On a hot summer’s day, any inshore angler fishing along the coast of North Carolina would welcome shade for protection from the sun. But, the lack of overhead vegetative cover can be compensated for with manmade structure, a fact that two fishermen in a flat bottomed skiff had discovered this month. They were fishing beneath a bridge near Wrightsville Beach. One of them was Paul Genovese, a 68-year-old retired wood carver from Southport. He suddenly lifted his rod and set the hook into the lip of a fish with vertical silver and black stripes.
“That’s a nice sheepshead,” said Genovese’ partner, Basil Watts, a 64-year-old retired river pilot who also lives in Southport. “He will go a couple of pounds.”
Watts was fast on the landing net because he did not want to give the fish a chance to cut the line against one of the barnacle-encrusted bridge support pilings. Their boat was only a rod length away from several pilings, so close that they had to take care not to break their rod tips in the process of setting a hook.
“Sheepshead usually feed within inches of the structure,” Watts said. “So you have to drop your bait close to the piling or your chances of getting a bite go way down. They eat barnacles and oysters by snipping away the shells to get at the meat and then they spit the shells back out. We use small hooks so they don’t mistake them for shells and spit them out before we have a chance to set the hook.”
The two anglers had teamed up to catch their bait the day before. They had gone to a marsh during low tide, where they had herded some fiddler crabs into a section of roof gutter. Using rubber gloves, they had scooped up as many of the fiddler crabs as they could catch and placed them inside a white plastic bucket.
Genovese dug around in a couple of inches of damp sand in the bottom of the bait pail. He picked up a small fiddler crab that had a single, outsized claw. He called the male fiddler crab a “one-armed bandit” as he impaled it through a leg hole and out through the back of the carapace with a No. 4 treble hook. The treble hook was tied to a dropper rig that had a one-ounce bank sinker on a second leader about a foot below the hook. Watts was using a No. 4 light wire single hook, also tied on a dropper rig. He felt a tap and lifted his rod, but all he reeled in was an empty hook.
“You have to set the hook any time you feel the slightest tap,” Watts said. “A sheepshead bite is so subtle, it’s easy to miss. I wasted an entire summer trying to figure out how to catch them when I was a teenager. I could not catch many of them, no matter how hard I tried. Sheepshead fishing is much easier now because the tackle today is better. We’ve been fishing for them about three or four years and having some great catches. Our biggest fish have weighed 8 or 9 pounds. Modern braided fishing lines and graphite rods are so sensitive you can almost feel a sheepshead looking at your bait.”
Tugging on a rope tied around one of the bridge supports, Genovese moved the boat closer. He used a garden spade to scrape some barnacles from the piling. The barnacles drifted down into the green water, creating a plume several feet long in the slowly moving current that followed the shell bits out of sight.
The anglers anchor within casting range of channel markers, boat docks and any other manmade structures with lots of shells covering them. But, when the sun is high and hot, they prefer fishing bridges so they can fish in the cool shade. Bridges also have another advantage because they offer readymade chum to attract the fish.
“Every now and then, you scrape a piling to create chum that attracts the sheepshead,” Genovese said. “They move around a lot, going from piling to piling or from bridge to bridge, searching for something to eat. The scent of raw barnacles brings them to the spot you’re fishing.”
Scaly sheepshead look nothing like their wooly namesake land mammal except in the dental department. Genovese caught another sheepshead. Turning its mouth toward his face, he admired its teeth, which looked very much like the incisors of a sheep.
“Their teeth are sharp and strong, so you don’t want to get your fingers anywhere near them,” Genovese said. “They can give you a nasty bite. Their teeth are made for grazing on hard shells, so your fingers don’t stand a chance.”