The 16-foot Uncle Buck’s Crappie Pole allowed Biloxi’s Kyle Perry to drop the bait straight down into the strike zone. Perry’s bait hadn’t sunk 18 inches when the bright-yellow tip of the pole bobbed twice and then went straight down.
He reacted almost simultaneously, and it was game on.
After a brief pole-bending, drag-screeching battle, his partner netted a sheepshead that pushed the scales to 8 pounds and change.
Yes, a sheepshead.
Perry has a 16-foot Carolina Skiff that relegates him to fishing inside the bay, except on the calmest of days, so he looked for a way to quench his fishing addiction while the large trout are at the barrier islands.
While fishing the train trestles that cross Biloxi Bay for flounder, he noticed there were a lot of sheepshead cruising in and out of the pilings.
“It started last summer,” Perry explained. “I do a lot of flounder fishing around the (train trestle) pilings, dock pilings and other structure. I would see sheepshead around these pilings, and I just started thinking about how I could get a bait to them.
“I remembered reading about some East Coast guys that fished for sheepshead along the rock jetties, and they would use these 20-foot-long bamboo poles and also fiberglass telescoping poles. These poles were perfect for putting a bait in front of the fish. So that is kind of where I got the idea.”
Perry took the lessons he’d learned from those East Coast fishermen and figured out a way to apply them to local conditions. Using his trolling motor, Perry places himself a pole’s distance from the piling or structure he wants to fish and drops his bait straight down into the area where the sheepshead are feeding.
“You’ll notice barnacles, the actual small barnacle that encrusts the structure, whether it be wooden dock pilings or concrete pilings — they’re always in the upper 2 to 3 feet of the tidal range,” Perry said. “They have to spend a certain amount of time out of the water, so their (sheepshead) food source is in that upper section of the water column.”
That means it’s not a bottom-fishing deal.
“You don’t want to be fishing too deep,” Perry said. “You don’t want to go 5 feet down and be below the fish.
“Sure, you may be able to catch some, but I’ve noticed it is best to keep my bait in the upper 2 to 3 feet of the water column.”
After some trial-and-error Perry locked in on the depth sheepshead tend to live in. Though sheepshead feed in the top layer of the water column, it seems they need some depth to thrive.
“When I first started doing this,” Perry said, “I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d seen sheepshead on the flats when I was sight-fishing for reds in a foot of water all the way out to deeper water.
“What I found over the first summer and coming into this summer is that the majority of the good bunches of fish are in 8 to 10 feet of water. There may be a set of pilings that run from 2 or 3 feet out to 8 feet, and I’ll catch them all in 8 feet.
“Sometimes, if you get a good spot, you may get them in 5 to 6 feet depending on what the tide is doing, but they seem to like, at least for this style of fishing, that deeper water — at least 8 to 10 feet.”
Perry also found that there is no need to start early. In fact, it’s best to wait until the sun is up since sheepshead are visual feeders.
And the shade of the train trestle will allow you to stay cool and fish later into the day. He has caught sheepshead all day by hopping from piling to piling and staying in the shade.
While current is not a necessity, it does place the sheepshead in more-predictable locations on the trestle — the downcurrent side.
Perry still catches fish when the tide is slack, but he has to target all sides of the pilings because the sheepshead move around more.
Strong winds call for a change in strategy, as well.
“If you’re in a situation where the wind is pushing pretty good and you can’t fish anything but the upcurrent side, you can still catch fish,” Perry said. “They will go around the pilings.”
He said it’s critical to success to understand how the fish relate to the pilings, no matter where they orient to the concrete columns.
“Remember: These sheepshead are facing the piling. They’re facing the barnacles; that’s their food source,” Perry explained. “I like to bring the rod tip as close to the piling as possible, within 1 or 2 inches, so that crab is sitting right next to those barnacles.
“As they scan those pilings, that brings the bait right in front of their nose. It makes a big difference on hookups.”
Perry found that bait placement along with the long crappie poles make a huge difference in his success. Early on he tried a flipping stick, but found that the rod was too stiff and allowed the sheepshead to nibble the bait off his hook. Perry also found that being that close spooked the sheepshead.
“If anybody has read anything about sheepshead, they know about the bait-stealer (understanding) that everyone has of these fish,” Perry elucidated. “Look at their mouths and their teeth: They’re able to nibble and avoid hooks very well.”
The limber crappie poles counteract the fish’s seeming ability to sense the danger of the hook hidden in the bait.
“What I’ve noticed about this rod,” he explained, “ is that the last 10 inches is extremely flimsy. These fish don’t seem to notice the tension on the hook, as opposed to if you had a heavier-action rod.”
But a quick reaction to a strike is important.
“When you see your rod tip double over, you give it a one count at most, and you put everything you’ve got into the hookset,” Perry said. “You have to rip them away from the piling, because the first thing a sheepshead is going to do when he realized he is hooked is try to get back around those barnacles and cut you off.”
That’s when the real fun begins. When Perry sets the hook, he turns his body away from the trestle, which prevents the fish from going into the barnacles.
His drag is set heavy but not so heavy that a strong lunge will break the line or the pole.
“If you’re by yourself, you want to make sure you wear the fish out,” Perry explained. “He’ll come up to the surface and kind of wallow around. At that point you know you’re ready; he’s not going to make any more runs or anything like that, so at that point you just start telescoping your rod down.
“Start with the lower, the heavier section, and telescope down, usually two or three sections is all you need. That way you still have a good 5 feet at the end. That’ll shorten your rod enough to where you can bring the fish to the side of the boat and net it.
“It helps to have a long-handle dip net so you don’t have to telescope too far down. Using that technique and a longer handle net is pretty effective.”
So don’t let the summertime wind machine get you down. Drop by one of our local tackle shops, grab a crappie pole, catch a few fiddlers and go herd some sheepshead along the trestles.