|My buddy Tyler with a nice sheepshead on fly. We'll talk about that shirt he's wearing in another article.|
Every serious saltwater fly angler, no matter where they fish, has at least three or four crab flies in their box. For those of us here on Pine Island, that number should be much higher. Every gamefish that swims in our waters makes crabs a big part of their diet, and they have dozens of species to choose from out there. Trying to tie or purchase enough imitations of all the different clawed creatures that inhabit our grass beds would be an almost impossible task, but fortunately you don’t even have to come close to that. In fact just one pattern, with a few small adjustments, will do it all.
Legendary angler Del Brown’s classic Merkin Crab fly has been around for thirty years now and although it was originally designed the fool the notoriously difficult permit down in the Keys, it works on every other inshore species, too. Tarpon, redfish, and even snook will hit this pattern and it can be tied in an endless variety of sizes and colors. Since the Merkin is basically a few strands of rug yarn and a couple of feathers, it’s obviously not too hard to modify. You can eliminate the weights to make it a surface pattern for tarpon in the passes or tie on some extra heavy dumbbell eyes to dredge up grouper from the near shore reefs.
The Merkin was such a revolutionary pattern that almost every “new” crab fly introduced over the last few decades has been nothing more than a tweaking of Del’s original masterpiece. There have been several well publicized attempts to reinvent the permit fly recently but all of them still share 90% of their DNA with Del’s original masterpiece.
One thing I really like seeing is anglers modifying it specifically to fool sheepshead. These are one of the most common but sadly underrated inshore gamefish on the entire east coast of the United States. Sheepshead are difficult enough to catch on live bait since their entire diet consists of barnacles that they eat off of dock pilings and oyster bars. Fooling them with a fly is a serious chore but, like a lot of other species, they can’t resist a good looking crab.
Catching a big sheepshead on a fly rod is just as much as of an angling accomplishment as landing a permit in the Keys. Fortunately for us here on Pine Island, it can be done year round.
Learning where the neighborhood oyster bars are located is the first step to hooking a sheepshead. Now that we’re in the winter low tides this shouldn’t be too difficult. These huge clumps of oysters are poking way out of the water just about every day this month. Mark them on your GPS and charts because it’s during the high tides when you want to be out there fishing. That’s when the sheepshead most actively feed along the oyster bar’s edges. Cast and bounce a #4 or smaller Merkin, or similar crab pattern, off the deepest part of these bars and you’re most likely to get a very subtle bite from a sheepie. Just remember to pull straight back with your line hand to set the hook on them. The sheepshead’s mouths are solid teeth over even more solid bone so lifting the rod tip like you would on a freshwater trout does next to nothing. Strip strike them like a tarpon or the hook will never bury itself in there.
This is just a thumbnail sketch on how to fish for this tricky species with a fly. Even though I rarely target sheepshead on any tackle, I really wish I could dedicate more time in pursuit of them on my charters. They’re a very worthy adversary and not difficult to find here on the waters around Pine Island. Give the sheepshead a serious shot with some crab flies and let me know if what you’re doing is successful.