No. 56–It’s The Teeth

In preparing for this months piece I got to thinking about how the common names we give creatures are often derivative of the particular ecosystem or segment thereof a species inhabits as in polar bear, mud snail or barn swallow; or a physical trait as with the big horn sheep, ribbed mussel and blue bird. Fish are no exception. We have the speckled trout, angel fish and red snapper as examples.

Archosagrus probatocephalus, our fish de jure, the sheepshead takes its name from its rather prominent teeth adding to a facial profile that does indeed somewhat resemble that of a sheep.

The sheepshead is a member of the porgy family (Sparidae). One of its more notorious cousins, the pinfish, is well known to local fishermen and roundly despised as a deft bait stealer and palm full of pain if carelessly handled while removing a hook.

Once found as far north as Nova Scotia in summer months, sheepshead had disappeared from waters of the Chesapeake and northward by mid last century. The source of this information gave no explanation nor was it sited elsewhere. According to all sources they currently range from North Carolina to southern Texas.

Aside from its distinctive profile, sheepshead may be identified by the black and white vertical bands that run the length of the body throughout their lives. You will recall that young black drum sport a similar color scheme but lose it as they age.

Sheepshead are known as batch spawners with the females producing eggs throughout the spawning period and releasing them in separate batches over time. Producing the next generation is energy draining and batch spawning allows the females feed and rebuild their stores between spawning episodes.

Males mature more quickly than females and are ready to spawn at two years. While some females may mature by age two, the vast majority require more time with all mature by age five.

Spawning occurs near shore when water temperatures reach 70 in late winter or early spring depending on location. Studies have shown that older females tend to spawn earlier and produce greater numbers of eggs over a longer period than their smaller younger counterparts. Fertilization is random within the water column with the free drifting eggs and larvae up to 28 days age requiring ocean salinity, juveniles are able to move into estuaries where they find cover and ample food.

At less than an inch in length, the juvies gravitate to oyster beds and submerged structure which provides both protections from predators and a wealth of equally immature prey species.

Sheepshead in local waters typically grow to 7 to 9 inches in fork length in their first year. As is the case with most fish species, the growth rate slows once maturity is reached. For small fish the goal is to reach sexual maturity with the nutrients derived from the food consumed dedicated to growth. At maturity those nutrients and energy are redirected to produce the next generation thus slowing growth.

Unlike many other species, like the built for speed trout which maintains a streamlined shape as it grows in length, sheepshead are more robust increasing in girth as well as length. A 20 inch sheepshead will run more than twice the weight of a 20 inch trout.

Oh yes, about the teeth. They are made for crushing and grinding and it is most advisable to use pliers when removing a hook.

You may have observed relatively bare patches of oyster encrusted sea walls or pilings, that is the work of sheepshead. They fed on the oysters themselves plus barnacles and intermixed mussels and the small crabs and other invertebrates that live among the oysters. Some powerful jaws, those.

Next month we will end this series on area game fish with a piece on the southern flounder.