By Joe Malat
Most of the warm water fish that arrive in Outer Banks waters during the summer are flashy, glamorous showboat species: crevalle jacks, barracuda, tarpon, Spanish mackerel, and pompano They are silvery, speedy, and sleek. But not the poor ol’ sheepshead. With its dull, dark coloration, deep body and protruding teeth, Mr. Sheepshead will never win the best body in the ocean contest. They’re not pretty, but most of the people I know would gladly welcome one as a dinner guest.
Local anglers usually start to fish for sheepshead when inshore water temperatures approach the seventy-degree mark and they will remain in the area for several more weeks. Sheepshead must be caught precisely where they live and eat, and that's not always easy. They dine on small mollusks and crustaceans such as barnacles and crabs, which are often clustered around bridge and pier pilings, navigation markers, and over hard bottoms, rocks or reefs.
The best concentrations of sheepshead are found around three Outer Banks bridges. The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet probably holds the most and largest fish. The William Umstead Bridge, at the north end of Roanoke Island, runs a close second. The Melvin Daniels span between Nags head and Roanoke Island is typically not as productive as the other two.
Experienced sheepshead anglers will get to their favorite bridge pilings by boat, but abandon their craft for the stable fishing platform provided by the concrete aprons around the pilings. It’s difficult to feel the bites and set a hook in the small mouth of a sheepshead. Trying to do so from a bouncing boat only adds to the challenge.
Sheepshead will munch and crunch their food with a mouthful of strong incisor teeth, working into the current, up and down the pilings as they feed. Since these fish are fond of crustaceans, the preferred bait is the common mole crab, or "sand flea," found along the ocean beach. Sometimes the hunt for sand fleas can be as challenging as trying to catch a sheepshead, but they can be captured. Go to the beach about an hour before low tide and look for the fleas as they scurry back into the ocean as each wave recedes, trying to bury into the sand.
Fleas may be dug by hand, or caught with a commercially made scoop. Sand fleas will stay alive for several hours or as long as a few days in a container of damp sand in a cooler or refrigerator. Don’t leave them in a bucket of water; they will die in short order.
These baits must be fished directly alongside the pier piling, and an easy to make homemade rig will put that bait exactly in the zone. Begin with a two-foot piece of 80-pound test monofilament line and tie a Mustad # 3467 hook, size 4 or 6, to one end. Thread a 1 to 3 ounce egg sinker on the leader, and run the leader through the hole in the sinker once more. This allows the weight to be moved along the entire length of the leader, and cinched up tight where it needs to be. A surgeon's loop is then tied to the top of the leader, to accept a snap swivel from the rod. The amount of lead weight may vary with the current, but it's necessary to use enough lead to keep the bait next to the piling.
Sheepshead fight like mad when hooked, but nibble lightly and can suck the underside of a sand flea off the hook, leaving only the top part of the shell dangling from your hook. Set the hook whenever a bite is suspected. Most of the time you will come up empty, but you will know when you hit pay dirt.
A revolving spool reel, filled with 20 to 25 pound test line and mated to a stiff, 6 to 7 foot bait?casting rod is the ideal rig when fishing the bridge pilings. The revolving spool allows the angler to control the movement of the bait in the water column with utmost precision. The stout rod and strong line can be used to put some pressure on a hard charging fish heading for the safety of the barnacle encrusted pilings.
A long handled net is necessary to capture the fish once it comes to the surface. When standing on a concrete slab several feet above the water the standard net found on most boats will come up short. I modified an aluminum dip net by running a wooden broom handle up into the hollow shaft of the handle, drilling a hole through both the handle and pole and securing both with a stainless steel bolt and lock nut.