01.17.2019

Sheepshead, a Rising Star on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, is Poised for More Popularity

They say there’s plenty of fish in the sea, and when it comes to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, that means lots of good eating.

Some fish, like Grouper, Flounder, and Redfish, have been popular on coastal seafood menus for decades, or even centuries. And of course, Alabama is the Red Snapper Capital of the World, so we cook up plenty of those beauties too. But there’s one fish in particular that’s been making the jump from oft-ignored bycatch to a premium seafood selection.

For many years, Sheepshead wasn’t considered a premium option for restaurant menus or deep-sea anglers. But thanks to changing attitudes and expanded educational efforts along the Gulf Coast, Sheepshead has become a bit of a sleeper hit for chefs and fishermen here in Alabama.

“When I started fishing and doing my work some 20 years ago, most people didn’t go on a trip just for Sheepshead,” said Dr. Sean Powers, Chair of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama. “And now you see more and more people going on trips just for Sheepshead. I think mainly people have just realized that Sheepshead are fun to catch.”

Sheepshead are being targeted more partially because there are pressures on the fisheries of other more popular fish. But it doesn’t hurt that Sheepshead are being viewed more and more as a worthy sportfish for coastal anglers.

They’re especially feisty in the springtime when Sheepshead meet in spawning aggregations at certain locations. This behavior makes these fish a bit more aggressive, which means they won’t just be more fun to reel in, you’ll also have a better chance of catching several of them.

Sheepshead only run about 3-5 pounds here on the Gulf Coast, but don’t let that deter you from keeping and cooking what you catch. They are a bit difficult to clean, thanks to a strong ribcage, but they’re quite rewarding once you sit down to eat. Best of all, you can cook them up all kinds of ways—blackened, broiled, fried, you name it.

“It’s a delicious fish,” said Dr. Powers. “It’s a wonderful white, flaky fish that doesn’t have a strong fishy taste to it. I can’t imagine that people won’t recognize more and more that it’s a very good fish to eat.”

Speaking of eating, there’s one particular feature about the Sheepshead that may seem a bit odd if you’ve never seen this fish. And it’s not the striking silver and black stripes.

That would be the teeth. Unlike most fish, Sheepshead have a mouth full of human-esque teeth. It’s certainly jarring at first glance, but they do serve a purpose. Much like us, Sheepshead love oysters, shrimp, and crabs—but unlike us, they have to work a little harder to get to the meat inside. (They love feasting on barnacles, too, which we wouldn’t recommend.)

Sheepshead may not win any beauty contests, but in a few years, they might just win a popularity contest when it comes to the rising stars of Alabama Gulf Seafood.

“I think it’s going to increase in popularity, but it’s not quite there,” said Dr. Powers. “It’s definitely a fishery that’s underexploited from a commercial point of view, and soon recreational anglers are also going to realize that you can have a really good day fishing just for Sheepshead.”