California Sheephead

 21-Pound sheephead taken from the Shelter Island Pier on squid

Species: Pimelometopon pulchrum (Ayres, 1854); from the Latin pulcher (for beautiful) and pimelometopon (meaning fat forehead). And, this may have been changed to Semicossphus pulcher.

Alternate Names: Sheepie, goat, billygoats (large fish), red fish, snaggle tooth, humpy, and fathead. Early day names included California redfish. In Mexico called vieja californiana.

29.7-pound sheephead taken from the Redondo Sportfishing Pier

Identification: Easily identified by color. Adult females uniform brownish-red to rose; male with black head, red band in middle, and black in posterior portion of body; chin white on both sexes. Males have a large, fleshy lump on their forehead, which increases in size with age. Stout, protruding canine-like teeth in front of mouth; somewhat bucktoothed.

Size: Length to 3 feet, and a weight of 40 lb 7 oz. (the California diving record fish taken at San Miguel Island in 1992). The California rod and reel record fish weighed 30 lb 8 oz, and was taken at Newport Beach, Orange Co. in 2009. The majority of fish taken from piers are much smaller, typically 9-14 inches in length. The largest sheephead I’ve seen reported from a pier was a 29.7-pound sheephead taken from the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in February 2008 (seen above). Marine biologists report a 29-pound sheepie was 32-inches long and 53 years old.

Ken Jones and a sheephead from the Cabrillo Mole, Avalon

Range: Cabo San Lucas, southern Baja California, and the Gulf of California to Monterey Bay. Common in southern California but considered uncommon north of Point Conception. An isolated population is found near the warm water discharge at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near Avila Beach and Port San Luis.

Habitat: Surface to 180 feet deep, along rocky bottoms and in kelp beds.

Robert Gardner (Redfish) and a sheephead from the Cabrillo Mole, Avalon, Catalina

Piers: By far the two best piers are those located at Avalon—the Green Pleasure Pier and the Cabrillo Mole. Sheephead are an expected catch at those piers.  Coastal piers that are located near rocks or kelp beds will see a few sheephead most years but they are always an unexpected treat. Best bets: Shelter Island Pier, Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Santa Monica Pier and Paradise Cove Pier.

Shoreline: A favored fish for rock and jetty anglers in southern California.

Rita Magdama and a nice sheephead from the Cabrillo Mole, Avalon, Catalina

Boats: One of the favored boat species for bottom fishermen in southern California. Found in most kelp beds south of Point Conception as well as the offshore islands.

Bait and Tackle: Medium sized tackle, hooks size 4-2/0, and a variety of baits—shrimp, ghost shrimp, bloodworms, fresh mussels, cut squid—will attract sheephead if they’re around the pier.

Food Value: Good. Sometimes used as a lobster substitute in salads and other recipes.

Ken Jones and a sheephead from the Isthmus Pier, Two Harbors, Catalina

Comments: Feeds on such delicacies as sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, snails, squid, lobsters, shrimp and crabs. It uses its canine-like teeth to pry food from rocks, which it then crushes with tooth-plates in the rear of the mouth. Can live to over 50 years and is a protogynous hermaphrodite starting life as a female and then turning into a male when about one foot in length and 4 to 5 years in age (although some appear to stay females up to fifteen years of age and some even refuse to change). Why, dear reader, do most of these fish start life as females and then turn into males? The process, by the way, seems to take less than a year. Apparently it is much more effective than that practiced by the medical establishment in California and is, I am sure, much less expensive.

Boyd Grant  (Pierhead) and a female sheephead from the Green Pleasure Pier, Avalon, Catalina (she’ll become a he soon)

Hashem Nahid (Mahigeer) and a sheephead from the Cabrillo Mole, Avalon, Catalina


 Perhaps the smallest sheephead ever seen at the Cabrillo Mole. Taken by Cole aka Corkie in 2009.

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