Piling on sheepshead on the bridges

Sheepshead get little respect outside of the small percentage of coastal fishermen who relish the winter opportunity to easily rack up big catches of the freakishly toothy fish with silvery sides and black vertical bars.

“They’re plentiful. They’re fine eating. They’re fun to catch,” said guide Kenny Shiyou of Shore Thing Charters in Waveland. “And all you have to do is motor about a mile from the beachfront landing in Bay St. Louis and fish the (U.S) Highway 90 bride pilings.”

Fishermen call it “piling on sheepshead” — fishing cut or live bait at the bases of the Highway 98 bridge pilings at Bay St. Louis, Biloxi Bay and the Pascagoula River.

“You can also catch redfish, black drum and even a rare speck of flounder,” Shiyou said. “That’s what I tell my young clients, that the fun of fishing the Gulf is that you never know what you’re going to catch when you put a bait in the water. I love to put young-un’s on the sheepshead, because as long as they are catching something, they’re happy. And when we find the right piling that day, it’s on like gangbusters.

“But it’s also a great trip for all fishermen because the sheepshead, the reds and the puppy drum, all of that is great eating. In colder temperatures — and I really think the bite is better when it’s coldest — we can usually fill the fish box by noon, starting at 8 a.m. That’s a quick, productive trip that rarely lasts long enough for anybody to get too cold. The action usually keeps them pretty fired up and warm.”

Fishing the pilings of the bridges on U.S. 98 promises a lot of hot action, especially for sheepshead.

Shiyou prefers spinning reels with 15- to 20-pound test braid with a short piece of 20- or 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a quarter- or half-ounce weight.

“If you can flip a baitcast reel proficiently, that’s even better,” he said. “We want the bait to fall right beside the piling. That is critical. It’s like the fish are glued to the pilings by their faces. The new bridge across Bay St. Louis built after Hurricane Katrina is perfect, because its pilings have this big, flat, platform-like square just above the water line. You can toss the bait up on the flat concrete, then with a free spool, drag it off the edge and let it fall.

“You have to keep close contact with line at all times, though, because a fish might hit it before it reaches bottom. We use the braid and the heavy fluorocarbon to hold up to the rough abrasive pilings, but it also gives us better feel of the line. We also see the line twitch when we get a bite.”

Shiyou and other guides often position their boats parallel to the pilings, with the bow of the boat facing into either a north or south wind. There is a trick to dropping anchor just far enough out to allow the boat to drift into position before cleating off the anchor line with the boat sitting in perfect casting position about 10 to 15 feet from the piling.

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Bobby Cleveland has covered sports in Mississippi for over 40 years. A native of Hattiesburg and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Cleveland lives on Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson with his wife Pam.