There aren't many certainties when it comes to wintertime fishing, but sheepshead fishing is about as good as it gets ... if you know what you're doing. And contrary to what many believe, you don't have to go out to one of the reefs to catch sheepshead.
Capt. Mike Waller of Saltfisher Charters catches sheepshead during the winter in the same spots he catches them in the summer. On really nice days, he may take his clients from Kiawah Island Golf Resort out to an artificial reef, but if conditions dictate, he will fish alongside docks or over rock piles that are holding fish. And those same inshore spots will hold fish even in the coldest days of winter.
"Sheepshead migrate in and out. They just seem to be more aggressive and bite more in the winter months than any other time," Waller said after a recent trip in which one of his guests boated a sheepshead that measured 25 inches long. A sheepshead more than two feet long is quite a trophy!
Waller doesn't buy into that old sheepshead saying that you have to set the hook before the fish bites.
"I don't know how you do that," he said. Instead, he instructs those who fish with him to carefully watch their rod tip and line.
"If you're fishing a dock and the current is going one direction and your line is going the other way, then a sheepshead has the bait and is swimming off. Just set the hook," he said. "Every so often slowly raise your rod tip six inches, and if you feel any resistance, set the hook. I had a bass fisherman the other day who liked to drop the rod tip down and then set the hook. I told him to just pull up and he started catching fish. You don't want to drop your rod and then lift. Just lift up."
Waller's sheepshead tackle is pretty straightforward and the same for reef or dock fishing - a seven-foot rod with a limber tip and a small spinning reel spooled with 15-pound braided line. He uses a sharp, short-shank sheepshead hook with a six-inch monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and a ½- to ¾-ounce weight.
He said 99 percent of the time he uses fiddler crabs for bait, although when it gets extremely cold he may switch over to oysters.
"Oysters work this time of year. They're just a lot messier. It's a labor-intensive process to put a live oyster on a hook," Waller said. "I switched over to (No. 4) treble hooks and just lay the oyster across the hook, then lower it very slowly."
Tide doesn't seem to play a factor when he's fishing the reefs. When Waller is fishing inshore, he likes for the water to be out of the marsh grass and fishes the last three hours of the falling tide to the last three hours of the incoming tide.
And sheepshead aren't the only thing a fisherman may tangle with. They also may battle redfish, black drum or black sea bass while fishing the docks or hook up with sheepshead, black sea bass, dogfish, weakfish or big bluefish at the reefs.
So don't let the time of year put a chill on your fishing. Bundle up and try those summer sheepshead spots to see if they're still biting.