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What Is a Sheepshead Fish?

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  • Written By: Bethney Foster
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2014
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The sheepshead fish is a species found in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Also commonly referred to as the convict fish, the sheepshead fish is scientifically named Archosargus probatocephalus and is part of the Sparidae, or porgy, family. Prized as food by humans because of its white meat, the sheepshead fish is also prey for sharks.

The sheepshead fish is often found in tidal creeks and brackish water and may move into freshwater when temperatures are colder. The fish is silver in color with vertical black bands down its sides. The adult fish is about 8 pounds (3.6 kg) and 18 inches (35 cm). The largest sheepshead fish on record weighed 145 pounds (66 kg).

An omnivore with a varied diet, the sheepshead fish eats crabs, oysters, and smaller fish. It will also sometimes eat plants and barnacles. Known for its strong teeth, which are said to resemble those of sheep, the fish uses these to crush the shells of prey. The fish is also known for stealing the bait of anglers.

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Spawning is usually in early spring, though it has been seen as early as January in the Gulf of Mexico. The fish spawn several times throughout the season, with the female fish producing as many as 250,000 eggs each time she spawns. The eggs hatch within 28 to 40 hours of being fertilized. The fish are sexually mature between 2 and 3 years of age and have a lifespan of about 25 years.

There are several different organisms that will parasitize the fish. These include different types of nematodes and ciliates. None are thought to threaten the fish.

There is limited commercial fishing of the sheepshead. As a game fish, however, they are popular targets of anglers. When fishing for sheepshead, popular bait is crab, clam, or barnacles. With sharp spines and gills, the fish can be difficult for anglers to handle and to clean.

Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, NY, was named for this species that was once abundant in the waters. Near the end of the 1800s, however, the species began to disappear. The reason for the fish's decline in New York is uncertain. An occasional sheepshead may still be seen in the water, but a widespread return of the fish in these waters is not expected. Subspecies of the fish are found in waters off South American and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

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