Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus

The Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus, whose common Spanish name is sargo chopa, is a species in the Porgy or Sparidae Family, known collectively as plumas in Mexico. This fish is also known as the Convict Fish due to both their appearance and that they are notorious bait stealers. Globally, there are only three species in the genus Archosargus, two of which are found in Mexican waters, both in the Atlantic.

The Sheepsheads are atypical looking Porgies; they have deep compressed oval bodies that have a depth that is 50 to 54% of standard length. They have a silvery to greenish-yellow coloration with five to seven dark vertical bars along their sides that tend to fade as the fish matures. Their anal, dorsal, and pelvic fins are dusky or dark. Their caudal and pectoral fins are transparent with a green tinge. Their head has a blunt snout and a small horizontal mouth. Their teeth have drawn significant scientific attention as they are “human-like” with well-defined incisors, molars, and grinders (used for crushing shelled prey). Their anal fin has 3 spines (the second being stout) and 10 or 11 rays; their caudal fin is slightly forked; their dorsal fin has 12 spines and 10 to 12 rays; and their pectoral fins are long and extend past the anal fin origin.

The Sheepsheads prefer coastal habitats around rock pilings, jetties, mangroves, reefs, and piers that include bays, estuaries, and even fresh water environments at depths up to 300 feet. They reach a maximum 91 cm (36 inches) in length and 9.6 kg (21 pounds) in weight. They are bottom dwellers that feed primarily on invertebrates including barnacles, bivalves, clams, crabs, and other crustaceans. They are preyed upon by other large fish including sharks, specifically the Bull Shark, Carcharhinus leucas. They spawn in early spring in deeper offshore waters with each female releasing up to 250,000 eggs, which are pelagic and hatch within twenty-eight hours of fertilization. They are prone to kills from low oxygen and red tide conditions.They have lifespans of up to twenty years.

In Mexican waters the Sheepshead are found in all waters of the Atlantic.

 The Sheepshead is most likely confused with the Black Drum, Pogonias cromis (barbels on lower jaw) and the Atlantic Spadefish, Chaetodipterus faber (short snout; rounder body shape).

 The Sheepsheads are a target of recreational anglers and caught primarily from jetties and rocky shores utilizing small hooks. They are heavily regulated in United States waters. They are also fished commercially and are taken with longlines, seines, and trammel nets. They are highly valued for human consumption due to their fine white flesh and mild flavor. They are marketed fresh and frozen. They are also an unfortunate by-catch of shrimp trawlers. They are utilized in the aquarium trade.

Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus. Fish caught from coastal waters  off Key West, Florida, January 2014. Length: 31 cm (12 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Dean Kimberly, Atlanta, GA.

Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus. Fish caught off the Tampa Bay Skyway Pier, St. Petersburg, Florida, February 2016. Length: 36 cm (14 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of George Brinkman, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus. Fish caught out of Lake Ponchartrain, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 2017. Length: 61 cm (24 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of David Haselbauer, Scandia, MN.