Sheepshead are found in coastal waters of the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia, through the northern Gulf, and south to Brazil. Larvae hatch offshore in the water column and are transported inshore by currents; as juveniles, they settle in shallow, grassy areas where food is abundant. As juveniles grow, they join adult sheepshead around hard structures such as jetties, oyster reefs, rocks, and pilings, which provide their preferred food supply. Sheepshead mostly live inshore and prefer brackish water, although they can adapt to a wide variety of salinities.
Sheepshead grow fairly quickly, up to nearly 30 inches long and 22 pounds, but commonly range from 14 to 18 inches and one to eight pounds. Sheepshead are able to reproduce at two years of age. In the Gulf, they migrate to offshore waters in late winter and early spring to spawn. They’re very productive—they spawn several times per spawning season and females produce between 1,100 and 250,000 eggs each time they spawn. Sheepshead can live up to at least 20 years.
Sheepshead are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Larvae feed on zooplankton (microscopic animals). Young sheepshead feed on soft-bodied invertebrates; large juveniles and adults prey on hard-shelled invertebrates including blue crabs, oysters, clams, and barnacles, as well as small fish and vegetation. The sheepshead’s unique teeth allow it to scrape prey such as barnacles from structures and crush shelled organisms. Sharks and other large fish prey on sheepshead.
Members of the sea bream and porgy family, sheepshead are greenish yellow to silver in color and have five to seven black vertical bars running down their sides (the source of their nickname “convict fish”). They have very distinguishable, human-like teeth, with incisors in front, grinders in back, and multiple rows of molars. Their back and belly fins have sharp spines, and their tail fin is slightly forked.