Inlet Inmates

Don’t overlook Pensacola Pass for breakout action of a different sort.

Capt. John Rivers March 17, 2010

Spring is rapidly approaching and I just left the bait shop with a bucket full of handpicked shrimp. It has been an unusually long and cold winter, leaving local anglers eager to get back on the water. A quick stop at the ramp and I’m headed across Pensacola Bay, huddled tight to my console in an effort to stay warm. Mornings during this time of the year can still be a bit chilly, but the weatherman promised 72° with sunny skies, so I dressed accordingly and kept my fingers crossed. Today was going to be a scouting mission to determine if the sheepshead were thick along Pensacola Pass’ submerged ledges and prominent jetties that are notorious for producing consistent springtime action.

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Photo: Captain John RIvers

As I drifted over the first ledge just off the tip of the south jetty, I was delighted to see my bottom machine light up like Clark Griswold’s Fraser fir. While sheepshead are mainly targeted in the vicinity of shallow docks, bridges, navigational markers, seawalls and tight along rockpiles, today I was focusing on a few deeper structures situated just inside Pensacola Pass. This inlet was dredged to allow large Navy ships and Coast Guard cutters to pass through, so it is substantially deeper than most. The particular ledge I was investigating was in 40-feet, dropping off from an adjacent rocky outcropping just feet from shore.

Once you’ve successfully boated your quarry, beware of its sharp dorsal spines. When retrieving your hook don’t let a sheepshead’s smiling grin fool you —these toothy critters often seek revenge.

Years ago in the deep south, one might have seen convicts pounding rocks along the highway in their government-issued black and white striped uniforms. The ensemble was vividly striped so that if a criminal attempted to escape, the distinctive clothing would make him an easy target. While their markings are very similar to that of a condemned chain gang member, instead of passing time with a sledgehammer in hand, sheepshead can be found crushing crustaceans with their prominent incisors, molars and specialized grinders. Convict-like striping aside, sheepshead are very odd fish. Their strangest feature is, without a doubt, their teeth. It’s these powerful crushers that give sly sheepies an upper hand over the tough-shelled crustaceans and mollusks they readily feed on. Despite their unattractive dental work, sheepshead are real beauties when it comes to tasty table fare and are highly prized by anglers around the state.

While these broad-striped bandits can be targeted with relative consistency year round, up here in the Panhandle the bite really takes off around March 1, and generally lasts until the end of April. However, the exact timing and precise location of consistent action is highly dependent upon the amount of rainfall we receive during the early spring. With a diet consisting primarily of shrimp, crabs, barnacles, oysters and clams it’s no surprise sheepshead tend to seek the cover and nourishment provided by the assortment of near-shore structures along Florida’s Emerald Coast. During their spawning season, which kicks off in the spring, sheepshead assemble into large schools and feed near the deep holes and ledges associated with area inlets and passes before they head out to the Gulf to finish their reproductive duties. It’s during this time frame that locals catch their biggest fish, with many trophy sheepshead weighing 5 to 8-pounds and measuring 20-inches or more. These fish may not bottom out your hand scale, but they are certainly worthy opponents and extremely tough for their small stature.

The preferred technique when targeting deeper structure is to drift with the current. Once you’ve hooked up a couple of times and zeroed in on the school’s precise location, slowly motor away from the pack, head back up to the starting line and get set for another productive drift. You might see as many as a dozen or more boats working the same stretch when the bite is in full swing, but when you maintain a respectful give and take, everybody’s a winner. If you choose to anchor in the pass, which is dangerous and inconsiderate, you won’t be very popular at the end of the day.

When fishing the interior of deep water passes, tide is a huge factor in determining when the fish are going to feed. If you’re burdened with a slack tide, it’s best to wait it out until the water starts moving again. The same applies when fishing the old Ft. Pickens Pier or the old Bob Sikes Bridge that used to join Pensacola Beach to Gulf Breeze. Today, land-based anglers primarily utilize these seasoned structures, but if you want to fish them by boat just pick a piling that isn’t occupied and stake your claim. I’ve caught many a sheepshead from these structures as well as the occasional red and black drum. And while you’ve surely heard about anglers scraping barnacles off pilings and docks to entice the fish into a feeding frenzy, this effective practice isn’t really necessary during the spring season. The fish are here and they are hungry! Just bring your bait of choice and hang on.

