Sheepshead have stout, oval-shaped bodies with short heads, the most obvious feature of which are rows of broad, peg-like teeth (hence their common name). They are grayish in color with five or six broad black, vertical bars on either side of the body and an incomplete head bar. These bars are usually more distinct in younger animals. The dorsal fin is continuous, with sharp, strong spines preceded by a small spine that points forward and is embedded in the skin. The second spine on the anal fin is large and very strong. The pectoral fins are greenish and pointed and extend past the anal opening when pressed against the body of the fish.
Habitat and Biology
Sheepshead spawn in near-coastal waters during the winter and early spring (December - March). During this time they are frequently seen on artificial reefs, as well as natural reef habitats in depths of 18 to 22.5 m (60 to 75 feet). This species is a member of a fish family (Sparidae) more frequently found in offshore waters. Members of the Sparidae commonly are hermaphroditic and undergo sex-reversal. Sheepshead, however, apparently show no evidence of hermaphroditism; each mature individual functions as a male or female throughout its entire adult life.
Eggs and larvae are transported to the estuaries, and small sheepshead are recruited to the shallow tidal creeks that meander through the Spartina marshes. They prefer the higher salinity creeks that have an abundance of oysters and submerged structure. The young sheepshead are cryptic; that is, they are attracted to structure and use it as a hiding place. Little is known about their early life history, but young sheepshead can frequently be caught near dock pilings or other submerged structures. Submerged structures are covered with a community of encrusting organisms such as barnacles, bryozoans, etc. The pattern of dentition of sheepshead enables them to effectively pick or scrape encrusting organisms from underwater structures from the time they are small juveniles through their adult lives. Throughout life, they feed on attached fauna such as barnacles and mussels, as well as small crabs and shrimp.
Sheepshead display a seasonal migration in the fall from inshore higher salinity waters to offshore waters. The pattern is reversed in the spring when, as the inshore waters warm, they move back into the higher salinity parts of the ACE basin. They are relatively long-lived, with the oldest individual reported having an estimated age of 23 years. They grow quickly during the first three years of life; but after reaching sexual maturity, the growth slows dramatically.
Sheepshead are sold commercially in South Carolina, although no directed commercial fishery exists. Commercial landings result from incidental catch. They are, however, an important recreational species in South Carolina waters. Anglers who target sheepshead seek them near structures such as pilings or oyster bars. This species is not currently threatened or endangered, and there are no size or bag limit restrictions on it.
Bearden, C.M. 1961. Common marine fishes of South Carolina. Bears Bluff Lab Contribution No. 34. Bears Bluff Laboratory, Inc., Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina.
Boschung, H.T,. Jr., J.D. Williams, D.W. Gotshall, D.K. Caldwell, and M.C. Caldwell. 1983. The Audubon Society field guide to North American fishes, whales and dolphins. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Johnson, G.D. 1978. Development of fishes of the mid-Atlantic Bight: an atlas of egg, larval and juvenile stages. Volume IV: Carrangidae through Ephippidae. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Biological Services FWS/OBS-78/12. Ft. Collins, CO.
Roumillat, W. 1998. pers. comm. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Charleston, SC.