These black-and-white striped battlers are challenging and delicious.
Blessed as we are here in the Lowcountry to have 80-degree days in the winter, I always try to load up on fiddler crabs on warm days, to keep an ample supply of bait in anticipation of one of my favorite targets: the delicious sheepshead.
While fiddler crabs can be purchased at local tackle stores, half the fun of sheepshead fishing is catching the fiddlers. I’ve always admired these small creatures, who are so defiant that when escape is not an option, they boldly raise their large claw and dare you to pick them up. Not picking them up properly will result in a painful pinch, albeit normally not bloody.
One must be equally careful when putting the crab on the hook, as it will exact justice to the bitter end, if given the chance. I grab them by the big claw and thread them onto a 2x strong live bait hook, with the tip of the hook protruding just out the top of the back shell. The back leg is usually the easiest point of entry. The crab can be lowered with an egg sinker or knocker rig to the bottom. Or, if fishing a dock or bridge, beside the piling.
This is when the challenge really begins.
Armed with a mouth full of human-like (or sheep-like) teeth — hence the name — the sheepshead will suck the crab in and crush it, spitting shell and hook out after it has the goodies. More often than not, you will never know you’ve been had.
I like a light spinning rod with some backbone and a quick tip for sheeps. A tight line and vigilant look on the rod tip will help see the slightest of taps that will signal that the fish is there. Again, by the time you see it, it’s probably too late. I was always told you had to set the hook before the bite!
If you have the good fortune to set the hook in that bony mouth, the fight is on. These black-and-white striped battlers are stout and full of vigor. Sheepshead guarantee to give plenty of sport on light tackle.
Fish in the five-to-eight-pound range are not uncommon, and will strip drag easily, providing a good seesaw battle.
And, last but not least, sheepshead are delicious! One of their nicknames is river snapper because they are so tasty. So, from catching the bait to reeling in the fish to preparing it for the table, sheepshead are hard to beat!
By Miles Altman, Bayrunner Fishing Charters
Capt. Miles Altman of Bayrunner Fishing Charters has more than 42 years experience fishing the waters surrounding Hilton Head Island. The Finatic boat, which can accommodate up to 12 passengers, features a special three-hour shark/dolphin eco-tour trip. Contact Miles at (843) 290-6955 to book an unforgettable inshore or offshore charter fishing trip, departing from Shelter Cove Marina.