While fishing for many species found in Panhandle waters can get tough in February, two varieties that most view as “pan” fish thrive during cold weather. By coincidence, they look a good bit alike—both sheepshead and juvenile black drum have vertical dark stripes on their sides. And they both prefer similar habitat and similar food—hard structure likely to hold crabs and shellfish.
Of course, both species are around the rest of the year, too, but they become abundant in winter in northwest Florida, and particularly in the case of the sheepshead, they tend to aggregate in large schools as they prepare for the spawn in early spring. Catch one sheepy at this time of year and you may load up with a limit of eight—note that’s down from the 15 that were allowed a few years back. The size limit is still 12 inches. Black drum have a slot limit, 14 to 24 inches, and the bag is five daily.
Finding the fish is a matter of running from one piece of hard structure to another until you connect. In clearer water near the passes, it’s often possible to see sheepshead as they graze on barnacles on bridge and dock pilings. The same is true at the large piers extending into the gulf when the surf is moderate.
They also gather in the black water of inside bayous around deeper docks and bridges, but can’t be seen here. The docks along the ICW from Destin to Fort Walton Beach are known as particularly productive. And of course the jetties are always worth checking at all Panhandle passes.
And for those who take time to scout out wrecks and rock piles in the deeper water of the large bays, these locations also produce exceptionally well, and get less pressure than more obvious spots.
Both sheepshead and black drum also gather in oystery holes in the deep back country creeks like those at the east end of Choctawhatchee Bay.
The basic tactic is to fish a thumbnail-sized piece of fresh-cut shrimp on a size 1 J-style hook with enough weight to get it to bottom. Other baits that work well are sand fleas, fiddler crabs, oysters and barnacles, but none of these stay on the hook as well or are as readily available as shrimp.
Many anglers like to rig with a 12-inch dropper above the weight, so that they can feel the bite without the fish having to move the lead. Braided 15-pound-test on a 7-foot medium spinning rig and 3000-size reel is a good rig. Many prefer fluorocarbon leader in 15 to 20 pound test, because it’s a harder line than mono and less likely to get nipped by the sharp teeth of the sheepshead, though if the ‘head makes a direct bite on fluoro that gets cut, too.
It can be tricky to hook sheepshead because of their relatively small and very hard mouths, designed to grind up shellfish. What works best is to keep tension on the line and when you feel the bait pulled or moved steadily, make a slow, firm pull, then start reeling immediately without allowing any slack. A sharp snap-set often jerks the hook out of the fish’s mouth. Black drum, on the other hand, usually hook themselves—the same steady hook set works fine for them.
While it’s possible to catch some of each species by simply dropping a line around hard structure, it’s much more effective to chum. And fortunately, the chum is already there in many good spots—barnacles and mussels on the pilings make ideal chum.
The tactic is simply to scrape off the shells with a spudding hoe or other steel device and let the crumbled shells and meat drift into the current. If there are sheepshead or drum anywhere nearby—or early season pompano or redfish, for that matter—they’ll come quickly to the free feast.
While the dropper-rig setup is best for vertical fishing around bridges and piers, a “shrimp jig” setup may be better for fishing oyster holes and docks in black water areas. This is basically just a 1/8 to ¼ ounce jig head with no plastic tail or bucktail—just a bare 1/0 light wire hook. A piece of fresh shrimp long enough to cover the shank of the hook is threaded on. The jig is the cast to the suspected hotspot and allowed to sit—there’s no need to move it because sheepy’s feed mostly by scent. The advantage of the jig is that you immediately feel the pickup, and can reel the hook home in most cases.
There’s also a limited winter flats fishery for sheepshead in some areas—just like reds, they go up on the flats to feed on shrimp and crabs, and can sometimes be seen waving their tails in the air. They are perhaps even more spooky than reds in this situation, so a silent, slow approach and a long cast with a non-intrusive offering like an unweighted shrimp is a must. But if you do it all just right, you can sometimes fool these fish, and they are sometimes big ones, over 4 pounds—they run and fight at least as hard as a redfish of similar size.
Bottom line is that these striped species may require a bit of effort and some extended searching to locate this month, but once you find where they’re hanging out you can return to the spot repeatedly until spring warmup and catch enough for a fish fry. The fillets of both are tasty, but the sheepshead is really outstanding. (Nip the sharp spines off with kitchen shears before filleting, though—it’s like cleaning a pincushion otherwise.)