Reeling in the Sheeps(heads) in New Jersey
In yet another indicator that the summer migration is underway, sheepshead have arrived in decent numbers and will continue filtering in from their southern coastal state digs through August.
This largest member of the porgy family has actually been around since mid-May, and in a sense is re-claiming its former haunts. Sheepshead were once immensely plentiful in Garden State waters and up into New York and the New England states. In fact, Sheepshead Bay in southern part of the borough of Brooklyn, NY was named so for a reason!
Our first encounter with a Garden State sheepshead, a 10-lb. or so brute that inhaled a pink/white 1/4-oz. bucktail tipped with a piece of shedder crab at the old Beesley’s Point drawbridge was way back in ‘92. Previously, we’d caught them by the loads from Virginia down through mid-Florida and had no idea that this cinder block-built bivalve and crustacean crusher could be found in New Jersey, much less caught here.
There’s no mistaking the sheepshead: its broad body is striped with bands of silver and black (hence the nickname “convict fish), and, for further identification, look no farther than the maw. The dentition is designed for nipping and crushing shells, and resembles a tog on steroids. Besides the sharp fin spines, a hurt will be put on a finger(s) if careless.
This is a structure-loving species and is found around bridge stanchions and jetties and also over piles of rocks and rubble. They’ll also move up along sedge banks and flats during high tide periods hunting crabs, marine worms and shrimp.
We opt for a crab-baited jig when probing the bridges and rocks. Fiddler, mud and Asian crabs are preferred, but green crab will also work. This setup drastically reduces the chances of snagging and is a direct point of contact when a sheepshead makes a commitment. Capt. Dan Schafer from Insomniac Guide Service in Stone Harbor has been targeting sheepshead for two decades, and in between clients, filming videos, guest appearances, sponsor obligations and consultations, developed his deadly Bottom Sweeper series of jig heads that are ideally suited to the sheepshead hunt and is also effective on tog.
Keep the tackle light but strong, as sheepshead pull hard. Double digit fish are not uncommon (the state record is a whopping 19-lbs. 3-oz. and was caught off Longport in 2014), but figure the average to be in the 3- to 6-pound range. There are no minimum length or bag limits on this delicious gamester, but practice restraint when it comes to the cooler.
You can learn more about the sheepshead game by tuning in to this Saturday’s Rack & Fin Radio between 7am-8am on 97.3 ESPN FM. Capt. Dan Schafer will be discussing the species in depth and how to catch them.