“They come in with the drum in May,” says Captain Dan Schafer as he pulls a wooden bait keeper on to the dock at his slip in Stone Harbor Marina. “And I catch them into November.” The keeper is filled with thumbnail-sized fiddler crabs that Schafer collected by chasing them down on the beach at low tide. If you’ve seen how fast fiddler crabs scurry for their burrows, then you’ll understand why Schafer is careful not to lose any when removing a couple dozen for the morning’s fishing.
Many of South Jersey’s most popular gamefish arrive and depart the bays during that same timeframe. Schafer could be referring to weakfish, fluke, bluefish, or tog—but the fish he’s talking about is one that few fishermen target in New Jersey.
Schafer saw his first Jersey sheepshead more than a decade ago. He and his brother were using an Aqua-Vu underwater camera to scout for structure that might hold tog and triggerfish when a small school of sheepshead appeared on the screen. After seeing them, the Schafer brothers baited tog rigs with fiddler crabs and dropped them to the bottom. The sheepshead promptly cleaned the rigs on each drop, so the brothers abandoned the pursuit until a month later, when they discovered the productivity of crab-baited jigs for tautog. Schafer tried the jigs in the area where he’d seen sheepshead on the Aqua-Vu. Before long, his first one was in hand.
Sheepshead aren’t new arrivals to the Northeast. They were swimming in our waters long before Schafer saw them on his Aqua-Vu. Presumably, they were abundant enough in the mid-1800s for Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay to be named for them. There’s plenty of habitat for them in New Jersey’s backwaters from Cape May to Barnegat Bay in the form of mussel beds, sod banks bridges, rock piles, and piers. The reason more aren’t caught, Schafer says, is because regularly hooking a sheepshead requires a nuanced technique—one that he’s honed over his 10 years of targeting the species.
Schafer began Insomniac Guide Service in 2010, specializing in back-bay fly- and light-tackle fishing. From the sheepshead to his redfish-style flats fishing for stripers, a day fishing the spartina-lined creeks, bays, and thoroughfares with Schafer’s feels like a trip much farther south than Cape May County. As we snake our way toward his chosen bridge, Schafer describes the fishing in his home waters—which were once my home waters—and I’m reminded, and thankful, that there’s always more to learn when it comes to fishing.
The biggest breakthrough in Schafer’s sheepshead quest was when he learned that these fish spend far more time feeding in the middle of the water column than on the bottom. Another benefit to fishing the middle of the water column is avoiding the baby sea bass and other bait-stealers that blanket the bottom of New Jersey’s backwaters.
“Sheepshead feed along the pilings from just below the surface to 10 feet down,” Schafer explains as we pull up to the first bridge. Fishermen dropping rigs or heavier jigs right to the bottom may completely miss the hungry sheepshead feeding in the top half of the water column.
Schafer takes a much lighter approach to sheepsheading. His preferred setup is a 7-foot G. Loomis Greenwater rated for 1/4- to 5/8-ounce lures paired with a size 3000 Shimano reel spooled up with 15-pound-test braid, then finished off with a 20-pound-test leader.
As we idle toward the bridge, he pulls the medium-light spinning rod out of the holder and snatches a fiddler crab from the bait bucket. He impales it on the barb of a 1/4-ounce jig of his own design, taking care not to expose the hook point. The result leaves the crab hovering over the lead, a presentation that Schafer says leads to more bites and a better hook-up ratio.
With the outboard out of gear, he deploys the trolling motor and, using the remote, noses the boat into the incoming current and close enough to the bridge stanchion that he could reach out and touch it with his rod tip. And, that’s just what he does before dropping the bait. Despite the ripping current, the proximity to the piling allows Schafer to keep the tiny, crab-baited jig in the lee for a perfect, straight-down presentation.
Schafer drops the crab three feet, waits a few seconds, and drops it another three. That short wait is all it takes to let him know if the fish are there. A feeding sheepshead, he says, cruises through the structure using its human-like teeth to pluck crabs and scrape mussels or barnacles off the pilings. A fresh fiddler placed in front of the fish doesn’t last long, so Schafer doesn’t waste time waiting for the fish to find him.
He opens the bail and lets the jig drop another few feet. Immediately, the rod tip starts to bounce, and Schafer sets the hook into an out-of-season tog.
“Most people don’t realize that these guys are back here all summer long,” Schafer says, showing me the fish. “Tog are warm-water fish, so they stay until cold water sends them back offshore in the fall.”
That tog is the first of many. Every drop yields a blackfish between 10 and 16 inches. “I’ve caught eight-pounders doing this in the summer,” Schafer says.
Though tog are out of season from May 1 to July 30, if we had been fishing two weeks later, in early August instead of mid-July, we would have had little problem catching our single 15-inch or better keeper. Catching a sheepshead, he says, can be merely a matter of picking through the blackfish. While generally much larger than the summer’s back-bay blackfish, a sheepshead’s hit is subtle compared to the tap-tap-tap of a biting tog. “They take the crab and lift it,” Schafer says, and the momentary slack in the line is the signal to set the hook.
The fiddler crabs disappear at an alarming rate as Schafer falls into the routine of baiting up, dropping down, and hooking—or missing—a tog.
He repositions the boat around the bridge, but the result is more tog. Schafer says that when a sheepshead does hit, it’s important not to fight it after the hookset.
If you’ve ever praised the scrappiness of porgies by saying something like, “Imagine if they grew to 10 pounds,” you’ve actually imagined a sheepshead. Both are members of the Sparidae family, a group of fish characterized by smallish mouths, spiny dorsals, and deep, laterally compressed bodies. Those bodies generate a lot of power by turning sideways and frantically swimming for the bottom. With an average size between 6 and 10 pounds, South Jersey’s sheepshead put up a serious battle on any inshore tackle.
Though the light tackle Schafer uses does get more bites, locking down the drag and wrenching the fish away from the structure is not an option. Instead, he “tricks” the hooked sheepshead into swimming into open water. “It wants to follow the path of least resistance,” Schafer explains, and that path is not swimming against a tight drag. By backing off the drag, Schafer keeps the fish from freaking out in the close quarters of the bridge pilings. This buys him enough time to motor the boat toward open water, where he wants the battle to take place. With minimal pressure, the fish can be led away from the danger zone, at which point Schafer tightens the drag and the real fight begins.
We’re running low on crabs, and after trying a few more pilings and one more bridge, there’s no indication that the South Jersey sheepshead are hungry.
As he pulls the trolling motor and racks the rod, Schafer admits that the middle of the summer is a slower time for sheepshead. My assumption that the hottest time of year is best is a reasonable one, considering that sheepshead are most abundant from North Carolina to Texas, but Schafer catches the most fish when they are schooled up and moving in or out of the South Jersey bays. He tells me his best tally is more than two dozen sheepshead in a single day, and he has friends who have caught more than 50 in a day. This information erases my last lingering doubt about sheepshead being a viable fishery in New Jersey.
As we tie up to the dock, Schafer mentions that the flats fishing for stripers has been fantastic, even with the mid-70-degree water temperatures. The bass, he said, will keep his clients busy between trips to the bridges to check on his flock.
Originally published online in February 2020.