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Sheephead Shenanigans - Six in the Mix

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Welcome back to the blog. Our first two posts focused on halibut. Today, in our third post, we're talking sheephead. Let's get to it!

It was a cold December morning. I woke up around 6 AM. The afternoon forecast showed significant rain, and it was projected to be cloudy all morning. All in all, it's not the kind of day I fish, but today was a special day. My friend was joining us. He has had some health issues that kept him from fishing for a number of months. Thankfully, his shoulder and back have recovered to the point that he felt comfortable attempting to cast again. In addition, my brother was joining us. Nasty weather and all, I was really excited to fish with my boys. A lot of my sessions are solo, so hitting the sand with a group of guys I genuinely get along with is a good change of pace, and extra special given the circumstances. The plan was bait & wait at one of our favorite spots.

My brother and I carpooled, arriving around 7 AM. My friend was already there, taking pictures of the sunrise. He greeted us with a customary hug. It was obvious that being at the beach again meant a lot to him. I was hoping that we'd catch few nice fish to make the day even more memorable. The waves were small, and you could see the sun gently peeking above the horizon.

Southern California sunrise

We began our short walk to the spot. There was no one else at the beach, and I think the experience is often enhanced when it feels like it's your own little sanctuary. When we got to the spot, my friend and I decided to do a few casts with swimbaits. My brother needed a few minutes to rig up for bait & wait, so we decided to get our feet wet (no pun intended) in the meantime. As we began casting, I looked over to make sure my friend was fine. His casting motion seemed smooth, seemingly unrestricted in any way. Before I had time to ask him if he felt as good as he looked, I had a bite. It came in easy: a sublegal halibut.

19" California halibut, caught on a swimbait

Great start! It actually ended up being the only fish we caught on lures, but the morning still had a lot to offer.

After a few more minutes of casting, we looked over and noticed that my brother had his long rods ready for bait & wait. We decided to join him. We agreed beforehand that the three of us would share two bait & wait rods. While my brother prepared the bait, my friend said he would likely spend much of the day watching instead of fishing, so as to not push his shoulder on his return to the beach. That thought maybe lasted a minute or two. My brother cast out, and the collective excitement from that sublegal halibut must have carried over, because my friend was already itching to give one of the long rods a shot.

With a tiny bit of hesitation, my brother handed him the pole. After a couple of minutes of waiting, my friend had a subtle bite. Tap tap tap. He set the hook. Fish on! Bait & wait setups are heavier than swimbait setups in general, but through patience and perseverance, my friend landed the first calico bass of the day.

15" calico bass, my friend's first fish of the day

I was so happy for him; this was his first fish in months. It wasn't a monster, but it was a milestone in his recovery journey. It helped give him the confidence that he could indeed return to fishing regularly, maybe even every week. With that calico, the tone was set for the day. This particular spot more often than not produces quality fish on bait & wait, but with rain clouds looming, you're never certain how things are going to turn out.

Thankfully, the bite continued. It was steady, with a variety of species in the mix. One of the species that is common at this spot is the California sheephead. It has an unmistakable bite pattern, with sudden explosive jabs at the bait. We quickly landed one.

Legal size California sheephead at 16"

Another fish that came to play was the cabezon. These fish tend to "sit" on the bait. When you feel a weight on your line, even without any sort of pronounced bite, it very well could be a cabezon that's hiding in a rocky crevice.

Grumpy cabezon on the sand

I could sense my friend really growing into the session. He regularly manned the bait & wait rod, ready to catch the next fish. Almost every cast resulted in a bite. Not every fish was worth setting the hook on, but boy was it fun. Several perch were caught.

Rubberlip perch, considered bycatch when we bait & wait

Admittedly, when fish are active, it's easy to be in a good mood. We dealt with a couple of snags early in the session, but things were now going smoothly. A few more fish hit the sand.

Giant kelpfish: not the biggest fish in the sea, but quite interesting colors. Inappropriately named in my opinion.

All in all, we landed six species that morning.

A handful of sheephead were caught. Nothing massive, but it's a good indicator of the health of the reef when these fish are here in numbers. Of all the fish in the surf, I can safely say sheephead are my brother's favorite to catch. I think the main reason is that when we first started catching sheephead, it was completely unexpected. There wasn't any information online about how to catch them from the surf, so my brother devoted plenty of time to figuring it out.

Female California sheephead, one of five on the day

Sheephead are an interesting species. They're born female and morph into males as they get older. All the big ones with black heads and pink bodies are males. Anyway, let's get back to the session.

The bite remained solid, even though it was drizzling on and off all morning. Since we had three guys overseeing two rods, the session had a leisurely vibe, with us taking breaks to eat snacks and whatnot.

California sheephead in dire need of dental work
Blueish color in cabezon mouth due to bile pigment known as biliverdin

As the tide turned and our obligations loomed, we decided to call it a day. All fish were released. Big thanks to my friend for taking pictures for this post!

Nothing like fishing with buddies

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