At first glance you could be forgiven for wondering why the strikingly striped sheepshead isn’t called a zebra fish instead! However, a closer look, particularly in its mouth, provides a clue as to why it has this unusual ‘nickname’ instead. Archosargus probatocephalus has an impressive set of teeth unlike any other fish species. Whilst they do look remarkably like human ones, they’re also rather similar to sheep’s teeth. Combine that with a somewhat sheep shaped head, and you have found the reasons it’s called sheepshead. We offer custom Cape Coral FL fishing charters for recreational anglers keen to hook one of these distinct and unusual fish.
A sheepshead’s body is deep, stout and laterally compressed. The top of the fish is steeply convex whilst underneath is relatively straight and flat. They have a short head full of ‘those teeth’ and large bulging eyes. Their dorsal and anal fins have strong, pointy spines.
Overall, sheepshead are a silvery grey to greenish yellow color. This provides a perfect background color for their striking lateral vertical black stripes. They have 5 to 7 of these stripes, which get darker as the fish matures.
Sheepshead are not an overly large fish. The average size for adults is between 10 and 20 inches in length, and around 3 to 4 pounds in weight. However, they can get to 3 feet and weigh over 20 pounds.
Although sheepshead are found all along the eastern US and South American Atlantic coastline, they particularly like the Gulf waters around Florida. The biggest concentrations are found here, and along the northern Gulf coastline generally. It undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that this coastline provides them with the canals, bayous, bays, and other brackish habitats they love.
Sheepshead are euryhaline and adapt extremely well to living in a range of salinity levels, including fresh water. You’ll also find them living offshore where there are hard underwater structures supporting marine life. Piers, oil platforms, wrecks, sea walls and similar are excellent places to look for them
Sheepshead Spawning Habits
Sheepshead spawn earlier than many other species around Florida. They prefer to do so in early spring rather than late spring and summer, with peak spawning happening in March and April. Their spawning grounds are offshore and they’ll move there in late winter before spawning in spring.
Females release several batches of eggs per season, with an average of around 87,000 eggs per release. Prolific females can release up to 250,000 eggs each time. Sheepshead are aggregate spawners like most fish species. The fertilized eggs float in the offshore water column with plankton until they hatch. Currents then move the tiny larvae inshore where they transform rapidly into juveniles and settle in seagrass bed nurseries.
At around 6 months or by late summer/early fall most juvenile sheepshead are ready to leave their seagrass nurseries. We say ‘most’ because some never leave and will remain in these habitats as adults. The more adventurous youngsters though will seek out structures with marine life in deeper water. It’s thought this is because their teeth have developed enough by this age for them to eat the organisms that live on these structures.
Unusual Dietary Requirements
Sheepshead larvae and small juveniles are carnivorous and feed on zooplankton. Juveniles also eat a few bottom dwelling species as well. Larger juveniles and adults though eat just about anything that’s edible! They are highly opportunistic feeders and their diet fluctuates with the seasons and what’s available. It includes everything from plants that grow on the sea floor and surfaces of hard structures to mollusks, crustaceans, small fish, worms and more. In fact, some studies have found the diet of an average adult can contain over 100 different species.
Interestingly, it’s also been noted that their diet varies considerably depending on location. In some parts of the Gulf they mostly eat a range of marine creatures and only occasionally eat plants when plentiful. In other areas, sheepshead predominantly feed on plants and plant material. Around the Everglades here in Florida they mainly eat mollusks.
Diets also change with the season. They will eat a few things all year (crustaceans and mollusks) but small fish are a spring delicacy. Plant material is popular in summer whilst worms are a huge hit in fall, winter, and spring.
As for those sheep / human like teeth … They are ideal for crunching down on tough hard-shelled prey that are difficult for other species to get at.
Sheepshead’s diverse diet has led researchers to conclude they likely play a pivotal role in helping regulate delicate ecological balances in marine environments. Their significant seasonal and habitat dietary variations for instance may target the most prolific species at those times, and in those habitats. Keeping these species under control allows for greater biodiversity, and healthier marine habitats.
Fishing For Sheepshead In Florida
Florida has strict bag and size regulations for most fish species in our waters and sheepshead are no exception. At Blue Line Fishing Charters we are intimately familiar will all these regulations. We go to great lengths to ensure our clients are never in breach of them. If you’re interested in all types of fishing charters in Cape Coral Florida, contact us.