At the end of a long, hot summer, most kayak anglers are agreeable to most anything that will bite. Unfortunately, many paddlers are still beating the marsh for reds, trout and flounder during the dog days of summer when one of the most-reliable targets is back at the dock or ramp they just left.
Sheepshead may seem a bit peculiar at first. Often referred to as panfish of the sea, sheepshead are an inshore species that are commonly found around oyster bars, seawalls and in tidal creeks. Although the fish move nearshore during late winter and early spring to spawn, they will return to inshore waters once the water temperature reaches 70 degrees, and they can be found there the rest of the year.
One of the great things about targeting sheepshead from a paddle boat is that almost any deep-water structure you find in a busy creek is likely sheepshead-holding structure. That precludes having to do a lot of paddling to find concentrations of fish. A row of docks or a long, broken up seawall can provide a whole day’s worth of fishing for a paddler.
When targeting sheepshead, look for a creek or river that holds a minimum of 4 feet of water at low tide. What makes a location even better is to find fish-holding structure such as piers, docks, rip-rap walls or blowdown trees on the outside bend in a creek or river. The current will wash out the outside bend and make a deeper hole, and sheepshead love to bunch up in a deep hole during the summer.
Most anglers find that the fish tend to feed and subsequently bite better in moving water, but it is best to fish as vertically as possible over the top of the structure. Sheepshead will bite better as the current comes in, because the higher the water is, the more barnacle and oyster shell there will be at the fish’s disposal.
Fishing from a plastic boat can be an advantage when hitting busy creeks and waterways with a lot of boat traffic. Sheepshead don’t seem to be as spooky as other fish, especially during the summer — maybe because they’re used to hiding under boat docks. Paddlers often report days where they sight-fished on an incoming tide that brings clearer water right under the kayak, picking sheepshead off the rocks or dock structure as they slowly paddled along.
For this type of close-quarters combat where the paddler may be fishing up under a dock, you will have more success at setting a hook on a sheepshead by shortening up from a typical, stout 6- to 7-foot rods, to a 5- or 5 ½-foot medium or medium-light spinning rod outfitted with a 10-pound braid.
Depending on the amount of current and the water depth you’re fishing, anglers typically do better using a simple split shot or Carolina rig. Weights from 1 /16- up to ½- ounce may be used.
Sheepshead are not particularly noted for being line shy, but a short length of 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon leader is suggested. If using an egg sinker, tie a small barrel swivel between the braid and an 8-inch section of leader. If using split-shot, crimp these to the leader about 8 inches from the hook.
Fiddler crabs are probably the most-popular baits, followed by shrimp, sand fleas, clams and live barnacles.
Two approaches work well for sheepshead fishing. The first is lowering or “dipping” the rig around vertical structure like dock pilings or posts. The second is to lower the rig all the way to the bottom and let the weight sit on the rocks while the bait waves in the current.
To distinguish a bite, feel for a chewing sensation that can be duplicated by rolling the leader between your fingers on a tight line. A “thump” on the line is indicative of a fish snatching the bait off the hook and rarely results in a hookup.
While working your way through a series of docks, holding onto the structure with one hand so you can fish vertically with the other around the base of the structure works best. If a congregation of fish is located under one dock or in a specific area, a brush hook or clamp is better than anchoring or staking out as anything that disturbs the bottom has a tendency to spook fish.
One old-timer’s trick for getting sheepshead to bite is chumming, which can be done in a variety of methods. Clams or oysters can be stored in a burlap sack and crushed into smaller pieces with a hammer. When arriving at a spot, the paddler reaches in, grabs a handful of crushed shell and goo and tosses it in the water.
Another old-school method is to pack a garden shovel or rake in the kayak. If an area that should produce doesn’t or has been producing and stops, the paddler can reach over with the rake or shovel and scrape barnacles and shell into the water to get the party started.
The limit on sheepshead in South Carolina is 10 per person per day, not to exceed 30 per boat per day. The minimum size limit is 14 inches, measured to the tail length.