Marine - Species

Sheepshead - Click to enlarge photo

SC Species Regulations for Sheepshead

Saltwater Fishing License required.

10 per person per day not to exceed 30 per boat per day

Minimum size limit: 14-inch TL

SC Marine Gamefish Tagging

Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus)

General Description
Body gray and nearly oval with 5 – 6 dark vertical bars and one on nape. No dark spot near origin of lateral line. Four broad incisor-like teeth on both sides of anterior jaw, several molar-like teeth also present. Dorsal fin has 12 spines and 11 soft rays. Second spine of anal fin very strong.

Average Size
14 inches, 3 pounds;
South Carolina State Record: 16 pounds, 6 ounces (2008);
maximum age: approx. 25 years.


Adults: Utilize nearshore coastal waters, bays, sounds, and estuaries; also enter brackish reaches of rivers. Typically associated with reefs, live bottom, wrecks, piers, pilings, rocks, and jetties.

Juveniles: Inhabit grass beds, muddy bottoms, and oyster reefs within estuaries. Older juveniles tolerate higher salinity water near jetties, piers, and other hard structures in coastal waters.

Reproductive Cycle

  • Adults mature between 2 – 5 years of age; approx. size at maturity: males: 7 – 14 inches, females: 9 – 14 inches.
  • Spawning occurs in nearshore and offshore waters, probably in the vicinity of wrecks, reefs, or live bottom from late winter through early spring. Eggs hatch offshore, with a month long pelagic (open water) larval stage.
  • Larvae develop in nearshore and estuarine waters until reaching approximately 2 inches in length, then occupy hard structure habitats with adults in late summer.

Foraging Habits

  • Omnivorous grazers that use their unique teeth to grind and crush invertebrates associated with hard structures. Algae are also consumed, either deliberately or while foraging for associated invertebrate prey. Adults and juveniles share similar diets.
  • Adults: Feed primarily on mussels, clams, small oysters, barnacles, crabs, shrimp, and small fish; may also consume tunicates, polychaete worms and amphipods or copepods. Algae may become less important in the diet as sheepshead age and move to offshore reef habitats.
  • Juveniles: Consume mainly bivalves and crabs; also feed heavily on filamentous algae and encrusting colonial bryozoans on hard structures. Larvae feed primarily on zooplankton.

Availability/Vulnerability to Harvest

  • Sheepshead are non-migratory and present in South Carolina waters year-round. Distribution is primarily temperature dependent and with movement from nearshore habitats to offshore reefs during cold. Concentrate in shallow waters during late spring and late fall/early winter while returning to or preparing to leave nearshore habitats.
  • No commercial fishery exists for sheepshead in South Carolina; however, significant recreational harvest is possible since fish associate with hard structure in close proximity to shore.
  • Conservation concerns: degradation and loss of estuarine habitat; compromised water quality; potential for overfishing.

Abundance of Species

Sheepshead Abundance Graph - Click on graph for a larger image

Sheepshead abundance in the DNR trammel net survey declined during the 1990s, but has generally increased in more recent years and is currently slightly above the 10-year average.
More Informtion.



Fishery Status

Sheepshead Recreational Fishery Graph - Select image to view larger graph

Total recreational catch for sheepshead increased through the 1980’s until reaching a peak (for the series) in 1992. After 1992, annual total catch was variable with both increasing and decreasing time periods. The recent 10 year average catch has been 156,855 fish per year with this level being maintained since 2008. The current 14 inch minimum total length size limit went into effect in 2012.

Commercial landings, while also variable, have been declining since the 1960’s. The majority of commercial landings were by-catch from the shrimp trawl fishery (41.3%) and the handline/trotline fishery (38.5%). I recent years there have only been 3 years of reported commercial landings since 2000 (2004, 2010, 2011).
More information.

Literature Cited

Bell M. 2005. Sheepshead. In: Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Columbia, SC. Available: Accessed: August, 2009.

Fischer W. 1978. FAO identification sheets for fisheries purposes: western central Atlantic (fishing area 31) volume 1 – 7. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

Jennings CA. 1985. Species profiles: life histories and environmental requirements of coastal fishes and invertebrates (Gulf of Mexico) – sheepshead. U.S. Fish Wild Serv Biol Rep 82 (11.29). U.S Army Corps of Engineers, TR EL-82-4. 10pp. Accessed: August, 2009.

Moore CJ. 1996. A field guide to the identification of marine species regulated in South Carolina coastal waters. Office of Fisheries Management, Marine Resources Division, South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, Charleston, SC. 105 pp.

Moore CJ, M Barkley. 2005. South Carolina’s guide to saltwater fishes. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Special Publication. Columbia, SC. 132 pp.

Ogburn MV. 1984. Feeding ecology and the role of algae in the diet of sheepshead Archosargus probatocephalus (Pisces: sparidae) on North Carolina jetties. M.S. Thesis, Univ. of North Carolina – Wilmington. 74pp.

Render JH, CA Wilson. 1992. Reproductive biology of sheepshead in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Trans Amer Fish Soc 121: 757-764.

Sedberry GR. 1987. Feeding habits of sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus, in offshore reef habitats of the southeastern Continental Shelf. Northeast Gulf Sci 9: 29-37.

Wenner C, J Archambault. 2006. Sheepshead: natural history and fishing techniques in South Carolina. Education Report No. 23. Marine Resources Research Institute, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Charleston, SC. 28 pp.