Catching California's Sheephead

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California sheephead offer an exotic change up for anglers fishing inshore kelp forests.

Although they share similar common names, the California sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, should never be confused with the east coast sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus, which is a popular sport fish that is caught by saltwater anglers in the Atlantic Ocean. About the only thing that these two different species have in common is their profound love of bivalve Mollusks.

The California sheephead is actually a hermaphrodite.

It begins life as a female, and then becomes male later in its development. It also happens to be the largest member of the Wrasse family in our hemisphere, with record specimens weighing in at well over 30 pounds.

Nicknamed 'goats' by those who regularly fish for them, they are generally taken in waters from 20 to 100 feet deep, though they have been caught at depths of nearly 200 feet. Although this species is found from Cabo San Lucas north to California’s Monterey Bay, it is uncommon to see them north of Point Conception. There is also an isolated population of these bucktoothed fish living inside the Gulf of California.

The diet of the California sheephead is comprised primarily of crabs, clams, mussels, squid, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. They use large canine-like teeth to pry food from reefs and rocks, while a special plate in their throat crushes the shells into small pieces for easy digestion.

Sheephead are generally linked to habitats that are close to dense kelp forests and also immediately adjacent to rocky structures, pinnacles and wreck sites. Because of this, those who target them should expect to lose a little tackle from time to time.  My favorite rig for these fish is the standard dropper loop.

One of the best ways to minimize loss is to tie your terminal sinker on using a basic overhead knot that will deliberately fail if it becomes hopelessly entangled in some type of structure. That way, at least you don’t have to replace your entire rig. 

They will occasionally take a variety of live and cut baits, such as anchovy or squid that is fished on or near the bottom as well.  Once you are positioned over appropriate habitat, you can often get things going by chumming with crushed mussels or other minced bait in order to get the fish in a feeding frame of mind.   

Giant sheephead have been known to eat live, baited mackerel.  But one of the hottest and most under used baits are live, freshwater crayfish that are sold to largemouth bass anglers in local bait & tackle stores. Another exceptional bait for sheephead that is an insider trick of veteran sheephead anglers is using common garden snails.

Once, while fishing on a panga near Santo Tomas in northern Baja, I witnessed an angler in our party baiting up some snails that he had brought along in his tackle box getting practically laughed off the boat by his two buddies who were using strips of squid and lures. By the end of the trip, however, he ended up with more fish than the total combined catch of his tormentors who, by the way, remained silent all the way back to the dock.

Over the years, sheephead have unfairly been labeled as poor table fare by those who do not know how to prepare them properly. Their big mistake is to cook it as they do many other fish species; by frying it up in oil. Luckily, I was given a tasty and innovative recipe for California sheephead by a Mexican deckhand while fishing off Ensenada several decades ago. It has been in our family’s treasure trove of recipes ever since.

Because a great majority of their diet is made up of shellfish, their white, delicate flesh is far better complimented by steaming the boneless fillets ‘skin on’, and then wrapping and refrigerating them for at least 2 hours until they have had a chance to chill completely. Take the fillets out and use a fork to flake all of the meat off of the skin and into a large bowl.

Add in some finely chopped scallions and parsley, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, a little minced celery and a handful of small cocktail shrimp and mix well. Top with your favorite seafood cocktail sauce and serve. Your guests will be delighted; and then amazed when they are told that it wasn’t really crabmeat at all …but rather, California sheephead.