Cooler weather means it’s time to start sheepherding

As we settle into February, you can expect the fishing around Anna Maria Island to settle into its wintertime pattern. With stronger colder fronts moving in and cooler water temperatures present, we should begin to see a good influx of sheepshead starting to move into our area. 

As these tasty fish prepare for their spawn they will begin to school up, making them targetable for a wide variety of anglers. They’ll also been feeding heavily which makes them more apt to eat a bait with a hook in it. 

The key to finding these fish is to find the structure. And what’s great is structure can be anything from docks and bridges or reefs, wrecks and rock piles. For those who fish from land, the local fishing piers and bridges provide a great environment to target sheepies. For those fishing from a boat, wrecks and reefs are a go-to during sheepshead season.  

Now that you know where to find them, you need to consider what bait to use to catch them. Sheepshead like crustaceans so you’re going to want to be thinking along those lines when selecting a bait. Live shrimp work well and are probably the most accessible bait to everyone. Other crustacean baits include fiddler crabs and sand fleas. These require a little effort on the fisher’s part as they generally have to be harvested. 

You can probably buy the fiddlers, and I know you can buy sand fleas, but the ones you catch are far superior to the store-bought ones. The fiddlers are hard to buy consistently and the sand fleas you can only buy frozen, which in my opinion are not a good product. 

That being said, if you want to use sand fleas, you’re better off catching your own. The best way is to purchase a sand flea rake — a tool with a long handle and a wire basket fixed to one end. You drag these basket in the sand in the shore break along the sand beaches and with a little luck, you’ll catch some fleas. This may not be as easy as you think. You may have to do some searching to find the right beach. With constant beach renourishments along Anna Maria, most sand flea populations have diminished so a little searching may be required. 

As for fiddler crabs, they’re not easy either. First, you need to find areas where they are abundant. Usually areas that are exposed during low tide where numerous mangrove exist are ideal. Again, doing your homework to find these areas may take a little time and effort. And once you find an area, you’ll want to keep it a secret. That way no one else will be in there raiding your bait spot.

I remember growing up here as a boy and being sworn to secrecy by my father about not giving out our fiddler crab spots. Showing up to catch your bait and discovering someone else had already been there was never a good sign. Sometimes it would take hours to find a new spot. And those were hours you weren’t fishing.

With all of this being said, catching fleas or fiddlers may not be suited for the average angler. Remember, there’s always shrimp. Live shrimp are readily available for purchase at your local bait shop and don’t require a lot of hassle. A five-gallon bucket and an aerator complete the preparation. And with a little bit of cash to purchase shrimp, you’re on your way.

For the experienced sheepherder, I’m sure you know a few other baits that work well. In fact, they are some of the best. And, you’re in luck because I’m not going to mention them. Your coveted secrets are safe with me. With the invention of social media, it seems to act of secrecy has gone by the wayside among anglers. It boggles my mind the way people are willing to give up all of their hard work to find fish just so they can post it on Facebook. Whatever happened to paying your dues and figuring it out on your own?

Now you’ve got bait and you generally know what to look for to find some sheepies. As far as rigging goes, I suggest using a small stout hook. Sheepshead have a boney mouth which can do a number on a normal hook. You’re going to be fishing around structure so a decent fluorocarbon leader of 20- to 30-pound test might be a good idea, too. Add a little weight to this rig to secure your bait close to the bottom and you’re in business. And remember, sheepshead need to be 12 inches long to be a keeper and you can possess eight fish for your daily bag limit.