Saturday, December 4, 2021

Species Spotlight: Sheepshead

Jim with a Sheepshead.

Jim with a Sheepshead.

Capt. Pete Rapps

Fall is here in the 10,000 Islands and with cooler water temperatures and the change of seasons, comes the migration of the Sheepshead fish. These fish begin to arrive in big numbers about this time each year to spawn. They inhabit many of our near shore structures, oyster bars, and the deeper mangrove pockets in the back county river mouths.

In addition to being called Sheepshead, they are sometimes referred to as the convict fish, Seabream Sheepshead, and Southern Sheepshead. They are distributed in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, with the densest populations being here in southwest Florida. Sheepshead are also found in smaller numbers off the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America, south to Brazil.

The teeth of the Sheepshead include well-defined incisors, grinders, and molars. In the front of its mouth are the incisor-like teeth. These teeth look nothing like any other fish’s, but more resemble that of a human. I had an orthodontist out last fall, who was completely intrigued with the teeth of the Sheepshead. It was funny, he spent

John Biestek with a Sheepshead.

John Biestek with a Sheepshead.

a good part of the day admiring the fishes’ teeth.

Sheepshead are most commonly caught in our area in the 2-5 pound range and average 12”-18” in length. They must be at least 12” to keep and currently the catch limit is 15 per person per day. They are thought to live about 20 years and can grow to about 20 lbs. They reach reproductive maturity in about 2 years. During the Fall and Winter spawning season, they are thought to lay between 10,000 to 70,000 eggs every 28 days.

Sheepshead are omnivorous fish, feeding primarily on small Crabs, Oysters, Clams, and Shrimp. The Sheepshead uses its impressive teeth to crush shelled prey, and to scrape barnacles from rocks and pilings.

Sheepshead are highly valued for human consumption due to their mild flavor and delicate white flesh. They are difficult to clean and fillet because of the sharp spines on their back and thick skin and scales. At the fillet table, I like to use a pair of thick gloves to handle the fish, and an electric fillet knife to cut through

Kevin, Ellen, and David with a bunch of Sheepshead. PHOTOS BY CAPT. RAPPS/COASTAL BREEZE NEWS

Kevin, Ellen, and David with a bunch of Sheepshead. PHOTOS BY CAPT. RAPPS/COASTAL BREEZE NEWS

their thick skin.

When fishing for Sheepshead, I like to use live shrimp with a 2’-3’ long leader made of 20# test fluorocarbon, and a #2 hook. They will feed very lightly….. you will think a small Snapper is nibbling on your bait. The trick here is to let him eat for a few seconds before trying to set the hook. It takes patience and discipline to hook these tricksters, but once you do it a few times, you will get the hang of it.

Capt. Rapps has been fishing the Chokoloskee area for just over 20 years. He offers expert guided, light tackle, near shore, and backwater fishing trips in the 10000 Islands of the Everglades National Park, and is happy to accommodate anyone from men, women, & children of all ages, experienced or not, and those with special needs. Pete and his captains are extremely patient and love to teach. You can book a charter right online 24/7. See the online availability calendar, booking info, videos, recipes, seasonings, and first class web site at and you can reach him at 239-571-1756.

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