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The Sheepshead

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" I shall stay him no longer than to wish, . . . that if he be an honest angler, the east wind may never blow when he goes a-fishing."-IZAAK WALTON.

The ancients long ago discovered the value of the sheepshead or its representatives, and the Chrysophrys of the Greeks, and Aurata of the Latins, was the gilthead of the English, according to Sir John Richardson. Sergius Orata, a famous Roman well liver, considered the gilt-head the finest of all fishes, and it is said that his surname was derived from this fish. He introduced them into ponds, and cultivated oysters and other shell-fish that the giltheads might have the most delicate food. According to Pliny, he suggested and designed the oyster nurseries at Bait upon which were fed the sheepshead which were sold to the Roman epicures. Few fishes today excel the sheepshead when properly served, and as a game fish it ranks high when taken with a light rod and the lightest line.

I have fished for sheepshead alongshore from Long Island to the Chesapeake, off the Georgia coast at Marion Island, and far out on the Florida reef, and have always found it a gamy fish.

It belongs to the family Sparidae, to the sub-genus Archosargus, and is known to science as Archosargus probatocephalus (Walbaum). Its head is large and high, the body deep, with a long dorsal fin ; the tail forked but not deeply, a powerful organ. The mouth is large and provided with a curious array of teeth, those in front being conical or incisorial, for tearing or biting. Back of these are others, in two or three rows, which are crushers or grinders. These are suggestive of the habits of the sheepshead, which is equipped by nature to live upon shells and crustaceans, and wherever found it feeds upon young oysters, barnacles, cockles, and crabs of various kinds. With the front teeth it wrenches shells from rocks or piers, passes them to the grinders, where they are crushed as though passing through a rock breaker. In color the sheepshead is gray, with six or seven vertical stripes which make it very conspicuous. It is a slow-swimming fish, frequenting rocky shores in shallow water, piers, and old wrecks, the latter particularly being favorite resorts; and whenever a wreck can be located on the Atlantic coast, good sheepshead fishing will be found. There are several such ocean rookeries between Newport and Delaware Bay which have become famous. I have had excellent fishing near Old Point Comfort, where I have taken sheepshead from the wharf, and at Beaufort. The fish has never been seen north of Cape Cod, and some localities which knew it well several years ago, know it no more. I was informed by an old fisherman at Fisher's Island that when he was a boy sheepshead were plentiful, but faithful fishing there failed to obtain a rise ; though not many miles away, on the south shore of Long Island, the sheepshead was the common fish. I once accompanied a party up the beach, near Cape May, who waded out into the breakers, which were not very high, and made long casts out over the supposed location of an old wreck, some exciting sport being the result. The fishes were large and extremely gamy, making an exhilarating fight, rendered the more exciting by the capsizing of an old angler by a sea as he was about to land his fish.

The oyster-beds of the Chesapeake are favorite localities for sheepshead, and I have taken the fish from the north beach at Old Point Comfort, where they were evidently feeding upon the crabs which fairly covered the bottom at times. The bait used was a single soft-shelled crab a killing lure. There are numerous fishing-grounds about New York bay well known to boatmen at Staten Island, Fort Hamilton, on the New Jersey shore, Jamaica Bay, Fire Island, South Bay, and various other localities. All these places have their habitues ; some fish with hand-lines, some with rods, who have the shallow mussel beds and other " spots " located off which they anchor, casting on to the bank with good, bad, or indifferent results depending upon tide and weather. The "beds" can be often recognized by the quantities of broken mussel shells. On the outer Florida reef the feeding-ground of the porgies, as they were called, could be determined by a dark spot on the otherwise clear sand of a shallow lagoon, surrounded by the broken shells of bivalves. The Hon. William Elliott, in his delightful " Carolina Sports on Land and Water," describes the sport in Port Royal Sound, where large enclosures were built out into the water to encourage the growth of shell-fish the food of the sheepshead. Stands were also erected for the angler, who was a man after the heart of the salmon fishermen, the rod used being " twenty feet" long, probably a single bamboo pole.

