There are few people who will argue that the permit, AKA the “Grey Ghost,” is one of the most difficult salt water fish to catch on a fly rod. To actually catch and land one of those is indeed an accomplishment any fly fisherman would be proud of. While we don’t have permit stalking the Louisiana flats, we do have one adversary that is every bit as elusive as the the permit. Ours wears prison stripes and has teeth that basically look like human teeth. It’s the sheepshead, AKA…the “Cajun Permit.”
While sheepshead may be easy to catch around docks with market shrimp, they are very difficult to catch on a fly rod. First of all, it isn’t easy getting them to chase an artificial bait or fly. Now, I know many people have caught them on artificial and even flies but there are several factors that really make catching this fish on flies even more challenging. First, there are those big eyes. They have good eyesight and are known to feed in very shallow water on shrimp, baby crabs, and other crustaceans (that’s why they have those crushing teeth). They also tend to turn a little on their side while they are feeding which gives them a good vision of their surroundings. So, one must be very stealthy just to get a cast to a feeding sheepshead without spooking it. Another challenge is, well…those teeth. It is extremely hard to get a good hook set with a small fly hook with all those teeth. The only real chance a fly fisherman has it to get a hook in the fleshy side of the mouth.
A third reason they are so hard to catch on the fly rod, I think, personally is because they have good noses too and are looking for bait that smells like bait. My flies do not smell like bait 🙂
Over the years, I think I have caught 2 sheepshead on flies. I have, however, watched them follow a fly for several feet, only to stop and turn away. Usually, I’m fishing for redfish when I spot one of those toothy critters and I offer it the same fly I’m using for redfish, which is a gold spoon fly. I have fished a couple of fly fishing tournaments where there has been a special sheepshead pot. Frankly, I haven’t even bothered because I just haven’t been lucky.
Well, that changed this past Saturday. I finally made it down to the marsh to do some fishing. It’s been since late May since I’ve had a good opportunity (good weather, good health, light winds, no work or family-related obligations) to get down to the beautiful Louisiana marsh that I love so dearly. Allow me to pause here to explain why I love our estuary so much. (WARNING: HERE COMES MY SHORT RANT!!)
I don’t only love it only for the fact that we have the best estuary for gamefish, and edible seafood. There is a beauty that envelopes our delta that many people down here, sadly don’t see. They drive down winding roads with beautiful live oaks draped with Spanish moss daily, yet they don’t “see” it. They sadly, fish our marshes and don’t stop to see the beauty this it possesses, and even worse…they use it as their own personal dumping ground. I’ve visited Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona during the past two years and you just don’t see all the trash. It not only saddens me but it makes me sick in my stomach to see the trash along our waterways. OK rant is over.
Here are some pictures I took yesterday of some of the beauty I witnessed:
These pictures were taken with a camera phone and really don’t do the subject matter justice, but I think you get the picture (pardon the pun).
OK, so back to my sheepshead story…I arrived at my fishing destination to find that the water was still very high due to the recent tropical system that entered the coast to our east. Additionally, we were experiencing a very high incoming tide Saturday, so conditions were not favorable for site fishing. Places that normally hold a foot or two of water were 3 – 4 feet deep. Add to that the fact that the water clarity wasn’t good and you can see that I had a long day push-poling through the marsh and didn’t get many chances to cast at many redfish. I did manage to catch a couple small ones by blind casting
It was getting to be about noon, when I came across a patch of grassy flats that was what I call, “sheepshead rich.” I spooked several nice ones and made a couple casts to others only to watch them chase my spoon fly down and then refuse it. I was determined this time to catch one of these “cajun permit.” I quickly grabbed my other rod and snipped off the popper I had tied on it. By the way, I had two redfish attack that popper earlier in the day but I couldn’t get a hook-set on either one of them. I tied on a merkin-style crab that I had tied for such an occasion.
So I poled my way back to my “sheepshead rich” environment and saw two big ones working the edge. I put a good cast between the two of them (about a foot and a half in front of them) and watched as they both moved in to investigate. If you look at my fly you will notice that is has several sets of rubber legs. I let the fly come to rest on the bottom and watched the rubber legs tease one so much it just couldn’t keep its teeth off it. It picked up the fly in its mouth and kind of shook its head like a shark would if it had grabbed a chunk of meat. I strip-set the hook and the darned thing took off like a rocket! It made one or two more big runs and then seemed to kind of give up. I was determined not to loose it so I took my time and played it just right. Finally, I played it right into my landing net. Mission accomplished!
In hindsight, I wish I would have weighed and measured it because I think it’s my largest sheepshead to date on my fly rod. It felt like it was every bit of five pounds and it also reminded me why it’s NOT a good idea to wear sandals in a kayak because one of those big dorsal fins found its way into my big toe 😦
I released it
and poled around the area a couple more times to see if I could catch another one. I got one or two more casts off but was rejected, so I tied on a shrimp imitation. I guess all the commotion that fish created and my poling around the place was too much for the fish so I didn’t get another chance at a sheepshead. I explored more water for about another hour and decided that I had had enough for one day. I was able to drive to Thibodaux to visit with my mom and dad for a few hours and then visit my mother-in-law too, so it was a perfect day! It’s not quite on just yet but in four to six weeks, the weather will cool down and the fishing will get hot! I’m looking forward to getting back out there and experiencing what our South Louisiana waters have to offer again.
After I published this, I checked out some of my old pictures to see if this was indeed my largest sheepshead. Come to find out, I have caught several and 2013 was my most productive year.
This is a small one that ate a spoon fly in the winter.
Here is one from a different trip the same year.
Another Leeville sheepshead caught in 2013 on a spoon fly.
Well, either way, I’ve got to give my spoon fly more credit than I did. All those other fish were caught on a spoon fly.