting over and around the thick rib bones by going into the fish from the top rather than from behind the gills.
With an electric knife, it’s easiest to start from the tail and fillet forward.
For freezing, we leave the skin and scales on the fillets (no wrapping paper has been invented that serves as a better shield against freezer burn), put them meat side together and wrap in foil. Thus we stock our freezer this time of year, and even six months later have juicy, fresh-tasting fillets. Sheephead’s low oil-content means the meat holds up well to long freezing.
Valerie’s hoity-toity dinner guests in the East Hampton’s will vouch for the above.
The TP cookbook, by the way, also extolled of the locally scorned (nowadays) Spanish mackerel: “A delicate and delicious fish far superior to any mackerel in the world — on equal footing with the Pompano.”
Sheepshead fishing’s a no-brainer this time of year. The fish are spawning, ravenous and stacked up around EVERY shallow rig and wellhead from Black Bay down through Breton Sound, East Bay, West Bay, Sandy Point, the Grand Isle blocks, the Bay Marchand blocks (Fourchon rigs) and on to Ship Shoal. Starting at the platforms and wells in 12- to 15-foot depths, they’ll be stacked up and ravenous at practically all such structures out to 40 to 50 foota-waaawda.
Slip out of every channel from the MRGO to Baptiste Collette, around to Red Pass and the Empire jetties, west to Caminada, Belle and Whiskey passes, and you’ll find such structures within easy reach for small boats — and all are CRAMMED with ravenous sheepshead from December through late March.
No reason to bash yourself silly or get skunked on the inside this time of year, amigos. There’re few sure things in fishing: This is one.
We picked Bay Marchand (Fourchon rigs) this year because A) They’re the closest to shore of any along our coast, B) February usually means fronts and north to northwest winds, so 3) these platforms — starting barely a mile offshore — sit in the lee of this section of Louisiana coast, which 4) means a short boat ride and comfortable fishing, even with a lingering cold front and northwest winds up to 15 knots and 5) we’d have Doc’s Grand Isle camp as a luxurious base of operations.
As expected, Doc’s camp was plenty roomy enough for all of us. Things were tense as the evening started but quickly mellowed. As the night progressed and the wine bottles emptied, Valerie and Sid “volunteered” to fish with us and leave their genuine hosts — Spencer and Priscilla — to sleep late and perhaps patch up their spat that had provided much after-dinner hilarity, although they didn’t find it all that funny.
The front was dying the following morning. But the shallow Bay Marchand rigs just off Belle Pass were — as expected — sheltered by the nearby shore from the 11-knot north wind. This ensured comfortable fishing for Valerie, who’s prone to seasickness.
It took barely a 10-minute open-water ride to hook up to a platform standing in 25-foot depths.
And it didn’t take three minutes before Valerie was screeching from the bow, her face in half-laugh, half-grimace mode as she grabbed the medium-action spinning rod a foot above the reel and cranked away spastically. Sid quickly moved in to help with the task of muscling up her sheepshead.
Zack’s shrimp-tipped jighead plinked against the rig’s piling, hit the water and sank no more than 10 feet. Pelayo watched, nodding his head as if counting off the seconds. He got to 25 and — WHAM! — laughed as Zack rared back and set the hook.
I was looking behind me at the tumult and into the second reel crank when — WHAM! — a vicious strike almost jerked the pole from my grip.
“Looks like the Spanish are here, too!” I bellowed.
Indeed, a Spanish whacks it and ZOOMS off. A sheepshead taps and tugs — however mightily.
“Yep, Spanish are here, too!” yelled Pelayo from the stern. “They’re out away from the rig! This one clobbered my shad rigs on my second reel crank!”
Pelayo raved as he held the rod high, the line ripping off as the berserk mackerel went on its classic run.
“And look at this sucker go!” he whooped. “Like a freakin’ missile!”