Such an angler created a sensation in Southern California waters several years ago by advocating long rods. It so happened that I accompanied him one day and observed its working. He had a long bamboo pole, the longest and stoutest I remember having seen, and the method was to place the butt of the rod in the leather cap on the seat, and when a strike came merely hold on. I saw this long-rod philosopher play a thirty-pound yellowtail, while I was convinced that he was fast asleep; the fish seized the bait and plunged down, hooking itself, taking the tip several feet under water; but the tremendous strain was too much for even this gamy creature, and the rod gradually raised it, when the fish made another rush, and again the back spring lifted it. And so the fight went on until the angler awoke and reeled in the exhausted fish. Long rods are to be commended, but the rod which does all the fishing is an embarras de richesse.

Mr. Elliott baited one hook with a raw oyster, its attributes being an appeal to the fish's sense of smell, in a word, to attract it ; while on the second hook was a boiled oyster, strong and tenacious, which served as the killing lure. The fish is supposed to migrate, that is, it disappears from the eyes of fishermen in its northern haunts in winter, either moving south, out into deeper water, or lying dormant. At Old Point Comfort, Virginia, the sheepshead appeared in April, some-times in March, disappearing in October. On the Florida reef, at Garden Key, it could be caught the year round, but was much more frequent in summer. Georgia is apparently the limit of the supposed migration ; from here south it was found the year round, the fishing being merely affected by the question of bait. The sheepshead is common all along the coast of Florida in winter, the numbers increasing the farther south one goes. The Indian River region down to Biscayne Bay is a favorite locality for it. Mr. Stearns states that on the mainland Gulf coast the fish is found during the entire year, especially at St. Marks River, Cedar Keys, Homosassa River, and to the south. On the other hand, in the northern Gulf localities, as Appalachicola, St. Andrews, Mobile, and Pensacola, it is migratory, appearing in large numbers only in October and November. The fish spawns in April and May in these localities. On the outer keys spawning fish were found in the shallow lagoon east of Long Key in the latter part of February and the first weeks in March, and shortly after the young fish were seen, while several weeks later a seine hauled about the old mangrove roots would contain great quantities of young, easily recognized by the black stripes or bands.

The average fish I caught on the reef weighed from seven to twelve and eighteen pounds, while individuals weighing twenty pounds were frequently taken. Among New York fishermen stories of extraordinarily large sheepshead are often reported, but individuals weighing fifteen pounds are considered large catches. It is marvellous how a fish will shrink and shrivel when subjected to the deadly scales that have not been encouraged to make the most of things. I once saw a sheepshead which had been caught over an old wreck, near Asbury Park, which was hailed as. the record ; but it appeared later that the fish was "in ballast," having been made a repository for all the lead sinkers of the party.

The sheepshead is trapped and seined, taken with hand-lines, and looked upon as a mere commercial commodity alongshore; but it is a game fish in all the term implies when caught with a rod. In the question of tackle there is the greatest difference in taste, and most of the sheepshead are hauled in with heavy lines, the latter being anchored to the ground with a heavy sinker. Other fishermen use tarpon rods, or rods which sell as bait rods, made for use on the fishing steamers which run out of New York to the banks. They are stiff and heavy, to permit the hauling of a dead weight from a considerable depth. My own experience with the sheepshead has been with a light rod not less than eight and a half feet long and a cuttyhunk line as delicate as one's conscience will permit. I took my largest sheepshead on a number nine cuttyhunk line ; and as the average fish weighs but six or eight pounds, a very light line can be employed. A sinker is necessary at times. I have fished at the mouth of the St. Johns, where my heavy sinker seemed to be always on the surface ; but there is a lull in the current between tides which is a good time to begin to fish. Again, the bait can be cast up the current and allowed to drift down. There is more true satisfaction in taking a fifteen-pound fish with a single gut snood and a small hook than with a wire leader designed for sharks, or for large and powerful fishes which play so long that their fine teeth are very likely to saw and sever the more delicate equipment. An interesting fish sometimes found with the sheeps head is the triple-tail, Lobotes surinamensis. It is a large and powerful fish, reaching a weight of forty or fifty pounds. It has a remarkably wide geographical range, from China to America, and at many intermediate localities. I took a specimen at the " Rip-raps," Old Point Comfort, which weighed about twenty-five pounds, the fish making a very gamy fight, and later I saw specimens which had been taken on the St. Johns. In color it is silvery gray, very attractive when taken, and resembling the common " blue perch " of Santa Catalina waters. It is high, short, and " thick-set," the dorsal and anal fins extending so far backward as to give it the appearance of having three tails, hence the common name. It is taken all alongshore, from New York to Florida, but in such limited numbers that it has never been a factor in the catch of the anglers of any locality.

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