Sheepshead

Sheepshead, illustration by #

Copyright © by Marty Wilson

Description

Sheepshead have a stout, deep body with an elevated back and a short head. Their overall coloration is light grey, dull silver, or greenish yellow with five to seven distinctive black vertical stripes on each side. The fins are dusky colored and both the dorsal fin and anal fin have strong, sharply pointed spines. The caudal fin or tail is slightly forked. The pectoral fins are quite long. The gill covers have very sharp edges.

The name sheepshead is related to shape of the fish's snout and it's teeth. The molars resemble those of a sheep. The front teeth or incisors are unsettlingly similar to human incisors. The sheepsheads teeth enable the fish to seize and crush shelled prey such as crabs and barnacles.

Anglers regularly catch sheepshead in the one to eight pound range, while the largest fish can reach 20 pounds. There is little external difference between male and female sheepshead.

Sheepshead, photo by Jim Franks, GCRL
Sheepshead. Photo by Jim Franks. Click for larger image.

 


Sheepshead mouth and teeth.  Photo by Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Sheepshead mouth showing the distinctive incisor and molar teeth. Photo by Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Click for larger image.

Similar Species

Several other species of saltwater fish have light and dark vertical bands and might potentially be confused with sheepshead, most notably small black drum. But sheepshead are easily identified by their unmistakable teeth and the sturdy sharp spines in their dorsal and anal fins.

The freshwater drum, Aplodinotus grunniens (gaspergou in Louisiana) is sometimes called sheepshead. The sheepshead minnow, Cyprinodon variegatus variegatus, is unrelated to the sheepshead.

Occurrence

Sheepshead are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia through the northern Gulf of Mexico and south to Brazil. They are absent in Bermuda, the Bahamas, the West Indies and Grenada. They tolerate a wide range of salinity and thrive in most of the habitats of the northern Gulf of Mexico, including bays, bayous, canals, other brackish waters, and occasionally fresh water rivers. Sheepshead can be found further offshore in on hard bottoms and structure to depths of about 120 feet, particularly during the spawning season from February through April. They commonly associate with submerged structure with marine growth, such as piers, pilings, oil and gas rigs, oyster reefs, jetties, and wrecks.

Life Cycle & Reproduction

Adult sheepshead spend the warmer months in inshore waters and move to offshore spawning grounds in late winter when water temperatures drop. They remain offshore to spawn in early spring and then the majority return to inshore waters. Some adults remain offshore year round.

Spawning

Spawning occurs in February, March, and April when sheepshead congregate around reefs and other hard substrates. Peak spawning takes place during March and April. Both male and female sheepshead may begin spawning at age two. All sheepshead are capable of spawning by age three for males and age four for females.

Sheepshead spawn several times during each spring, with groups of fish spawning synchronously. Females lay an average of 87,000 eggs per spawn, with a range of 14,000 to 250,000.

Eggs

Sheepshead eggs are planktonic, with a clear yolk, and a single yellow oil globule. After hatching offshore, larvae are transported by currents to inshore waters where they mature into juveniles.

Larvae

Sheepshead larvae begin showing adult characteristics at a length of less than 1/4". By the time the larvae reach about 5/8", the vertical bars are distinguishable and the body is covered with scales. At a length of 3/4" to a little more than one inch, the larvae have taken on the general configuration and coloration of adult fish.

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Fork Length vs. Age for Sheepshead in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina.
Source: The Sheepshead Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico, United States, A Fisheries Profile
Click for larger image with legend.

Juveniles

After transforming into juveniles, sheepsheads settle into seagrass beds.

As the juveniles develop, their fins change colors, with some becoming white, black, and blue-black before finally reaching the adult coloration. A dark spot appears on each side, behind the gill on the second dark bar and the adjacent silvery space. It gradually fades as the fish matures.

In late summer or early fall of their first year, the juveniles move into areas with structure and hard substrates. The shift may be related to development of adult teeth that allow them to feed on the sturdy organisms that inhabit those areas. In some areas, including south Texas, sheepshead may remain in grassbeds, even as adults.

Adults

Sheepshead grow rapidly during their first three to four years and reach about 80% of their maximum size by age five, as shown in the graph. Growth rates and sizes vary from location to location. Click the graph to view a larger version with legends identifying location represented by each line.