Valerie’s fish finally hit the surface and churned it to a froth, splattering us all as Sid grabbed the line and swung it aboard, where the line snapped.
There’s no time for landing nets with this type of fishing. We like 30-pound mono shock leaders, about 3 feet long atop the jigs, so we can reach down and swing these babies in, one after another.
In her excitement Valerie had grabbed a pole still rigged for specks, and thus without a leader. But no big deal.
“This OK?” Valerie was now holding up a pole with big, pink (the cheap ones, always on clearance!) 3/8-ounce jigheads in tandem on a custom-made 30-pound fluorocarbon leader.
“That’s perfect,” I said. “They’re not after the jig. They’re after the shrimp on it. Here: Swing it over.”
And I tipped each with a chunk of shrimp. She dropped it over the side close to a piling, let it sink about 10 feet and flipped the bail.
The rest of us chunked our fish in the box and re-baited up our plain ½-ounce jigheads. The current was slack today, and thus nothing heavier was needed to keep the bait near the pilings. Often, the key in this type of fishing is to keep the bait as close as possible to the piling. With a strong current, this is often easier a mere 4 or 5 feet from the surface, and amounts to a saltwater version of cane-pole perch jerking or sac-a-lait jigging around stumps.
I was just flipping the bail when ….
“AH!-AH!” Valerie was screeching again, as her rod tip jerked into the very water. “Sid, HELP!”
She was a sight. “I can’t!” She gasped.
“She’s got a double, I bet,” Pelayo laughed.
What a brawl. They were going crazy. A sheepshead in shallow water is one thing. In the marsh he can’t give a full account of himself; he tugs back and forth, from side to side as you haul him in over the shallow marsh. Out here it’s a different story: Here they go absolutely berserk. A short brutal run like a red, then dogged back and forth lunges like some giant mutant bluegill. Back on another run, stripping the spool like a bull red. These suckers are brutal.
“Sid — HELP!”
“Just hold on!” Pelayo laughed while grabbing her by the belt from behind. “He probably won’t pull you overboard. Think it might be a winter speck in Oak River? Don’t those fight just like this?”
“NO WAY!” yelled Valerie, recalling an earlier carnival fishing trip with Spencer and Priscilla.
After much grunting, whooping and yelling from their captor, Valerie’s brace of fish were thrashing at boatside.
“Bet those suckers go 4 pounds apiece,” I said with a low whistle.
Pelayo grabbed the leader and swung the chunky suckers aboard. No time for landing nets with this type of fishing.
I’d venture that a rig-caught winter sheepshead actually beats a deep marsh redfish as table fare. The saltier the water, the better-tasting the fish.
And, as mentioned, the spawn is on around here. This, combined with the cold winter waters, means these sheepshead are plenty fat. You’ll note the meat is almost marbled. This makes the fillets juicy and absolutely delectable whether fried, grilled, broiled, ceviched — whatever. The firm, white fillets hold up well on the grill. But but don’t try the half-shell bit with these: Unlike with a redfish, a sheepshead’s scales turn and bend when exposed to the grill, making the time-honored redfish recipe too messy.
I was just flipping the bail after adding more ice to the box when — WHAM! The battle was again joined. He hit the shrimp-tipped jig not 5 feet from the surface, but my drag was loose so he started stripping out line like a maniac.
Such stuff went on for a couple of hours, with five fishermen almost constantly cranking in fish. We fished a grand total of one rig and one well-jacket (all in state waters), and filled two boxes (like in the good ol’ days).
The fishing was non-stop, true to our boast and consistent with their experience this time of year.
“Just like last year!” Valerie beamed.
As mentioned, it’s the only SURE thing in fishing. So sleep late, forget the live bait, call up the chums and in-laws who like “catching” more than “fishing,” and fill the freezer with a fish your great grandparents considered “among the best in the Gulf.”
Imagine snapper fishing but after a measly one-mile, open-water trip while using inshore red and speck tackle — and with no limits!