Sheepshead - Convicted, But Not Guilty
If you were in the Houston area in the late 80’s and 90’s, you may remember the “Bay Snapper” scandal. So called because some restaurants were using Sheepshead in place of Red Snapper and had given it the new, more marketable name of “Bay Snapper” (in the same way that Patagonian Toothfish was renamed Chilean Sea Bass). People were outraged – This was fraud! How could they misrepresent and impersonate our noble Red Snapper? Actually, I think the Sheepshead is the one who got the bad rap. Don’t get me wrong, I love Red Snapper, with its clear, slightly opaque flesh and amazing versatility, but in terms of depth of flavor, give me “Bay Snapper” anytime.
Whatever you call it -- Sheepshead, Lousiana Convict Fish or Bay Snapper (Archosargus Probatocephalus) -- this fish is actually a proud member of the Sea Bream family. Other family members you’ll find in the Gulf are Pink and Silver Bream and the Jolthead (Knobbed and Red Porgy). Sheepshead hail from the Mid-Atlantic down to South Texas and live in the bays and estuaries around rocky outcroppings, oyster reefs and any type of piling structure. Although they are not a true migratory species, Sheepshead do head for the deeper waters offshore during winter months and return as the water warms in the late winter and early spring months to congregate near shore (where it is believed that spawning takes place). It is during these months, right now (lucky us!), that Sheepshead are commercially available.
It is not hard to figure out how this fish got its moniker. Feeding on a diet of mainly crustaceans, bivalves and mollusks, they have a mean set of choppers: sharp incisors in the front and grinding molars in the back. I believe that their diet gives them their firm, wonderful flesh reminiscent of shellfish. The flesh is great for almost any hot application, standing up well to the grill and also to slow poaching.
As a fisherman, you have got to really want this fish. They are the epitome of frustration, especially when fishing in deeper waters. Their capable teeth will pick your pocket clean in a heartbeat. Only in the flats, when they are running those grass and sand pockets, can you get them to commit fully to your bait. Once in the box, the hard work has just begun - killer sharp spines, crazy tough scales and a rib cage like a Rubik’s cube bring new meaning to the words patience and virtue.
But rehabilitated, this ex-con will bring you a toothy smile once it hits the plate.