The strangely named sheepshead variety of fish inhabit bays and estuaries, and it is not uncommon for them to enter freshwater. Some other common names for sheepshead are convict fish and baitstealer. These fish are located throughout the gulf region and are commonly found near rock jetties, piers, and pilings. While sheepshead have an estimated maximum lifespan of 20 years, they are commonly thought to live no longer than 13 years for males and 16 years for females.
To identify a sheepshead, look for a broad body that is gray or green-yellow in color. They have between five and seven wide, gray-black vertical stripes. The dorsal and anal fins are large with sharp spines and are black or gray, and the gills are finely serrated. Coloration is more distinct in juvenile fish, which are brownish in color. Inside the mouth, the teeth look similar to human incisors with posterior molars arranged in three rows in the top jaw and two rows in the lower.
This sizable fish grows to an approximate maximum length of 36 inches and can weigh up to 20 lbs. Males reach sexual maturity between 2 to 3 years, while females begin spawning between 3 and 4 years. Females typically grow faster than males.
For feeding, adults favor rocky reefs, shipwrecks, oyster beds, and pilings, while juveniles feed in grass beds and over muddy bottoms. The species uses its teeth to pick up and crush shellfish. An omnivorous species, the sheepshead diet consists of mollusks, crustaceans, barnacles, and plant material like sea grasses and algae.
With a wide range of habitat and migration, sheepshead are distributed from Nova Scotia to Brazil. As a year-round resident of the North-West Atlantic Ocean, they are absent in the Bahamas and West Indies. The fish stay mainly near bays and estuaries, but they do have a significant seasonal migration. Sheepshead also spawn offshore, though they tend to remain near the coast.
The species is considered secure in the United States; however, it is critically imperiled in Canada.