California Sheephead are a Tough and Tasty Local Fish


Mar 11, 2001
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California DFG

January 8, 2002

 California Sheephead are a Tough and Tasty Local Fish

Contact: Contact: Conservation Education, (916) 653-6420

SACRAMENTO — A big California sheephead is nearly strong enough to pull an arm right out of its socket! These "goats," as they are often affectionately called, don't make a long sustained run, like a yellowtail or other gamefish, but they will use every ounce of their prodigious muscle to bulldog back down to the rocks where they can easily bust off a stout fishing line. The trick is to keep them out of the rocks, or it's all over in the first five seconds - no two ways about it.

There are plenty of down home anglers who thoroughly enjoy outfoxing an oversized sheephead. While sheephead are a favorite local fish, specifically targeting them requires a fair understanding of the species. Following here are some tried and true strategies for bringing in the sheep.

The secret to catching sheephead is to understand their unique feeding habits. It helps to listen carefully to commercial urchin divers who commonly attract a sizable herd of sheephead which are following them around underwater waiting for a smashed urchin to fall their way. Urchin divers know sheephead pretty well, and one thing is generally agreed upon - these fish love hard-shelled animals.

By studying the hard mouth, protruding canine-like teeth, and powerful jaws of these reef dwellers, it is apparent they are well suited for crunching shellfish and pulling them off of the rocky reefs they call home. The way to target them is to bring along the right baits. That means leaving the anchovies, sardines, and squid strips at home or in the bait box for use with other species. Instead, some of the baits these fish can't resist include crushed mussels and clams, whole rock crabs, pelagic red crabs, sand crabs, and shrimp. These are the meals of choice for a hungry sheephead. Shrimp is perhaps the most commonly used bait for sheephead, and is widely accepted as a very tempting offering.

The ideal habitat for these red and black fish is a rugged rocky reef zone, at depths ranging from 20 to120 feet. Many of the islands of the Southern California Bight are surrounded by perfect habitat for sheephead. Some very productive areas include the entire west end of Santa Cruz Island, rocky areas off of the front and back sides of Santa Rosa Island, the rocky structure off of the west side of San Miguel Island, the backside of Santa Catalina Island, and the west end of San Nicholas Island. These areas are perfect homes for shellfish, which means sheephead will be actively foraging.

With the right bait and the best location, the rest is relatively easy. The strategy is to drift or anchor over rocky structure, and chum the area with some busted up mussels, or chopped up bait of almost any kind. That should get the fish to feeding and competing aggressively.

There are a couple of ways to rig up to target sheephead. One, which works well in very shallow water, is a sliding sinker held about two feet up the line from the hook by a small splitshot or barrel swivel. The hook should be large enough to pin through a bait and still protrude slightly past the barb. Drift over the reef zone and drop the bait straight down. Hookups usually come fast. Spend a half-hour working the reef in shallow water before moving out to deeper water. If the sheephead just aren't biting, make a run to the next major reef zone and try the same strategy again. Persistence often pays off when herding sheephead.

In deeper water, reverse dropper loops are more effective. This is made up 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. Pin a shrimp, rock crab or pelagic red crab, piece of mussel, or other bait onto the hook and drop it right down onto the reef. Sheephead feed by biting shellfish off of the rocks or kelp stalks, so it is best to fish right on the bottom or not more than a few feet above it.

California sheephead have an interesting life history. This fish starts life as female, and is red to pinkish in color with a white lower jaw. At around eight years of age, sheephead may become male, depending on a number of environmental factors such as abundance of food and presence of other males. During the transition from female to male, the head and tail become black, and the fish develops a large forehead, while keeping the white lower jaw. California sheephead are generally solitary fish, although they do occasionally appear in small aggregations.

Abbreviated Life History of California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher)

The California sheephead (sheephead) along with two other common southern California species, the rock wrasse (Halichoeres semicinctus), and the senorita (Oxyjulis californica) are members of the mostly tropical, worldwide wrasse family Labridae. The sheephead is easily distinguished from the others by its color pattern, greater body depth, and large size. Juvenile sheephead (less than 4 in. long) are orange with at least two white, horizontal stripes on the side and several black spots in the dorsal and anal fins. Adult males have a black head and tail, separated by a reddish middle section, while the females are uniformly pink or reddish. The males also have a prominent, fleshy bump on their foreheads.

Distribution, Stock Structure and Migration.

California sheephead range from Monterey Bay, California, south into the Gulf of California. This species is not common north of Point Conception. Sheephead are found intertidally to about 280 ft. They are considered a resident, solitary species and no systematic movements have been described.

Age and Growth

Male sheephead have been aged at around 50 yr, and can achieve a length of 3 ft and a weight exceeding 36 pounds. Females have been aged to 30 years.

Reproduction, Fecundity and Seasonality

Sheephead are protogynous hermaphrodites, beginning life as females with older, larger females developing into secondary males. Female sexual maturity may occur in 3 to 6 yr and fishes may remain female for as long as 15 yr. The timing of the transformation to males involves the population sex ratio as well as the size of available males. Sheephead are sometimes seen in large schools, perhaps associated with spawning aggregations. Batch spawning occurs between July and September. Larval drift ranges from 34-78 days. Settlement size remains between 0.5 and 0.6 inches.

Natural Mortality

Estimates of natural mortality are not available.


No information is available on diseases in sheephead.

Predator/Prey Relationships

Sheephead feed by crushing their prey items with their enlarged jaw teeth. They have a broad diet, which includes crabs, barnacles, mollusks, and sea urchins. Because of its large adult size, sheephead have few know predators. Giant sea bass, moray eels, and harbor seals have been documented as predators of sheephead.


Smaller sheephead may compete with garibaldi, Hypsypops rubicundus, when they forage for food.

Critical Habitat

Sheephead inhabit nearshore rocky reefs, kelp beds, and surfgrass beds. They seem to prefer areas of high and low relief, but have also been observed foraging over sandy bottom habitat. Sheephead are resident on many artificial reefs in southern California. At night they often utilize rock crevices and holes to sleep.

Status of Stocks

There has been no ongoing analysis of the status of the California sheephead. With the exception of 1982-1983, the population seems to increase during El Niño conditions and this is reflected in recruitment.


Well-known member
Dec 2, 2001
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When I was on an 8 day on the Shogun, the sheephead were wide open, too bad we were fishing for the mossbacks. As soon as your sardine or mackeral on a dropper loop hit the bottom, BOOM, instant sheephead. All of them were at least 10 pounds, including the females.

On the local side, I have a honey hole at Catalina where the sheephead bite without mercy and the size is respectable. Anyway, steam them and you have imitation crab.
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