Are Sheepshead Good to Eat? (And How to Cook Them)

Are Sheepshead Good to eat feature image

Being a very popular coastal fish to catch, sheepshead also make a great fish to grill, bake, or fry for your next meal. They are unique looking and can grow quite large, providing decent sized filets for your next cookout, though many anglers may wonder if sheepshead fish taste good. 

Sheepshead fish can be somewhat bothersome to prepare before you cook them, however, which is why many anglers will avoid them entirely. If you clean and debone them properly, sheepshead can provide a good amount of flaky meat with a gentle shellfish flavor for preparation in a variety of ways.

Sheepshead: What it Tastes Like & How to Cook It

cleaning freshwater drum or sheepshead
Sheepshead fish have a sweet and delicate flavor that is similar to shellfish. They are known to be one of the best-tasting marine game fish and have a flaky, dense, and moist texture.

What Do Sheepshead Taste Like?

Sheepshead fish have been said to taste very similar to shellfish, which is most likely due to their varied diet. These fish feed almost entirely on barnacles, shellfish, clam, crabs, and similar creatures. They also eat a variety of different sea grass and saltwater plants which adds a unique sweet flavor to their tender flesh.

When it comes to saltwater fish, many anglers say sheepshead are some of the best tasting marine game fish around. The biggest issue is these silvery gray fish have an abundance of small bones and very thick rib cages which makes cleaning them a bit more of a chore than it is for other saltwater fish.

Sheepshead Texture

The meat of the sheepshead fish is very flaky, dense, and moist. This type of meat makes a great filet and is suitable for almost all cooking methods including baking, frying, grilling, blackening, and more.

How to Clean Sheepshead

Cleaning this fish is mostly like other saltwater fish, though you will need to remove more bones than usual. This is the part many anglers don’t enjoy, and is why these fish are often ignored or thrown back when caught.

When you are ready to clean your sheepshead, make sure you have a sharp knife and start cutting at an angle under the scales behind the head near the backbone.

Move the knife in an arched movement along the meaty side areas of the fish. The knife should move along the lateral line from the back of the head to the underside of the tail.

After this cut has been made, flip the fish so the tail is facing you and make another cut so the meat is cut free from the rib cage. This will free up a majority of the filet meat you want to save.

After the majority of meat has been loosened from the rest of the fish, use your knife or sharp shears to cut through the bones that still hold the meat to the body of the fish.

At this point, flip the fish over and repeat the same process on the other side. This will provide you with two meaty filets from each side of the fish.

After both filets have been removed from the body of the fish, cut a small V in each filet and remove the pin bone. You may also have to remove certain rib bones and spine bones from the filet to make it fully edible, so be sure to check before setting it aside.

Sheepshead filets
Sheepshead fish can be cooked by pan-frying the filets in oil and spices. The meat is described as sweet, flaky, and moist, with a taste that resembles shellfish.

How to Cook Sheepshead

One of the easiest ways to prepare sheepshead is by pan frying the filets in oil and spices. Start by heating up a pan and adding a bit of olive oil.

Dry the filets and place your favorite seasoning on the meaty side of the cut of this fish species. Place this seasoned filet meat-side down directly into the pan and sear it for 2-3 minutes.

Flip the pan fried filet over and repeat the process on the skin side, allowing 2-3 minutes of browning time before removing it from the heat.

You can add additional spices at this time, or drizzle some lemon juice over the filet for a quick and easy, as well as a delicious, amount of flaky and moist meat. When it comes to the meat, sheepshead taste is often called sweet, and faintly resembles shellfish.

Sheepshead Species Differences

Scientifically known as Archosargus probatocephalus, the sheepshead fish is a unique member of the Sciaenidae family which also includes various species of Drum fish.

The sheepshead is often mistaken for the Freshwater Drum which is known scientifically as Aplodinotus grunniens. This fish is sometimes called the sheepshead as well, but it is not related to the actual sheepshead which is Archosargus probatocephalus.

Despite the confusion, there are some similarities between sheepshead and freshwater drum. Namely, the hump on the back just behind the head, as well as the silver and green colored scales.

Both sheepshead and various drum species are very common sportfish which makes them regularly seen by anglers, while also being good to eat. 

Why Is This Fish Called Sheepshead?

While the exact origin of the name sheepshead is not known, many anglers feel it is due to this fish’s unique style of teeth. The sheepshead’s mouth has flat teeth instead of sharp and pointed teeth like many other species. 

It’s said to resemble the mouth of a sheep, which could be how the name was started. Since these fish eat crustaceans, barnacles, mollusks, and other hard-shelled creatures, their teeth need to be able to crush through these thick shells.

Sheepshead Distribution, Stocks and Sustainability

Sheepshead are very widespread and have a strong and healthy stock level. They are fished often, but breed readily which helps keep their numbers strong in most areas.

You can find these fish on the East coast in the Atlantic ocean with populations ranging from Canada to Brazil. These fish stick to both estuarine areas and fully marine waters off the coast and in large bays. You can also find them throughout the Gulf of Mexico, with this fish being a common catch along the panhandle area of Florida.

How to Catch Sheepshead

close up of freshwater drum or sheepshead 2
Sheepshead fish can be caught during the cooler months of November to March, using light or medium spinning setup and a small single hook, like a 1.0 Octopus hook.

If you are specifically fishing for sheepshead, the best time to target them is during the cooler months of late fall throughout early spring. November to March are common times to find these fish in almost all of their distribution areas.

Start off by using a light or medium spinning setup with a 7 foot rod. Your line should be around 20 pound test, though 12 pound test is normally plenty especially if using braided line. A smaller single hook such as the 1.0 Octopus hook is a very popular choice that is highly successful with these fish.

Some of the best bait to use for sheepshead is shellfish of almost any type. Anglers have excellent luck when using live or cut shrimp, clam meat, barnacles, or pieces of fiddler crabs. Sand fleas are also a common choice, though may not be as readily accepted as shrimp or crab.

Cast your bait into areas with good man-made structures such as around docks, piers, bridges, and more. Try to keep your bait on the side of the structure that is closest to you in order to help prevent the fish from getting snagged when it strikes.

Final Thoughts on Cooking and Eating Sheepshead

While sheepshead can be very annoying to clean and debone due to their armor like scales and sharp spines, their moist flesh tastes exceptionally good and their white fillets can be prepared in almost any way you prefer. There is a slight shellfish flavor when it comes to the sheepshead fish taste.

Catching them is easy as they are very popular throughout their entire range from Canada to Brazil.

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Jeff Knapp is an expert fisherman, guide and outdoor writer whose work is widely published across a range of sites including Tackle Village. Jeff is based in Pennsylvania and loves exploring the waterways of that state in pursuit of smallmouth bass, largemouth, panfish and trout.
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