What is black, white, and red all over? If you tell a West Coast angler that old riddle, he’ll answer, “California sheephead!” Sheephead are a funny looking fish outfitted with fat lips, a bulbous forehead and canine teeth the size of a Labrador retriever. Despite their looks, these fish are no joke; they’re hard to catch.
The truth is these fish are incredibly smart. They learn from experience, they quit biting after watching their buddies get hooked. I have had days where I caught fish for 20 minutes, until they figured out how to nibble the bait off my hook.
To outsmart a sheephead, hit them where they are vulnerable—the stomach. Shrimp works very well. Squid is a good back up. Start with a Carolina rig tied out of a foot-and-a-half of 40-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon with a four-ounce egg sinker. Or, use a single-hook dropper rig tied in 40-pound fluorocarbon with a 6/0 Owner Aki Twist Hook and five-ounce torpedo sinker.
Use a sturdy rod and reel. Look for a seven-foot, medium-heavy conventional outfit with a 40-pound-class reel spooled with 65-pound braided line.
Sheephead like rocky bottom; the bigger the rocks, the bigger the sheephead. If you catch rockfish, chances are sheephead are nearby.
The fish will bite in all conditions, but the best action is on slack current. Drop the bait to the bottom and hold it still.
It’s best to hold the rod and pinch the line to feel the lightest bite. Your reaction must be lightning fast. Set the hook as hard as you can and reel as fast as possible to get the fish away from the structure. Then, reel steady to the surface. Do not pump the rod as the sinker can work the hook loose and the fish will be lost.
The game is not won until the fish is in the kayak. The first time I figured out how to catch sheephead, I lost several that I estimated were more than 20 pounds because my 40-pound tackle was too light. On my best sheephead trip ever, we caught fish up to 20 pounds on every drop for two hours, my largest was more than 22 pounds. Even though I’ve had great days catching sheephead, other days the fish won. I guess no matter how smart I think I am, sheephead can always outsmart me.