There is little difference in the growth rates of males and females, although some sources suggest that females grow slightly more rapidly. Other studies showed that sheepshead in Louisiana grow more rapidly than in Alabama and Florida, but don't grow as large. It has been determined that sheepshead may live to 20 years of age or more.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Sheepshead have a richly diverse diet. They eat almost any organic material that can be grazed from the bottom or from vertical hard surfaces, including plants. Studies have found that adult sheepshead feed on as many as 125 different species.

In Mississippi, researchers found that fish six to 14 inches long ate mollusks and plants. Larger sheepshead ate mollusks, crabs and other crustaceans, bottom worms, and fish, mostly anchovies. When sea grasses or algae were plentiful, sheepshead occasionally feed heavily on them. Similar studies in Louisiana and Texas showed a greater dependence on plant material. Sheepshead in the Florida Everglades were found to eat mostly mollusks.

A sheepshead caught during a 2013 GCRL Summer Field Program course taught by Stephen Curran, Ph.D. The vertical black bars become less distinct as the fish matures.
A sheepshead caught during a 2013 GCRL Summer Field Program course taught by Stephen Curran, Ph.D. The vertical black bars become less distinct as the fish matures.

Their diet varies with location and with the seasons as the availability of specific prey items changes. Mollusks and crustaceans are consumed year round. Small fish are eaten in spring. Plants and detritus are eaten in summer, and polychaete worms are eaten during spring, fall, and winter.

Newly-hatched larval sheepshead are carnivorous and feed on zooplankton. Small juveniles continue to feed on zooplankton and add bottom-dwelling organisms such as polychaetes, chironomid larvae, mysids and small mollusks. Large juveniles and smaller adults eat mollusks, crabs, other crustaceans, and small fish.

It's likely that sheepshead are important in regulating the populations of fauna on submerged hard surfaces, both those species that are attached and immobile, such as barnacles, and species that crawl on or swim near the surfaces. By consuming the more abundant species, sheepshead may contribute to greater biodiversity of species.

Predators

Larvae and juveniles are eaten by larger predatory fishes. Adults may be taken by sharks.

Happy young angler with a sheepshead.  Photo by Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.
Happy young angler with a sheepshead.
Photo by Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.
Click for larger image.

Fishing for Sheepshead

Sheepshead are widely distributed in many types of habitat and relatively easy to locate, since they prefer structure such as pilings, seawalls, and jetties. Baits such as shrimp, small or cut crabs, oysters, and snails are fished on or near the bottom. Sheepshead are delicate feeders and notorious bait stealers. Careful attention and a delicate touch are needed to detect their bite and set the hook.

Sheepshead are targeted by fly fishermen using crab and shrimp flies fished along the bottom.

Sheepshead have sharply pointed and very strong spines in their dorsal and anal fin spines and sharp edges on their gill covers. Use caution to avoid puncture wounds and cuts.

Regulations

Mississippi saltwater fishing regulations are available on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website.

Sheepshead are not regulated in Mississippi for either the recreational or commercial fishery. Louisiana places no limits on recreational fishing, but imposes a 10" minimum total length for commercial catches. In Alabama, the limits are 12" minimum fork length and 10 fish/day for recreational anglers. Florida's recreational fishery limits are 12" minimum total length and 15 fish/day

The current Mississippi state records for sheepshead are 19 pounds, 10 ounces for conventional tackle and 7 pounds, 12 ounces for fly rod.

Sheepshead on the Table

Sheepshead filets seasoned, topped with lemon slices, and ready to broil.
Sheepshead filets seasoned, topped with lemon slices, and ready to broil.
Photo by Marc Grove, Wefings Marine.. Click for larger image.

Sheepshead are excellent food fish, but are scorned by many anglers because of the difficulty in cleaning them and their relatively low yield of meat compared to other species.

Sheepshead meat is white, firm, and flavorful. It resembles snapper meat and has no oily character. Almost any preparation used for snapper or red drum can produce good results with sheepshead.

Fabulous Ways to Prepare Sheepshead, WWL TV, June 23, 2011 - An excellent guide to ten methods of preparing sheepshead.

 

Conservation Status and Management History

The status of the sheepshead is listed as "Not listed" on the IUCN Red List. Populations are described as stable.

Resources and References

Sheepshead Videos

Sheepshead at Cortez Sealife Aquarium, Youtube, 42 seconds, aquarium video of smaller sheepshead

Sheepshead. Note the yellow/green tint between the dard vertical bars.
Sheepshead. Note the yellow/green tint between the dard vertical bars.
Photo by Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.   Click for larger image.