A sheepshead fly fishing tournament in the Louisiana Bayou sounds straightforward right? Kind of. For 11 years now, the Louisiana guiding community has put on The Sheepy Tournament to have some fun after their fall and winter redfish seasons and try to accomplish this crazy idea of catching sheepshead on the fly.
After spending three days with the hardcore fly fishing community just outside of New Orleans, LA, one thing is for certain—they love their fishery. Well, two other things, they also know how to throw a party and feed the masses.
The Sheepy is clearly focused on trying to catch sheepshead on the fly, an exceedingly difficult task in and of itself, but throughout many conversations with guides and dedicated anglers another theme emerged: the Bayou is changing and so are its fisheries. Before we dive into those discussions, let’s talk about this borderline insane sheepshead on the fly fishery.
Sheepshead Fly Fishing
Often labeled the “Cajun Permit,” sheepshead are notoriously spooky, difficult to feed, and even harder for hooks to find a good hold. Throw in 6” of visibility of churned up marsh water and sightfishing, let along hooking one, sheepshead is one of the most unique and difficult fisheries I’ve been involved in. But there are anglers who have honed their craft and become quite effective at targeting sheepshead on the fly.
During the tournament, we were throwing 10s (when it was blowing 30-40 kts, that was…fun), but 8 weights are the norm. We used floating lines with a short leader, tapered down to 16#, but you could get away with 20# because of clarity–or lack thereof. Quick gear plug—the Orvis Helios3 8wt Blackout was an absolute weapon for this type of fishing. The 8’4” fly rod was a great tool for the quick and short presentations that made up most of our sheepshead shots and handled the bulldogging sheepshead without a hitch. For flies, we were throwing small crab patterns on size 4 hooks, which successfully connected to the minimal amount of hookable real estate of a sheepshead.
The M.O. for sheepshead fly fishing is to crawl along marsh banks and look for sheepshead—not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes these fish will show themselves clearly, finning out of the water or nose-down fervently tailing. Those are your best shots. However, you’ll also find more fish hiding barely in sight and cast at shadows in the dirty water. Those fish are obviously much harder to feed and hook. Most shots we had were under 20 feet, and you needed to drop that fly perfectly. With permit, you hear most Keys guides use a hula-hoop as the tolerance to place your fly. For sheepshead, however, that fly placement tolerance shrinks to a frisbee sized landing zone.
“Sheepshead are an incredibly technical fish, and very,very challenging on the fly. The challenge only adds to the hunt!” -Captain Ron Ratliff
All in all, sheepshead will test your sight-fishing prowess and fly fishing abilities, and I understand why so many fly anglers in the Bayou love targeting them.
The tournament itself is a blast. We had two great days of chasing sheeps on the fly and plenty of great food and times throughout. The Sheepy has grown since the first tournament, and now attracts guides and anglers from all over the Gulf of Mexico, Southeast, and, well, all over. Our good friend Kayla Lockhart, a Pacific Northwesterner, even made it down. “This was my first Sheepy tournament experience (and apparently I lucked out with a day of good weather based on previous years),” said Kayla. “I would argue that The Sheepy is equal parts tournament and tradition where good friends gather to share good food, good conversation and good times! I already look forward to next year!”
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Kayla’s sentiment was shared by pretty much anyone we spoke to. The Sheepy commissioner and host, Mile LaRose looks forward to this weekend every year, saying “The Sheepy is a great way for both weekend warriors and guides to come together and enjoy our fishery without any drama on either side.”
“We pride our tournament in not taking the fishing too seriously. Although we are all competitive, we also all realize we are just there to have a good time, and it’s more about the camaraderie than the fishing. But all of this could not be possible without a healthy fishery. We are very fortunate that Louisiana has a vast ecosystem to support so many great fisheries. But we still have work to do with pushing for conservation to ensure that our fisheries are still healthy for years to come.”
Captain Miles LaRose depends on healthy fisheries more than most. He owns and operates both his guide service, Shallow South, and his new fly shop, Skiff Supply. Those businesses rely on healthy fisheries and the tourism industry that has grown out of Louisiana’s redfish.
