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Fish Facts  »  Sheepshead


The sheepshead has an oval-shaped, deep body with a blunt snout and small, nearly horizontal mouth. The posterior nostril is slit-like in appearance. Dorsal and anal fins include stout, short spines. The second spine of the anal fin is enlarged. Pectoral fins are long, extending beyond the anal opening when appressed (pressed close to the body). The caudal fin is shallowly forked. The adult sheepshead is silvery to greenish-yellow with an olive back. There are five or six dark vertical crossbars along each side, which are most distinct in young individuals. The caudal and pectoral fins are greenish while the dorsal, anal, and ventral fins are dusky or black. Other fish that are similar in appearance to the sheepshead include the black drum (Pogonias cromis) and Atlantic spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber). However, the black drum has barbels on the lower jaw and reaches a much larger adult size than the sheepshead. The Atlantic spadefish has a very short snout, a much rounder body shape and a larger soft dorsal and anal fin than the sheepshead. Additionally, the vertical bands on the sides of the black drum and Atlantic spadefish tend to fade with age much more so than the markings of the sheepshead.


Primarily occurring inshore around rock pilings, jetties, mangrove roots, and piers as well as in tidal creeks, the euryhaline sheepshead prefers brackish waters. It seeks out warmer spots near spring outlets and river discharges and sometimes enters freshwater during the winter months. This fish moves to offshore areas in later winter and early spring for spawning, which sometimes occurs over artificial reefs and navigation markers. Juveniles live in seagrass flats and over mud bottoms. Recorded among those species that perish during periodic low oxygen fish kills, the sheepshead is not particularly tolerant of low levels of dissolved oxygen.


The sheepshead is an omnivorous fish, feeding on invertebrates, small vertebrates and occasional plant material. Large juveniles and adults prey on blue crab, oysters, clams, crustaceans, and small fish including young Atlantic croakers (Micropogonias undulatus, Sciaenidae). The sheepshead uses its impressive dentition to crush heavily armored and shelled prey and to scrape barnacles from rocks and pilings. The diet of juveniles includes zooplankton, polychaetes, and chironomid (midges) larvae.


This fish is highly valued for human consumption due to its fine white flesh and mild flavor. However, its heavy scales and strong fin spines make it difficult to clean and fillet. It is marketed fresh and frozen and may be prepared by broiling, microwaving, and baking. Commercially, the majority of sheepshead are accidentally caught in shrimp trawlers and tossed back into the water, although some are taken intentionally. They may also be caught by longlines, seines, and trammel nets. Commercial catches of sheepshead have historically been largest off the gulf coasts of Florida, Texas, and Lousiana. Sheepshead are also collected for public show aquariums.


Although it reaches a maximum size of about 29.5 inches (76 cm) and 22 pounds (9.6 kg), adult sheepshead are most commonly about 1-8 pounds (.5-3.6 kg) and 14-18 inches (35 cm). Maximum known lifespan of the sheepshead is at least 20 years with maturity typically reached at 2 years of age.


The distribution of the sheepshead in the western Atlantic Ocean includes coastal waters from Nova Scotia (Canada) through the Gulf of Mexico with the densest populations occurring off southwest Florida. Sheepshead are also found, albeit in much lesser numbers, off the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America, south to Brazil. Sheepshead are absent in the Bahamas, West Indies, Grenada, and Bermuda.


Florida Museum of Natural History

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