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#76 - Sheepshead

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Ronan's report


Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

A ruckus in the back corner of a small finger of the pond caught my attention from over 100 feet away. The fished moved hard to eat something, exposing a good portion of itself above water. The black and white vertical bars were unmistakable above the glassy surface.

"Greg, did you see that?"

"Yeah."

"Big sheepshead!"

Captain Greg quickly, quietly poled the skiff over the shallow mudflat in the direction of the commotion.

I'd seen a bunch of sheepshead while fishing for redfish down here. They are an incidental species on the marsh. Noone really fishes for them intentionally, and they have a well deserved reputation for being tricky to take on flies. "Cajun Permit" is what the locals call them. I'd cast at dozens of them in the past. At least ten that morning. I believed the locals. I'd spooked most of the ones I'd seen, and had a number follow the fly and inspect it closely before refusing it, but I'd never had one eat. For that reason alone, I wanted one badly. Another species to add to my list.

"Man, I swear I just saw it again. Just barely. The tip of a tail or something. I think he's coming out of that finger."

I didn't see it, but I believed the eyes of my guide and friend up on the platform. On the flats, four eyes are at least ten times better than two. I renewed my focus on a different piece of water, outside the little finger of water where we first saw the fish.

I scanned the water near the opening of the little finger. A moment later the shape of that sheepshead appeared, clearly visible to me along the edge of the marsh grass where the dark reflection of the grass on the water cut the glare. I could see the whole fish, moving slowly right to left along the grass maybe 60 feet from the boat.

Before I'd even finished saying, "I'm gunna take a shot", Greg had the boat turned and set up perfectly.

As the cast unrolled towards the target about 10 feet in front of the fish I had a moment of panic. I felt like I had underpowered the cast and the loop would collapse under the weight of the heavy crab pattern, but it turned over just fine and landed more softly than any cast I'd ever made with a fly that big. I did nothing for a second, shocked that the cast turned over, and shocked that the fish hadn't spooked yet. It was the exactly correct thing to do - let the fly settle to the bottom.

"Strip it."

And I did.

The fish reacted immediately, rushing toward the fly as I maintained the cadence.

"He's after it, slow it down a bit."

In the span of two slower strips the big sheepshead closed the gap on the fly, gaining speed.

I felt like a riverboat gambler going "all in" when I stopped stripping completely to let the crab settle and dive for the bottom. Based on all my experience, this would be the moment when the sheepshead would take a long, close look at the fly and then swim away.

But, this time it was different. The fish dipped it's head down and flashed its side. I'd never seen a sheepshead eat a fly before, but when it happened, I knew it had happened. I was glad I remembered how to set the hook.

"Yes!!"

I'm pretty sure that Greg was just as surprised as I was when I came tight to that fish and it took off across the shallows.

"Don't lose that thing man. It's a BIG one and I want to see it up close."

Greg's words sent me on a flashback to another redfish flat a long time ago in Florida. I'd just hooked the biggest redfish I'd ever seen and those exact same words came out of my friend Patrick's mouth. I lost that fish because I tried to get the fish on the reel too soon and ended up losing tension ever so slightly. I wouldn't make the same mistake again.

A few exciting minutes later Greg put the Boga on the fish. We had him! My first sheepshead was a spectacular fish and so cool to see up close. I was amazed looking at its big eyes and long pectoral fins. It sported a set of front teeth that looked more human than piscine that I later learned had evolved to scrape oysters and barnacles from the bottom. Those chompers were set in front of an equally impressive set of crushers that would make any crab nervous. Perhaps for extra style points, its dorsal fin could fold neatly down and back into a sort of slot between ridged on it's humped back.

A couple of quick photos and then a satisfying, clean release made it a complete experience, a really great memory, and a perfect example of how flats fishing is more of a team sport than most other types of fishing.

"Man, what a fish! We don't put many of them in the boat, and that one was a monster! Might have been close to the state record that Jim's buddy got this spring. You see those crazy teeth? Sometimes they will break a hook on you!"

"No joke?"

When we got tired of being attacked by the swarming gnats, I picked up my rod again I took a look at the fly. Sometimes I "retire" a fly that takes a really special fish. This time I had no choice but to switch it out. The hook was broken off cleanly where the barb would have normally been. I don't know when the hook broke, but I remember it coming out of the fish's mouth very easily when I unhooked it.

Sometimes, when you go fishing with good friends, things just work out. I may never land another sheepshead again, and I know I won't ever land one bigger. That's just fine by me. I'll still cast at every one I see on the flats and hope that I might get to see one close up again someday. I'll certainly never forget my first.

Take Care and Fish On,
Matt


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