Last modified: February 18, 2021

Fish Wrasse

California Sheephead

  Adult male Sheephead caught at the Redondo Sportfishing Pier

Wrasses: Family Labridae

SpeciesBodianus pulcher (Ayres, 1854); from the Latin pulcher (for beautiful). Sheephead were formerly known by the scientific name (1) Pimelometopon pulchrum; pimelometopon meaning fat forehead and (2) Semicossphus pulcher. Why the new name? Not sure.

Sheephead caught at the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon by Rita

Alternate Names: Sheepie, goat, billygoats (large fish), red fish, snaggle tooth, humpy, and fathead. Apparently called West Hollywood fish by some anglers (not sure why). Early day names included California redfish. In Mexico called vieja californiana.

Sheephead caught at the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon by Redfish (Robert Gardner)

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.

Juvenile sheepheads

Sheephead transitioning from female to male

Adult sheephead caught  at the Green Pleasure Pier in Avalon

SizeLength 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 off Newport Beach 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 piers were a 30+ pound sheephead taken from the San Clemente Pier in July 2010, a 29.7-pound sheephead taken from the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in February 2008, and a 27-pound sheepie taken from the Oceanside Pier in April 1998. Marine biologists report a 29-pound sheepie was 32-inches long and 53 years old.

Sheephead from the Shelter Island Pier in San Diego

RangeGulf of California and Isla Guadalupe, Pacific Coast, from Cabo San Lucas, southern Baja California, north to Monterey Bay, central California. Common from the Gulf of California and southern Baja California, north to southern California. Although 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.

Sheephead caught at the Green Pleasure Pier in Avalon by Pierhead (Boyd Grant)

HabitatGenerally found intertidally down to about 180 feet deep, along rocky bottoms and in kelp beds. Recorded to a depth of 492 feet.

Sheephead caught by KJ at the Isthmus Pier at Two Harbors, 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, Paradise Cove Pier and Goleta Pier (pipe reef).

Sheephead caught by Jose at the Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego

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

Sheephead caught at the Isthmus Pier at Two Harbors, Catalina by DompfaBen

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.

Sheephead caught at the Oceanside Pier

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.

Sheephead caught at the Goleta Pier

Food Value: White, mild-flavored flesh with a soft texture; increasingly coarse and watery with age. Can be cooked whole, fried, or steamed but delicate flesh not the best for sauté. Sometimes boiled and flaked for use as a lobster substitute in salads and other recipes. Head sometimes used as stock for fish chowder.

Sheephead caught by KJ at the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon, Catalina Island

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.

Sheephead caught by KJ at the Green Pleasure Pier in Avalon

Sheephead from the Cabrillo Mole by KJ

Some LARGE sheephead from piers — Although sheephead are not one of the most common pier fish, quite a few are caught from piers located close to rocky areas, reefs or kelp

30+ Lbs. — San Clemente Pier, July 2010; Source: PFIC

29.7 Lb. — Redondo Sportfishing Pier, February 2008; Source: Redondo Sportfishing

27 Lbs. — Oceanside Pier, April 1998; Source: Oceanside Pier Bait Shop

25 Lbs. — San Clemente Pier, June 2015; Source: PFIC

22.5 Lbs. — Ocean Beach Pier, Jose, April 30, 2017; Source: Ocean Beach Pier Bait Shop

21 Lbs. — San Clemente Pier, August 2009; Source: PFIC

21 Lbs. — Shelter Island Pier, February 2007; Source: Shelter Island Pier Bait Shop

21 Lb. — Redondo Sportfishing Pier, February 2001; Source: Redondo Sportfishing

20+ Lbs. — Oceanside Pier, January 2003; Source: Oceanside Pier Bait Shop

20 Lbs. — Oceanside Pier, November 2002; Source: Oceanside Pier Bait Shop

15 Lbs. — Ocean Beach Pier, October 2009; Source: Ocean Beach Pier Bait Shop

14 Lbs. — Shelter Island Pier, December 2000; Source: Shelter Island Pier Bait Shop

14 Lbs. — Shelter Island Pier, December 2000 (second nearly identical fish); Source: Shelter Island Pier Bait Shop

12 Lbs. — Shelter Island Pier, March 2001; Source: Shelter Island Pier Bait Shop

11 Lbs. — Shelter Island Pier, January 2001; Source: Shelter Island Pier Bait Shop

One Response

  1. […] 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, Paradise Cove Pier and Goleta Pier (pipe reef). via […]

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