Captain Hook’s Gallery: Fishing for California Sheephead
For many years, the California sheephead was considered to be a marginally desirable species and, at times, even a bit of a pest by sport anglers in pursuit of more glamorous quarry. But that was before people started to realize how easily its alabaster white fillets could be turned into gourmet table fare.
I remember the first occasion that this fact was vividly brought to my attention. It was on a sunny, summer day in the early 1960’s while my dad and I were happily slamming calico bass aboard a sportfisher working the kelp just off the coast of Ensenada. After inadvertently hooking a colorful California sheephead, I loudly exclaimed “Damn GOAT!!” mimicking the response that I had observed so many times while watching older anglers and deckhands during many fishing trips on southern California cattle boats.
Moments after it hit the deck, I drew back my foot as if to kick the fish, but was quickly stopped by a nearby deckhand. “Oh, NO, my friend!” He offered encouragingly, placing his hand on my shoulder. “This fish is no ‘chivo’ …and if you throw it away, you will be making a BEEEG mistake!” He winked at us in a friendly, knowing manner. “Do you like crab?” He queried.
“Who doesn’t?” I quipped with a touch of adolescent sarcasm.
“Well this is how you can turn your ‘goat’ into crabmeat …or, at least something that tastes a LOT like it!” He then proceeded to explain how to cut off the thick fillets with the skin side on, and then steam, chill, and flake the delicate meat into a large bowl. Our knowing deckhand then suggested adding some finely chopped green onions, cilantro, celery, chunky salsa and several shrimp to create a batch of seafood cocktails that we would never forget.
Our sheephead went immediately into the sack, and we followed his instructions to the letter after we got back home. Luckily, there were some cocktail shrimp in the freezer, and we had nearly everything else on hand that he had mentioned. The resulting cocktail was a toothsome masterpiece, and the deckhand’s recipe has now been in our family cookbook for decades.
The California sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, is a hermaphrodite. It begins life as a female, and then becomes male later in its development. This fish also happens to be the largest member of the Wrasse family in our hemisphere, with record specimens that weigh in at well over 30 pounds. Sheepshead are generally found in rocky, kelp-filled inshore waters between 20 and 100 feet in depth, although 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 north of Point Conception. There is also an isolated population of these bucktoothed fish inside the Gulf of California. Their diet is comprised primarily of crabs, mussels, squid, sea cucumbers and 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 will take a variety of live and cut baits, such as anchovy or squid that is fished on or near the bottom. Giant sheephead have been known to eat live, baited mackerel, but one of the truly hot baits are the live, freshwater crayfish sold in many bait & tackle stores to largemouth bass anglers. Another exceptional bait for California sheephead, as well as for many members of the rockfish family, is the run of the mill garden snail.
Once, while on a panga near Santo Tomas, I witnessed an angler that was fishing with common garden snails practically get laughed off the boat by his two buddies who were using strip squid and artificials. By the end of the trip, he ended up with more fish than the combined catch of his duo of tormentors; they remained silent all the way back to the dock.
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