The bounce at the tip of Capt. Mark Dickson’s rod looked way too aggressive to be a sheepshead, a fish with whose subtle bite has earned it quite a reputation.
The rod bounced enough it was noticeable to others on Dickson’s boat. Surely, it had to be something other than a sheepshead.
Suddenly the line began moving through the water, and Dickson jerked on the limber rod to drive the hook point home.
His exclamation of, “Here’s one,” was immediately verified by the sound of line being ripped from the little spinning reel. The deal was on, and Dickson was hooked into something with shoulders and torque that didn’t seem particularly interested in joining his crew.
After a minute or so, the first flash of those convict stripes shone through the murky water. Dickson slowly but surely worked the tiring fish towards the landing net, and with a quick scoop, he lifted it aboard.
“This is what we’re here after,” Dickson said, admiring the chunky fish. “These guys are almost always hungry, and they aren’t as hard to catch as most folks think. Let’s get someone else up here and get this action going.”
Dickson, who runs Shallow Minded Charters in North Myrtle Beach, is better known for catching speckled trout, redfish and flounder, but he’s also a sheepshead guru. He spends many days each year in Little River Inlet and knows the location of every rock that has tumbled off the jetties and every pocket on both sides of both structures. That’s a big key to his success and gives him numerous places to try.
On this particular day, he didn’t need a Plan B; Plan A worked to perfection. He adjusted the anchors a time or two as the tide rose and the wind shifted, but he never left his original spot. The fish bit the first bait that was dropped over the side, and the last fish was big enough to get the 20-pound braid around a rock and chafe it in two. At that point, with a boat of tired grinning fishermen, he pulled the anchors and headed in.
The 10 a.m. departure from Harbourgate Marina in North Myrtle Beach that morning had been aimed at taking advantage of the tide, and late in the fall or early in the winter, being able to fish after the sun had warmed the air for a few hours was an especially welcome situation.
Rock jetties line the outside of the inlet, and a stop at the inshore end of one of them allowed Dickson to gather bait — scraping barnacles from the surface of the rocks. It took about 30 minutes, and as the falling tide slowed to almost slack before rising again, he eased around the end of the jetty and positioned the boat. On a northwest wind, he planned to fish the outside of the south jetty.
Once he had the boat anchored, Dickson reached in the bucket and picked up a piece of the bait and threaded it onto the small hook.
“You can’t really cast this,” said Dickson (843-458-3055). “It doesn’t stay on the hook well when whipped.”
Pointing 10 feet from the boat at a rock whose top was exposed between waves, Dickson said, “Just lightly swing it over to the far side of that rock and let it drop right beside it. As soon as it disappears, click the bail shut and be ready to set the hook. The bait will sink slowly, and the sheepshead often pick it up as it is dropping beside the rock. You’ve got to keep the line tight to feel the bite, yet still let it sink.”
Following Dickson’s directions, a fisherman soon was on the business end of a tenuous connection to a fat, struggling sheepshead. Bending the light rod deeply, the fish made a run of about 20 yards upon feeling the sting of the hook. Slowly, he battled it back to the boat where Dickson waited. Another deft sweep of the net, and a big sheepshead joined them in the boat.
After a celebratory fist bump, Dickson grabbed the fish with his Boga Grip and eased the hook out of its mouth. The scales pulled to 6½ pounds, and everyone smiled.
Dickson used the Boga Grip to open its mouth and said, “Lots of folks say these teeth look almost human. I guess they have to be pretty tough to crack barnacles and scrape mussels off the rocks.”
While the fish was nothing like the 16-pound, 6-ounce monster Jimmy Widener caught to claim the state record in 2008, it was still a nice sheepshead.
After hanging another piece of the bait on the hook, it was again swung into place beside the rock. The rod bobbed just as quickly, but there wasn’t any resistance to the hookset.
“Did you just have a hit?” Dickson asked. Upon receiving a nod of confirmation, he said, “If it hasn’t come back real quickly, you’ve probably already lost your bait. This stuff doesn’t stay on the hook the best, but it is crunchy, and you usually feel them better than with sandfiddlers. They also really like it, so if it doesn’t come back pretty quickly, you’re out of bait.”
The action continued as the tide rose, but because Dickson had anchored the boat in perfect position, the fishermen knew exactly where the key rock was located and could put their rigs and on target on every drop. And the bites kept on coming.
Dickson’s sheepshead rig is simple. His reels are spooled with 20-pound braid; he adds several feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon at the end. An Owner CCW 5180, straight-shank octopus hook in No. 1 is tied to the end of the fluorocardbon. The only weight is an eighth-ounce split shot six to eight inches above the hook. The fluorocarbon allows the rig to disappear, and the small hook is easily hidden in the bait. Being small enough to hide in the bait, the hook is also small enough that sometimes the fish doesn’t hook up or is hooked poorly and escapes. However, the fish must be fought hard to keep it from getting back into the rocks and breaking off.