California Sheephead Fishing Tips

About Sheephead

Sheephead fish are a large member of the wrasse family of fish species. Larger Sheephead fish are called "Goats" of Southern California. Sheephead fish have a limited range primarily in the southern half of California and Northern Baja. These fish live in rocks in approximately 60-200 feet of water and can live up to 20 years and reach a maximum size of around 30 - 40lbs. They have large, protruding teeth used to crush the crustaceans, mollusks and hard-shellfish they feed on. All sheephead start out female and pink, then develop that distinct black and red coloring with the white goatee when they mature and turn male at about 7 to 8 years.

Bait & Lures

avorite food of the sheephead are clams, crabs, mussels, sea urchin and other hard-bodied sea creatures. They are not big fans of fin baits like sardines and anchovies. The trick to targeting a big “goat” is to bring the right artificial and live baits. Try some baits these fish can’t resist like crushed mussels and clams, rock crabs, sand crabs, shrimp, and live crawdads. These are typical foods for a hungry sheephead. Any artificial that resembles live crawdad may be the best of them all because it looks like a baby lobster or a pelagic red crab. Some anglers even use freshwater crawadads with success. Shrimp are the most common sheephead bait and squid deserves special mention because sheephead live for those times when looking to eat and spawning activities bring squid to the rocky areas where hungry big goat Sheephead wait. Squid strips and rings are always a trusty bait. For anglers fishing artificial baits for Sheephead, use smaller plastics or jigs. Good choices are Gulp! shrimp, curly - tail grubs and sand worms.


Shallow to mid-depth water, I like the traditional Carolina Rig for those familiar - a sliding sinker held two feet up the line from the hook by a small splitshot or barrel swivel. Use a size 1 live bait hook and rig so the point is buried in the bait to reduce hangups on the rocks. In deeper water, I like to rig a reverse dropper loop, by tying the hook to the end of the line and hanging a weight from a dropper loop a couple of feet up the line. For those on a deep-sea fishing vessel pin a shrimp, crab or a piece of mussel onto the hook and drop it down onto the reef. Sheephead like invertebrates like shrimp and crabs and sea urchins. They also feed on squid. They are not big fans of fin baits, so leave the sardines and anchovies. Sheephead feed by biting crustaceans off of the rocks or kelp branch, so it is best to fish right on the bottom or not more than a couple feet above it. Good choices of tackle include a medium action rod (7’ - 20 - 40lb class), a trustworthy reel like a Penn Jigmaster 500 star drag reel (easier for novice anglers) spooled with 25 pound Big Game mono or Trilene fluorocarbon. If you prefer braided line, spool up with your favorite 50lb. braid.

Tips Fishing for Sheephead

Sheephead are usually caught on any sportfishing trip targeting Rockfish and are caught in the kelp, any structure, and fishing the bottom. This environment holds the food they eat lurking around the rocks. Be prepared to get the fish turned and heading towared the surface as soon as you are hooked as Sheephead will use the bottom and structure to its advantage by wrapping around anything it can find to snap you off. They are capable of fast, powerful bursts as they fight to reach the bottom or any structure for snapping the line. A big one can feel like you are stuck on the bottom and if you let them get into a crevice where they can flair their body out and wedge themselves in they win that battle. Because they live in rocky areas most of the time, heavier tackle should be employed if you are targeting bigger ones. I suggest a 40lb leader with braided line to help get them away from the rocks quickly.

Rob's Sheephead Preparation Tips

My father who lived in Southern California since the 50's was the first to tell me this fish tastes similar to Spiny Lobster. As with all Rockfish I catch, I take a big square of foil and chop up tomato's, onion, peppers and my favorite veggies and loose wrap that Sheephead and veggies together and place on any source of heat - BBQ, frying pan or oven and let cook just a few minutes until the fish easily pulls apart. Usually it will fall apart making the foil great to eat from. For better presentation use a plate. The beauty of cooking fish this way is there's no mess to clean up, just throw the foil away. I've heard like many fish species, the head makes a good soup broth, firm and intact.

Types of Fish in the Channel Islands Region

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