This overlooked fish is excellent table fare
“How’s the snapper?” I asked.
“It’s OK, but it could use some garlic,” Uncle Topper replied.
I’ll be honest: The snapper was delicious — perfectly broiled in butter with a dash or four of Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning.
We all know someone who’s never satisfied or has to top anything said or make a negative comment to quell the mood.
The funny thing is, I was concerned my uncle’s distinguished palette might catch on to the fact that the “snapper” he was eating was not red snapper but galvanized snapper, jailhouse snapper — or to use the official term, sheepshead.
You heard me right, sheepshead.
Sheepshead gets a bad rap as table fare, but let me tell you, it’s darn good. So good that the average fish eater can’t tell the difference in sheepshead and red snapper, whether it’s broiled, fried or grilled.
The fillet cooks up white and firm, just like a red snapper.
My favorite part about sheepshead is they can be caught year-round close to home. There’s no ridiculous federal limit or shortened season.
Sheepshead are not regulated, so keep as many as you’d like to make a great meal.
To get a good fillet, I’d stick to sheepshead of 6 pounds or bigger.
Sheepshead get their name because they have a funny little mouth that looks very much like a sheep’s. They have buck teeth in the front for nibbling, with smaller teeth in the back for crushing the shells of barnacles, fiddler crabs and shrimp.
The small mouth and weird-looking teeth mean you have to take a different approach to catching them, though.
You’ll catch some on your standard live-bait hooks, but you’re better off to go to a smaller hook with a piece of shrimp, a small live shrimp or, when available, a live fiddler crab.
Fiddlers are hard to find in the winter, so shrimp will be your best bet.
Capt. Mike Adams with Fort Bayou Charters had a big crew down from Oklahoma recently, and teamed up with friend and fellow charter Capt. Glenn Ellis with Goin’ Coastal Charters to accommodate the large crew.
The result was a mixed-box melee, with a large dose of sheepshead.
I talked to Capt. Glenn to get some pointers on the best tackle and techniques to use.
The tackle used for trout will work just fine for sheepshead, with a couple of caveats.
You need to use braid as your main line and a heavy monofilament leader because you’re going to be fishing tight against barnacle-encrusted structure.
“I like to use the same rod and reel we use for trout; it’s that Penn Battle combo,” Ellis said. “It’s a 2500 Penn Battle (reel) with a medium-light-action rod.
“It still has enough backbone to set the hook on a fish, but the crucial part of the setup is fishing with braided line. We use braided line so when you set the hook you can stop him from heading to structure.
“We were fishing with 30-pound Suffix 832 braid with about a 3-foot shock leader; I had 20-pound monofilament. When I go back I’ll use 30- or 40-pound-test due to a sheepshead’s mouth.
Because sheepshead have a hard mouth full of teeth designed for crushing shells, the guides use a heavy wire hook on the business end of their leader.
“You want as small of hook as you can get away with,” Ellis. “We use circle hooks for the clients, so there’s not a whole lot of setting hook involved: When they hit, you basically pick it up and start reeling.
“A sheepshead will bend the heck out of a light wire hook, so we use a heavier-gauge hook that is smaller in size and super sharp. I like using a No. 1 or 2 Owner circle hook in a heavier gauge.”
I’ve seen folks fishing the bridges for sheepshead in the winter and just automatically assumed that, since it was cold, they were fishing on the bottom. I pictured drop-shot rigs with a heavy sinker to get the bait down.
“On our last trip there wasn’t a lot of tide movement, so I used a 1/16-ounce split shot about 14 to 16 inches above the hook,” Ellis said. “It was just enough to get that live shrimp to float down naturally and once it had drifted down 6 to 8 feet below the surface we’d quit feeding line out and just kind of hold it there.
“That 1/16-ounce (weight) was just enough … to hold it out a little bit so it wouldn’t drop directly beneath your boat. If you have a bigger tide, go to a ¼-ounce or even a 3/8-ounce. It all depends on the current and the depth the fish are at.”
Since fiddler crabs are hard to find during the winter, live shrimp are your best bet, and most bait shops in the area will be well stocked.
“This time of year, the live shrimp are a little bit on the smaller side, and that’s what you want for sheepshead,” Ellis said. “I don’t think it really matters a whole lot if you hook them through the tail or under the horn. But, if you start getting bit and missing fish, then go ahead and thread the whole live shrimp on the hook like it was a dead shrimp. It’s still alive, temporarily, but it still has that super fresh scent of a live bait.
“You’ve killed that shrimp so it’s good for that cast only. When you get in a good sheepshead bite you only need one cast.”
The water is typically clear during the winter, so you’ll be able to see the sheepshead swimming around the structure. The good news is they’re not easily spooked, so long casts aren’t necessary and a lot of times you’ll see the fish eat your shrimp.
“Fish tight, tight to the structure,” Ellis said. “We got into a place right next to a bulkhead where I had the trolling motor nosed right up to the bulkhead, and I was holding it with my arm. The people were fishing on both sides of the boat off the bow. We were drop-fishing, almost like we were snapper fishing — just dropping it straight down or tossing it out 3 or 4 feet and letting it fall down through the water column.
“There’s no real set depth, (but) it does seem that you have more success in 8 feet of water or greater but not necessarily on the bottom. That’s another reason to use that light lead; if the fish are suspended at 5 to 7 feet below the surface and you’re in 14 feet of water, your bait doesn’t go right past the fish, making you think they’re not there. You want to figure out where they’re holding in that depth, and the light weight lets you do that.”
Sounds simple right? Saddle up to the train trestle that traverses Biloxi Bay and follow the steps Ellis laid out for us, and I all but guarantee you’ll go home with a cooler full of fish.
Before your first attempt at filleting a sheepshead I suggest watching the great instructional video over on our sister site at LouisianaSportsman.com/how-to-cook-clean-sheepshead (instructions on cleaning the fish begins at about the 8 1/2-minute mark).
But, you need a sharp, stiff-bladed fillet knife along with — just my suggestion — a leather work glove. Sheepshead have spines that look like a medieval torture device, along with gill plates that’ll cut you if you’re not careful.
If you’re an old hand at filleting spiny fish, go ahead without the glove but proceed with caution.
You might mangle the first couple of fillets, but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough and be glad you kept a mess of those delectable galvanized snapper.
Hey, I won’t be mad if you’re a fish snob and refuse to eat sheepshead, but you’re missing out.
If you’re a closet fish snob but willing to try it and just can’t get past the term sheepshead, use one of the terms I found on the Gulf Coast Research Lab website to fancy it up a bit: “tete de mouton” or the more expensive-sounding term “rondeau seabream.”
On the way home from my interview with Ellis, I crossed the Biloxi Bay bridge. The slight wompty womp of my tires on the bridge was like the bell to Pavlov’s dog.
Yes sir, I started salivating just thinking about all the delicious galvanized snapper directly below.