A Changing Marsh and a Fishery in need of Conservation
Southern Louisiana is without a doubt a sportsman paradise, but that is rapidly changing. Fishing in Louisiana is arguably best known for chasing bull reds in the shallow marshes–tuna 100 miles into the Gulf of Mexico is certainly a popular pursuit, as well. Focussing on the inshore fishery, however, Louisiana’s marsh and wetland habitats have been disappearing for decades and continue to do so. Take this statistic, for example, “Land loss in parts of Louisiana is occurring at a rate equivalent to one football field every 100 minutes.” Marsh and wetlands loss is a complex problem attributable to man-made attempts to control the Mississippi River’s floodplain and climate change’s sea level rise.
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In addition, the Louisiana Bayou’s maquis target, redfish, is in trouble, and management change is drastically needed. According to the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife and a recently released stock assessment, red drum–aka redfish–are not overfished, but the species is subject to overfishing. Too many red drum are being killed. This issue is further challenged by some of the worst recruitment estimates in recent history. Anglers are killing too many redfish, and the stock isn’t reproducing like it historically has–management action is needed to end overfishing and avoid the stock becoming overfished.
Captain Bailey Short of Southern Flats depends on these fish year in and year out. “The recent Stock Assessment on redfish showed a glaring need to change the way we regulate the harvesting of the species,” said Bailey. “Redfish are tough as nails and resilient as hell. These fish are simply too valuable to recklessly harvest and deserve to be given a shot to rebound to the prolific levels we all have known in the past.”
Because of the ongoing recruitment challenges and long-lived characteristic of redfish, substantial reductions in the fishery are needed to rebuild the stock. The reduction to harvest that LDWF is recommending is 35% which rebuilds by 2050, whereas a 65% reduction would rebuild the fishery in the quickest amount of time by 2031. Reductions are always tough pills to swallow, but in the world of fisheries management there is a management philosophy starting to take hold along our coasts–precautionary management. In layman’s terms, this usually means more risk-averse regulations to ensure long-term abundant and healthy fish stocks. In the case of Louisiana redfish, it means biting the bullet in the near term to rebuild this world-class, destination fishery for the long-term.
Captain Ron Ratliff has been fishing southern Louisiana his whole life and now owns MashDawn Guide Service. “Redfish are one of the most overlooked sportfish throughout many states,” Said Capt. Ron. “With the added pressure of so many more people on the water, more regulation is needed to protect the future of this amazing sportfish. The biggest issue with Louisiana regulations is the state being reactionary and not proactive.”
Captain Ty Hibbs has become a vocal advocate for conservation in his community and is hoping to leave his mark on recovering redfish.”While many in the conservation-minded guide community that I talked with want to enact tighter regulations to protect their fishery, the broader Louisiana fishing community presents some deep rooted challenges.”
LDWF is now in the process of developing new potential regulations, but be sure to take a look at their resources now if you’re interested. “A conservation mindset is needed now more than ever here in South Louisiana,” said Captain Ty Hibbs of Louisiana Sightfishing. “Redfish are far too valuable to this state to only be caught once. I’d love nothing more than to be fishing with my son one day and say, ‘This is better than it was ten years ago.’ I’m sick of talking about ‘the good old days’ stories. It’s about time we wake up and make the future the thing to talk about. This place was named ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise’ for a reason. I don’t ever want to hear about the day it became less.”
Also, the American Saltwater Guides Association has created a survey to better understand the economic importance of Louisiana’s redfish charter/for-hire industry and have a positive influence on the upcoming regulation change process–if you’ve ever fished for Louisiana redfish, take a couple of minutes to complete this brief survey!
Capt. Bailey Short left me with a fitting closing thought: “Our Marsh and the fish in it provide soul touching experiences for everyone from born and raised locals to people who have been around the world fishing and come here for the first time. We do not want to lose that quality.
Attention Georgia Anglers: Speak up for Precautionary Redfish Management