Before they were famous, we called them sheepshead. They were as useless as a channel cat. Trash fish. I vividly recall struggling to reel them in, convinced I had the biggest trout of the morning, only to see that black and white striped, bucktoothed idiot appear from the murky depths. And I’d grumble in my most disgusted tone, as I’d heard the older fishermen say, “Dang sheepshead.”
A couple of years ago I had someone invite me to go fishing for “convicts.” They said they were “tearing them up” on the rigs just outside the mouth of the Bay. I’d never heard of a convict, but the enthusiasm and urgency behind the invitation had me convinced that I’d better get in on whatever it was.
We roared out into the Gulf in an expensive boat and cast live shrimp beside the rigs. As we pulled in one sheepshead after another, I had to keep glancing at my companions, suspicious I was the victim of a snipe hunt. But I soon realized they were serious about these things. As it turned out, sometime since my youth, the sheepshead had been marketed into a sportfish carrying a nickname suggesting plenty of man points.
“Do you eat them?” I asked.
“Fillet them out, put them scale-down on the grill, and it’s the best-tasting fish you’ll ever eat, ” I was told.
There is someone somewhere that will tell you just about any fish, when cooked a certain way, is the best fish you’ll ever eat. The only exception to this I know of is the channel cat.
Admittedly, I cleaned and cooked my convicts, and they did taste good, at least as good as most other fish I’ve had.
A couple of years passed after my first sheepshead fishing trip. One morning this past summer, I took the kids trout fishing off Zundel’s Wharf in Point Clear, a cluster of deteriorating pilings that’s been a local fishing hole for decades. Fishing with kids can be a tricky thing, especially something as hit-and-miss as trout fishing. One carries a nagging fear that if you don’t catch something — anything — quick, you’ll never get them out there again.
The Bay was calm as a lake, and the sun was starting to beat down on us. Our corks floated dead on the surface, and the only noise was the steady humming of the bait aerator. For the past 15 minutes, my kids had been lying in various contorted positions about the boat, and I knew complaints were coming soon. I desperately needed to pull in some species of fish.
There were three boats scattered nearby, no one catching anything. I think we were all relieved when a small, beat-up skiff puttered up to the pilings, breaking the monotony. I recognized the driver as Blind Dog Mike, a friend from down the beach. Blind Dog didn’t wave because he didn’t see me. He can’t see well at all — which, I suppose, is how he got his name.
Blind Dog didn’t anchor just outside the pilings like the rest of us; he drove right in amongst them. At first I suspected this was because he couldn’t see, but I soon realized it was exactly what he had in mind. He clambered to the front of his skiff and tied the bow tight against a piling. Then he pulled a garden tool from the floor, something like an edger, and began scraping the piling below the water. I could hear barnacles being raked away.
“What the heck is he doing?” I thought to myself. But Blind Dog seemed to know exactly what he was doing, going about it all very systematically. And, after a bit of scraping, he put the tool on the floor again, picked up a fishing rod, baited it with something I couldn’t see, and dropped the line. In less than five seconds, he was struggling against an enormous fish.
He hauled what must have been an eight-pound sheepshead into the boat. And he did this two more times. Then moved to another piling and did it three more times. After fishing a total of about 10 minutes, he cranked his skiff and sputtered off, leaving the rest of us fishermen looking at each other. We were all within speaking distance, but each of us had been competitively silent and miserable for the past hour.
There was one boat that was closer to Blind Dog than the rest of us. We’d been so thoroughly shown up that our competitive distance had been shattered. I asked a question that one would never ask under different circumstances.
“What was he using for bait?”
“Looked like fiddler crabs, ” a man said.
The next weekend I woke the kids early and announced that we were going after convicts. Just the name alone was enough to entice them into one more trip. I got a flathead shovel from the garden shed and met them at their little Stauter boat, which I assumed would be ideal for getting close to the pilings. Then we motored up the beach to a place I’d seen with plenty of fiddler crabs.
At first we weren’t sure they wouldn’t pinch us and went about trying to catch them with bait nets. It wasn’t long before we realized their pinchers weren’t big enough to do anything, so we began chasing and grabbing them with our hands. And I thought to myself, the kids are already having so much fun that this trip was a success no matter how many fish we end up catching.
With about a dozen fiddlers in the boat, we motored the rest of the way to Zundel’s, pulled past that same scene of idle fishermen, and tied to one of the pilings. I proceeded to emulate Blind Dog’s performance, scraping the piling with my shovel. Then the kids dropped their lines, and it was on. They hauled in four monster convicts while the rest of the fishermen watched with that same defeated stare — this time at a couple of 12-year-olds. I couldn’t have been prouder.
I’d redeemed myself with the kids, but I felt a bit guilty. The following week I called Blind Dog Mike to confess. Fortunately, he was eager to share everything he knew about the process. He told me a few of his secret spots and all he knew about sheepshead. Like most tricks of the outdoorsman, he said they had been taught to him by an “old man.” Scraping the piling chums the water with bits of barnacle, which attract the sheepshead. When the fish arrive, dangling before them is their favorite food, the fiddler crab. The sheepshead is territorial, and you’ll typically catch the biggest one first. And if you don’t catch one within a few minutes, you need to move to another piling.
This sounded like dream fishing to me. A complete reversal of how it had always been. The biggest one first? And give up after a few minutes if you don’t catch anything? Well, it works. And I’m getting lots of Dad points thanks to that old trash fish I once snubbed.
Text and photo by Watt Key