California Sheephead

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher

The California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, whose common Spanish name is vieja californiana, is one of the largest member of the Wrasse or Labridae Family, known collectively as doncellas, señoritas, and viejas in Mexico. Globally, there are only three species in the genus Semicossyphus, one of which is found in Mexican waters, this one in the Pacific.

The California Sheepheads have robust bodies that taper significantly toward the tail and have a depth that is 62 to 66% of standard length. Initial Phase (IP) females are brownish-red with a white chin, uniformly colored reddish-white fins, and a dark spot between their first and third dorsal spines. Terminal Phase (TP) males have a black head with a white chin, a brownish-red mid-section, a white belly, and dark fins; the rear of their body is dark. Juveniles are reported to be reddish-orange with a mid-lateral white stripe and large black spots on their anal and caudal fin base, and their dorsal and pelvic fins. They have a large bluntly pointed head and mature adults develop a bump on their forehead. Their mouth is relatively small and ends well before the eyes. They have two pairs of enlarged canine teeth at the front of each jaw. Their dorsal fin has twelve spines and ten rays.

The California Sheepheads are found within kelp beds and over and within rocky structures at depths up to 490 feet. They reach a maximum length of 91 cm (36 inches). They feed diurnally on small crustaceans, sea urchins, mollusks, and brittle stars.  Very little is known about their behavioral patterns.

In Mexican waters the California Sheephead have a limited distribution being found along both the entire east and west coasts of Baja and there is a small isolated population in the northern portion of the Sea of Cortez along the coast of the mainland.

The California Sheephead is an easy fish to identify due to its unique markings, although it is very similar to the Mexican Hogfish, Bodianus diplotaenia (more aerodynamic; no white chin).

The California Sheepheads are a good foe on light tackle but populations are in significant decline due to overfishing. They are considered to be an excellent food fish and are sold in abundance by the major food markets in the greater Los Cabos area and are considered an excellent food fish.

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, initial phase, juvenile. Underwater photo taken in coastal waters off Mission Bay, San Diego, CA, December 2017. Length: 9.0 cm (3.5 inches). Photo courtesy of Bob Hillis, Ivins, UT.

California Sheephead

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, initial phase (IP) female. Fish caught from coastal waters off Point Palmilla, Baja California Sur, December 2007. Length: 35 cm (14 inches).

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, initial phase (IP) female transitioning to terminal phase (TP) male. Fish caught from coastal waters off Long Beach, California, October 2015. Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Loreto, Baja California Sur.

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, initial phase (IP) female transitioning to terminal phase (TP) male. Fish courtesy of the commercial fishermen of the greater San Diego area, San Diego, California,  November 2014. Length: 38 cm (15 inches).

California Sheephead

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, terminal phase (TP) male. Fish provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, December 2007. Length: 76 cm (30 inches).

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, terminal phase (TP) male. Fish caught from coastal waters off Point Palmilla, Baja California Sur, January 2017. Length: 59 cm (23 inches).

California Sheepshead (7)

California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, terminal phase (TP) male. Fish caught from coastal waters off Isla San Francisco, Baja California Sur, March 2016. Length: 69 cm (27 inches). Weight: 9.5 kg (21 pounds). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Hank Ellwood, San Carlos, Sonora.