Herding Sheep

Herding Sheep
My wife Marisa with her PB sheepshead.

They are fish of many aliases. You may know them as prison fish, bay snapper, convict fish, or my personal favorite – Texas permit (Archosargus probatocephalus). They are formally known as sheepshead, and they are likely the most frustrating species you’ll ever cast a fly to on the Texas coast. If you ask any fly angler if they’ve ever been successful in landing one, you’ll likely hear some mumblings, along with a four-letter word or two. Those who have landed one will typically be ecstatic to tell you the story, and maybe even think they’ve cracked the code with a super-secret fly that’s G14 classified. However, that attitude may change as sheepshead have a way of humbling even the cockiest of anglers. Some anglers have given up hope altogether, and don’t even waste energy to cast to them anymore. I’ve observed this several times from my poling platform while encouraging my angler to take a shot. While the odds are stacked against you when presenting your average redfish fly, you just never know. And you will certainly miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.

Presenting a proper fly pattern in a decent manner greatly increases odds of getting a take from these picky eaters. I shouldn’t call them picky, as they are truly opportunistic feeders, but it makes you wonder sometimes as they stare at your fly lying on bottom, appearing to be counting the thread wraps. A proper fly pattern for these fish is typically something to mimic a crab of sorts, and with enough weight to find bottom quickly. The colors and size of the fly varies depending on the type of structure they are feeding around. I’ve had success with #6 crab patterns, black in color, when fishing hard structures like live oyster reefs, but have also had luck on #1 or #2 crab patterns in tan or olive when fishing seagrass beds and sand bars.  These are not the only patterns that work, it’s just what has worked for me the last several years. Constant experimentation is required to stay on top of your sheepshead game.

As far as making a presentation goes, there’s generally two methods I’ve observed to work well. If you can set up on a fish that you have spotted from a distance and is swimming a straight line, place the fly far enough ahead so the fish will not hear the splash. This could be a couple feet or five to six feet, depending on the depth of water and the speed the fish is travelling. Either way, you want the fly to be resting on bottom by the time the fish is getting close to it.  When the fish gets within a foot or so, start moving the fly very slowly. If this goes unnoticed to the point the fish will pass it up, give it a short bump. This will make the fly jump from the bottom and the fish will think it just spooked the crab and quickly come to investigate. If no immediate take occurs, you must then go into a series of small bumps and pauses. How or when is best called by the guide if you have one, if not, you just have to do your best to read the fish, moving the fly once they seem uninterested.

The second method is my favorite and this is for a fish slowly feeding around some scattered structure, whether it be shell or even a clump of wigeon grass. I like to throw the fly just to the side of the fish about a foot, not in front of it but to the side so that the fish must turn to find it. There is risk of spooking the fish with this cast but the ones that don’t spook will often eat. They may even strike as soon as the fly hits the bottom. If not, you have a chance to entice them with a small bump of the fly line. No matter which presentation you go with, the important thing is you must let the fly rest on bottom as the fish is approaching. They typically want to pin the crab to the bottom in a natural feeding manner. This is not like a redfish that you can strip the fly in front of its face and get a reaction bite.

Reading the fish to see the eat is often paramount, as most times you can’t feel it unless the fish takes off going away after the eat, which doesn’t happen often. No, this take is generally subtle like a bonefish that gracefully tips down on your fly. I’m watching for the dorsal fin to spike and the tail to scrunch with a little wiggle. This takes lots of observations to read, but once you see it you won’t miss it. A sudden and strong strip set immediately after you see the eat is required as sheepshead have a firm mouth and some serious dentures. I’ve witnessed angler’s hooks broken in half by the jaws of these fish. I have also witnessed a fish landed by a hook wedged between their large front teeth. For these reasons I like a pretty serious hook for sheepshead-specific flies. I must give credit to my good friend Barrett Garrison for dialing in the hook of choice as he’s put in as much thought as I have to figuring out this sheepshead fly game. That hook is a Gamakatsu SL12S 1X short, and it works very well at finding home when you come tight. The wire of this hook is strong enough to handle the abuse and the point is long and very sharp with a slight beak that helps the hook bury in the fish’s mouth. I’ve witnessed much better hookups since using flies tied on this hook.

You can get opportunities for sheepshead on the Texas flats year-round, but I see the majority of them from May to November. I believe this is in correlation with their annual spawn which occurs late winter to spring in deeper nearshore waters. I think this could also be why I tend to see a lot of sheepshead on main bay shorelines during late spring and early fall, as they are likely transitioning to and from their spawning grounds. One thing is for sure though, they can be tricky if you’re trying to pattern them in numbers, as they are typically here today gone tomorrow. Although, you can improve your odds by targeting specific reefs or structure-laden shorelines. If you can pattern them to a specific area on structure, this seems to hold as good a pattern as any for a few weeks or until the weather makes a drastic change. I’ve found some super-productive spots in the past and the following year did not find a single fish in that same area. Nothing appeared to change with the structure or the way the water flowed to it; they just always keep you guessing. I suppose that’s why I tend to enjoy chasing them, as they always present a challenge.

              I hope this gives you some insight into tactics for targeting these tricky fish on the Texas coast. They often go overlooked by the average fly angler but, make no mistake, they are just as much a prized catch as any of the fancy flats species that anglers travel the world to chase, and they are right in your own backyard. Especially when you’re talking about 20” plus sheepshead, which is the size that I really like to go after. So, pack a few extra crab patterns in your box this summer and try your hand at herding sheep.

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