Fishing primer: Bait, it's what's for dinner

January 10, 2011 

Uh oh. It's another one of my "how do it do it" columns. If you don't know what I mean, then I'll use a Thermos jug as an example. It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold, but how "do it" know? Got it?

OK, so now that the platform has been set, my "how do it do it" has to do with the way fish eat.

After fishing for all these years, I can pretty much tell what kind fish is out there just by the way they bite. A redfish is a no brainer. It takes the bait with authority and runs off like an express train. On the other hand, a sea trout has a gentle approach when eating. If I had to compare the two, I would say a redfish eats like it is at an all-you-can-eat buffet, while a trout eats as if it were dining with the queen of England, complete with its pinky finger extended.

Even offshore in the Gulf Stream, I have a pretty good idea what kind of fish has taken the bait. You can tell a tuna by simply watching the line where it enters the water. If you see the line making large lazy loops then odds are it's Charlie the Tuna. You can tell a wahoo by the way it screams the line off the reel and then furiously shakes its head, which transmits onto the rod. Grouper suck it in and move off slowly, while snapper hit the bait with hard thumps.

So, as you can see, just about every fish has a different approach to eating -- except one -- and that fish is the subject of today's column.

I'm talking sheepshead. I guess the best way to lead into these strange fish and their uncanny abilities is by telling you about a fishing trip I took a while back.

As you might know, a few times a year I put on my "How to Fish the Lowcountry" seminars. One gentleman who attended, Bob Pangione, would often e-mail me with questions about this and that as he tried to figure out how to get a grip on successfully fishing our waters. A transplant from New Jersey, he told me that things like "the extreme tides here were throwing him for a loop." We talked back and forth and finally I suggested he go with me someday. That day came recently when I felt the need to get out of the house, so I invited him to go fishing for sheepshead, by far the most difficult fish to catch of all our local species.

Armed with a bucket of fiddler crabs, we set out. As we rode along, I explained that if he could catch sheepshead he could catch any other fish around. This is where the "how do it do it" part comes in.

Sheepshead are broad fish, mostly silver with thick, vertical black stripes that extend from their tails to their heads. But the most notable characteristic of a sheepie is its mouth. They have teeth that look very much like ours, maybe a bit more on the bucktooth side, but very human indeed. Also, their mouths are not all that large, so small hooks are about the only way to catch these fish and even then there are no guarantees.

As we reached our first drop, I explained to Bob that once he hooked a fiddler and sent it down he was going to need to be both attentive and aggressive because these fish can eat that fiddler crab before you can blink. Not only do they have the ability to snatch that bait off the hook in a heartbeat, they often can do it without you feeling a thing.

"Watch your rod tip, Bob. If you see it move at all, jerk up as hard as you can!"

He nodded, but several fiddlers later I could sense frustration as he marveled at their ability to eat everything but the shell without him feeling anything. I set my rod down and watched him fish. Immediately, I knew that he wasn't jerking heard enough so I said, "Rip his face off, Bob. Get mean! Hook that sucker right before he bites."

Finally, I saw him jerk and the rod stopped dead in its tracks. I knew at that moment it was fish on!

Pound for pound, sheepshead amaze me. While trout and reds are lethargic this time of year, sheepshead are full of vim and vigor. Conservatively, I would say that between the two of us we caught between 30 to 40 fish that trip, and on a few occasions, we hooked fish that we couldn't turn -- they were that big. Releasing all but a handful, we went back to my house where I cleaned Bob's fish.

I thought Bob was on the road to becoming a Lowcountry boy until he asked me one final question: "Do they taste like cod?"

My only reply was "I don't know, Bob. I just don't know."

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