Seriously Sheepshead: A Fishing Tale off Hilton Head Island

Catching a Sheepshead off Hilton Head Island

Photo courtesy of Capt. Miles Altman

The slight, almost imperceptible tug on the rod tip signaled the sheepshead had taken the crab in its mouth. Pulling back gently to tighten the connection, I waited for the second tap. At this point, history has taught me that it may be too late—the crab crushed and the fish gone. But there it was, another light tap!

Setting the hook quickly, the classic tug of war battle was on. Bending the rod double on surging runs and taking drag, the sheepshead did his best to return to the structure below.

After several minutes, we finally had color—the black-and-white striped master bait thief was close. But they never give up easy, and the fish took line again and headed for the depths. Back and forth he went, until finally the fish was close enough to slide the net under. Weighing around eight pounds, the sheepshead was mostly grown. While weights in the double digits are possible, few are reeled in over the 10-pound mark while fishing.

Sheepshead are present year-round in the Lowcountry, but March is a banner month for this fishery.

A member of the snapper family, they rank high on my list of favorite fish to catch. Difficult to hook due to their feeding habits, a real scrapper when it comes to fighting and last—but definitely not least—they are delicious on the plate. A large set of teeth, almost human-like, are used to crush barnacles, crabs and other hard-shell critters.

The preferred bait for most anglers is fiddler crabs. The most common rig is a fish finder rig—a sliding sinker rigged above a short leader with the hook at the end. Dropping the crab over a structure until the sinker hits bottom, then reeling the sinker up a foot or so, allows the angler, if he’s lucky, to feel the light tap or tug when the sheepie takes the crab in its mouth. Only seconds pass before the sheepshead crushes the crab, spits the hook and then is on its way. Needless to say, you need a good supply of fiddlers if you want to seriously sheepshead fish. Fresh clams and live shrimp are also productive baits.

One of the things I like most about March is that sheepshead are harbingers of the season. They kickstart our local fishing, keeping us busy until the cobia show in late April and May. But that’s another month and another story. Now it’s time to catch the sheepies!

P.S. A note for our guests and residents of northern origin: these are not the same fish as the freshwater species you know from back home.

By Capt. Miles Altman of Bayrunner Fishing Charters, who has more than 42 years of experience fishing the waters surrounding Hilton Head Island. Contact Capt. Miles at (843) 290-6955 or visit bayrunnerfishinghiltonhead.com to book an unforgettable inshore or offshore charter fishing trip departing from Shelter Cove Marina.

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