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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 8:07 am | Fair 52º


Captain’s Log: Sheepshead Are a Funny, Fabulous Fish

Garret Miller and Claudia Demas show the distinctly different colorations of a male and female sheepshead, aboard the charter boat WaveWalker.
Garret Miller and Claudia Demas show the distinctly different colorations of a male and female sheepshead, aboard the charter boat WaveWalker. (Capt. David Bacon / Noozhawk photo)

So I got a call from a couple of guys working on a project and needing lots of photos of sheepshead and wanting to know if they could charter me and my boat, WaveWalker. The guy talking asked, “Can you take us to where there are lots of sheepshead?”

My reply was, “Sure … but can you catch them?” I would have put the right gear in their hands and given them all the help they needed to be successful, but it turned out that they had good gear and pretty good fishing expertise. So we set a date and we got fairly lucky with the weather.

On our way out of the harbor and on a course to Santa Rosa Island, I was monitoring the marine weather channel and heard that the winds at the West Santa Barbara Channel Buoy was 4 knots. About two-thirds of the way across, we encountered whitecaps building quickly, and the weather channel reported that winds at the West Buoy had risen rapidly to 14 knots.

Knowing I had to work some very shallow, rocky environs where the waves crash onto rocks all around us, I diverted to the west end of Santa Cruz Island. Ideal habitat for these red and black baddies is a rugged, rocky reef zone at depths ranging from 20 feet to 120 feet, and both islands have great habitat.

The water around the boilers was nervous and surgy. If you’ve spent much time there, you know exactly what I mean. My boat and I can handle that so we moved in close and baited up with shrimp and crawdads. Sheepshead love to eat shrimp and the crawdads look kinda like baby lobster so the baits were effective.

During the day the two guys caught 15 sheepshead, releasing all of them except for a few for the table. Along with the targeted fish the pair also caught about 20 other good fish, which were carefully released healthy by my crew member Capt. Tiffany Vague. It was a great day, and the guys got lots of photos for their project.

Sheepshead are fascinating to study as they are caught. These fish start out as females, which are all red. As they mature, they turn into males and turn black at both ends. They remain red in the middle section. They seem to have a social structure based upon size, so it is common that the biggest sheepshead in the vicinity will be caught first.

Individual fish seem to have the ability to look around at their school and determine the need for a higher ration of males and the biggest female will go through the change. If you put multiple sheepshead in a live well, the biggest one will turn a stronger color and the smaller ones will fade somewhat, perhaps in a sign of submission.

A sheepshead is nearly strong enough to pull arms right out of their sockets! These “goats” (an affectionate nickname) don’t make long, sustained runs, like a yellowtail or other gamefish, but use their impressive strength to bulldog back down to the rocks where they can easily bust off even stout fishing line. Keep them out of the rocks, or the battle is lost in the first eight seconds.

I’m glad we have “character fish” like sheepshead locally.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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