When it comes to bait selection you’ll hear different opinions on what’s the best offering, and you’ll never know exactly what the sheepshead will be most interested in on any given day. They will eat mussels, clams, crabs, sand fleas and shrimp just to name a few. Shrimp are my go-to when the bite is red hot, but I always bring a small bag of fiddlers just in case they turn their noses up at shrimp.

A common myth among sheepshead anglers is that these fish are so fast at stripping bait off of a hook, that you must strike before they bite. While sheepshead can indeed create frustration among enthusiastic anglers with their lightning fast abilities, during the annual spring migration they often eat more like a ruthless redfish than a super-fast bait stealer. When it comes to hook selection I prefer a razor sharp 2/0 Gamakatsu J-hook because at the first tap I can instantly set the hook with authority. These are short shanked, heavy wire hooks designed to withstand the strong jaws and crushing teeth of sheepshead. With clients that are unfamiliar in detecting the fast, yet subtle strike of a sheepshead, I will tie on a 2/0 Gamakatsu Super Nautilus circle-hook, allowing the fish to hook themselves. No matter what hook you choose be sure to select a quality product. Don’t try to save any money here, as sheepshead will quickly mangle and snap blue light special hooks.

The trick to consistently catching these toothy critters in relatively deep water is to keep light tension on your line so you can readily feel the strike. Like many fish that reside near structure, sheepshead have tough scales that are deeply embedded in their skin. This is essential in protecting a predator that chooses to stage near sharp barnacles and jagged rocks. For this reason alone, ultra-sensitive braided line with its unrivaled abrasion resistance is a must. Once you’ve successfully boated your quarry, beware of its sharp dorsal spines. And when retrieving your hook don’t let a sheepshead’s smiling grin fool you—these toothy critters often seek revenge.

Like most local guides, I prefer to fish for sheepshead with light tackle, utilizing a 7′ medium-action Fenwick Techna rod with a Catalyst 20 spooled with 20lb. Berkley FireLine finished off with 30-inches of 20 or 30lb. fluorocarbon leader. For deep pass fishing I recommend a fish-finder rig with a 1 to 4oz. sliding egg sinker depending on the velocity of the current. With this rigging technique you will be able to feel the jetty rocks and ledges, which will produce a noticeable thump when you hit bottom. Once your sinker hits home, simply turn the handle a couple of times and get ready. While sheepshead commit with a vengeance, piercing a hook through their rubbery mouth is a challenge in itself, so set hard! Once connected, you’ll need to apply plenty of pressure to keep your prize from winning the battle.

The benefits of fishing deep water for sheepshead are clear. While you’re getting tight, most other anglers will be passing you en route to shallow bridge pilings, docks, seawalls and navigational markers. Although it will take a tremendous amount of trial and error to find out where and when the action takes place, the results will be well worth the effort.

In Pensacola Pass, there are a few key locales worthy of focusing your efforts. The two jetties situated on the west side just inside the pass, known locally as the north jetty and south jetty, are prime. The small jetty jutting into the bay from Ft. Pickens is another key area, as are the old and new piers just to the west of that jetty. There is also a steep drop off approximately one quarter of a mile offshore of the lighthouse. This steep ledge is easy to find and consistently holds trophy sheepies. One thing is for certain; if the sheepshead are down deep you’ll soon know it at any of these locations. When the bite is hot it is easy to get carried away, so if you’re not going to eat them fresh, let ‘em live. Even though they look like convicts, grant them parole so they can reproduce for generations to come.

Fish the passes and rock jetties of the Panhandle during the epic spring sheepshead migration, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. The action will be so fun and exciting, it’s almost criminal!

Rules & Regs

  • Minimum Size: 12″ Fork Length
  • Bag Limit: 15 Per Person Per Day
  • Closed Season: None

Best Bait

  • Live Shrimp
  • Fiddler Crabs
  • Sand Fleas
  • Fresh Clam

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