By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

It was one of those fishing trips that didn’t fill the ice chest with trophy fish, but it will forever be etched in my memory.

Although there was still a chill in the air, I decided to see if I could locate a few speckled trout for dinner several years ago on a solo trip in Mobile Bay.

After hitting all of my usual trout spots, I didn’t have a single fish in the ice chest. Reconciled to the fact that it might be burgers on the grill instead of fried fish for dinner, I had to pass near the Grand Hotel on the Eastern Shore.

Because of a significant seawall that surrounds the west side of the hotel property, a series of rock jetties are in place to break up the waves and protect the seawall.

Numerous casts around the rocks with trout baits produced zero fish. If I was going to fire up the fish cooker, I had to come up with a different plan.

I’ve always found it prudent to bring along some natural bait on saltwater fishing trips when possible. I had a quart bag of fresh dead shrimp in the ice chest and decided to give that a try.

I rigged a spinning reel with a 1/2-ounce slip sinker, swivel, 1-foot length of leader and a No. 1 hook. I impaled a piece of shrimp onto the hook and tossed it toward the rock jetty.

Within seconds, I felt a tug on the line. I tightened up the slack and set the hook. The fight was on and it was quickly apparent from the vertical stripes I could see flashing under the water that I had hooked a sheepshead, a species that spends late winter and early spring near inshore structure in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

After finally traversing the rocks to get the fish into open water, I scooped it up with the net and tossed it into the ice chest.

The next foray into the rocks led to one of those outcomes anglers have to deal with when fishing for sheepshead, nicknamed bandit fish or convict fish. I reeled in a glistening, baitless hook. Obviously, the “convict fish” comes from the fish’s striped appearance. The “bandit fish” moniker comes from the sheepshead’s ability to steal your bait. It can pick a shrimp off the hook with barely a jiggle in the line.

If you toss a piece of bait into a sheepshead haunt and don’t get a bite within a couple of minutes, you might as well reel it in because you have been robbed.

Another tip is to always carry plenty of sinkers, leaders and hooks because you are going to lose some tackle when you’re fishing around barnacle-encrusted rocks, pilings or petroleum rigs. You might also have to use 15-pound line instead of the usual 10- or 12-pound line. Fluorocarbon line also handles the abrasion better than monofilament. When it comes to hooks, anglers use everything from No. 2 to 1/0 hooks. Because of the structure and the sheepshead’s tough mouth, you don’t want to use a fine wire hook. Use something with some backbone, which is also what you’ll need for your fishing rod. You want a little give at the tip to keep from ripping the hook out of the fish’s mouth, but you’ll need strength in the rest of the rod to be able to get the fish out of the structure as soon as possible.

By the time my small bag of fresh dead shrimp had been depleted that day, there were eight nice sheepshead in the ice chest. I headed home, cleaned the fish and fired up the fish cooker.

After a dinner of fried sheepshead, my youngest daughter finished her last bite and said, “Dad, please go catch some more of those sheepshead.”

Right now is the time to catch sheepshead along the Alabama Gulf Coast. The current weather pattern is for warmer days, which will make it pleasant to hit the coastal waters in search of sheepshead.

If you don’t have any live or fresh-dead shrimp, sheepshead love fiddler crabs and hermit crabs as well. Discard the hermit crab’s shell and impale the crab on the hook. Some folks will even shuck oysters and use pieces of the meat as bait.

If you look a sheepshead in the face, you’ll know where it got its name. It has a set of teeth designed for nibbling bits of crustaceans like barnacles, snails and other critters, similar to the way a sheep’s mouth and teeth are designed to nibble grass down to the ground.

Several years ago, there were no size or creel limits on sheepshead because of the relative abundance and the fact the fish only hang out on inshore structure for part of the year. However, fishing pressure has increased as the word has spread about the fishing opportunities with sheepshead and its tasty white flesh.

Sheepshead aren’t the easiest to clean because of tough scales and hide, but it’s worth the effort to a certain extent. That extent is size. The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) established a size limit of 12 inches, but I don’t advise keeping that small a fish unless you get near the end of the day and the ice chest is empty. A 12-inch fish is not going to yield much in the way of a filet. I prefer to keep those 16 inches or larger if I have that choice.

The 12-inch limit has to do with fish biology. One criteria Marine Resources uses to manage inshore fish species has to do with its spawning potential or the number of eggs produced. MRD research showed that more than half the 12-inch fish have the ability to produce the number of eggs that will maintain a sustainable population to ensure anglers will enjoy this early-season fishing opportunity each year.

Because of the sheepshead’s tendency to congregate in large numbers along jetties and other structure, it’s easy to sit in one spot and fill an ice chest to the brim with fish. To keep the species from becoming overfished, MRD set a daily creel limit of 10 fish per person. If you have a buddy or family member fishing with you, that creel limit will leave you with all the sheepshead you want to clean.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com for information on a saltwater fishing license as well as a map of the numerous inshore fishing reefs that can be likely hangouts for inshore species.

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Sheepshead sport a nice set of teeth to be able to crunch barnacles and other crustaceans in the coastal marine habitat. Sheepshead are plentiful along the Alabama Gulf Coast in late winter and early spring and make great table fare.

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