Bycatch: Unexpected Catches are Part of the Saltwater Experience

One of my favorite aspects of saltwater fishing is the unexpected. This may arrive in the form of weather and water conditions (read, lightning strikes, big waves, and scary) or in surprise catches.

For instance, on the first day I ever fly fished for tarpon I saw several fish swimming by and decided to throw my Cockroach fly at them, just to see if they would notice. Once the fly landed I gave it a twitch and the last fish in the group peeled off and inhaled it. And what kind of fish was that, you ask? Nothing less than a permit!

This came about a half hour after I’d landed a tarpon while cruising out of a cut on the Atlantic side of Marathon, Florida. Needless to say, the luck ran out and it took me eons to catch another tarpon and, to this day, I haven’t had another permit on the line.

Catching Different Species on Saltwater Fly Fishing Trips

Over the years I’ve caught all sorts of fish on saltwater trips and in some cases I had no idea what they were. But a couple weeks ago, while targeting redfish in Florida’s Mosquito Lagoon, just off the Space Coast, I spotted a fish an instantly knew what it was—sheepshead.

bycatch salt water fly fishing (1) Scanning Florida's Mosquito Lagoon for "convicts."

I’d seen these fish in Louisiana and in Mosquito Lagoon when I last fished it (I can’t remember the year, but I do remember that the Vikings lost to the Saints in the NFC championship during my visit and that still leaves a bad taste).

Hooking up with a Sheepshead on the Fly

I was on the bow of a flats skiff when I spotted this sheepshead and quickly said, “Sheepshead” to the guide. He said, “Try him” and I quickly launched a cast. The surface of the water was slick as glass and I could see the sheepshead in a sandy hole surrounded by weeds. The fly landed and sank to the far side of the sand hole and the sheepshead, to my surprise, charged across and slammed the fly.

I set the hook hard and said, “Got him.” The guide almost fell off his poling platform before saying, “What! You hooked a sheepshead? You do not know how difficult that is to do. Nobody does that.”

Once I’d landed and released that fish the guide told me that sheepshead are incredibly difficult to hook and that they rarely are aggressive. He couldn’t even recall anyone else getting one on a fly while fishing out of his boat. So, once again, luck was on my side . . . because it certainly wasn’t skill that helped me catch that fish.

bycatch salt water fly fishing (2) Sheepshead can be one of the most difficult flats fish to hook on a fly, but the author only threw one cast to catch this one.

It wasn’t until I got back home to Montana that I did a little research and learned that sheepshead don’t eat. Well, they eat, of course, but they seem to have disdain for artificial flies.

Perusing the web, here are some comments I read about fly fishing for sheepshead:

—Out of countless hundreds of shots I've had on shallow-water sheepies, I've caught 2 of them in the past 12 years.

—In a lot of years of fly fishing I've never hooked one anywhere I've encountered them.

—Sight-fishing sheepshead is one of my favorite things to do in wintertime on the Indian River Lagoon. About 1 out of 10 fish tries to eat. Out of the other 9 fish, 5 will stare at the fly and not eat, and the remaining 4 will flare away when the fly hits the water. They're tougher to fool than bonefish!

—I've had about the same rate of success. However, of the four that flare away three are laughing hilariously, and one is flipping me off. Shrug

—I know a few winter spots in the 10K area that load up with big sheepies on a low tide, standing on their heads over solid or broken oyster... no, I haven't ever hooked one on fly, but hope is always there. It's enough to have you talking to yourself on the long drive home.

Sheepshead are nicknamed “convicts” because of the vertical black stripes on their whitish sides. They look like a giant bluegill gone bad. They have wicked dorsal spines and sharp teeth. When I released my sheepshead I said, “That was like catching a zebra with fins.”

So sheepshead aren’t a tarpon, bonefish or permit, but they’re pretty cool to look at, and my mentality toward them is the same as it is for any fish I encounter in the salt—I’m here, and that’s a fish, so why not throw?

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Greg Thomas grew up splitting time between southeast Alaska and Seattle, Washington . . . and never moved away from the Pacific Northwest. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his two daughters and serves as Editor-in-Chief of North 40’s creative department. Thomas has penned five books on fly fishing, including Fly Fisher’s Guide to Washington and Fly Fisher’s Bible Montana. His byline appears in regional and national publications, including the New York Times, Forbes, Outside, and Field & Stream. He has no trouble admitting that he’s a steelhead addict and loves pursuing these fish with two-hand rods wherever they swim.

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