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Sheepshead great bait stealers

March 23, 2013
By Capt. GEORGE TUNISON ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

I asked a jogger to snap a picture of my charter Friday morning on the dock at Matlacha.

Royal palms silhouetted against a bright orange-red sunrise provided the background as we all cheesed dressed in a motley assortment of sweat pants, sweaters, gloves, and, in my case, a parka. Actually, if we had dogs around it would have resembled an early photo of Admiral Bird's expedition to the Pole. Hard to believe it would be in the low 80s within a few hours.

The ride from Matlacha to Punta Rassa was bitterly cold, but we quickly recovered as deeply bent rods heated up the morning. Sheepshead were biting our shrimp with gusto as one after another of these tasty fish came over the side.

Article Photos

Capt. George Tunison

Fiddler crabs are sheep caviar, but shrimp is almost as succulent to these bucktooth jailbirds that are masters of bait thievery. I love watching people try to set the hook, usually a half to a full second late, then pull up that empty hook to gaze at it in utter disbelief. As enjoyable is the first time reaction to seeing these fish's dentures, which look like a human mouth full of molars.

A seasoned sheepshead angler knows to set the hook while the fish is just breathing on the bait, not after he's stolen it.

Anchor uptide from their structure and free line your fiddlers or shrimp back to the structure naturally with the current, or drop weighted hooks straight down and watch your line. I'm a believer in Hi-Vis braided yellow line for any fishing where line watching is a huge plus.

Bury the small hook (small pieces of shrimp at first will help you hook up) into the shrimp. Use needle sharp 2/0-3/0 hooks (Owner) and hard fluorocarbon leaders because these critters live in and around rocks, docks and barnacles. A 10-pound fish this weekend is very possible at the Causeway, Cape and Midpoint bridges, the phosphate docks at Boca or your backyard dock. Anywhere there is crusty structure.

Forget fishing that brand new dock and look for the old falling down one crusted over in barnacles with the 40-year-old sailboat. Big fish roam the flats and oyster bars as well and an eight-pounder on a mangrove point will fight as hard as most reds of that size.

Clean these guys with a glove and electric fillet knife. They wear a tough coat of body armor but are great on the table in a variety of recipes.

Since you're already hanging around the bridges sheepshead fishing, drop down a lightly weighted half blue crab next to a piling and wait for a black drum to inhale and crush it. These big fish are around a structure or bar near you right now and can make for some fun fishing. Expect to catch 20-40-pounders or better 100 yards or less from the boat ramp at Midpoint this weekend.

Occasionally you'll see spawning black drum covering an oyster bar with broom sized tails fanning the air as they grub nose down like jumbo reds scouring the bottom for dinner. These guys are suckers for a small, soft plastic 2-3-inch crab on a jighead slowly inched along the bottom or freelined in the current back to them and a 40 pounder on a Matlacha bar are a real possibility this Saturday.

Snook are on the move around lit docks and are starting to move to their eventual summer retreats in the passes and along the beaches.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. Contact him at 239-282-9434 or, or



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