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California Sheephead


The California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) is a type of wrasse fish that lives in the rocky reefs and kelp beds along the California coast and down into the Gulf of California, Mexico. This species has been known to live for up to 50 years in favorable conditions. They can reach a size of up to 3 ft and a weight of  over 30 pounds. Sheephead are very territorial, and stay localized on rocky terrain which make them a sign of the overall health of a reef.  Like wrasse, all are born female, and the largest individuals become male due to hormonal changes caused by a need for males within the local population. Food supply pays another big factor in this transition as well as the overall size of the sheepheads on the reef.  Their diet consists of mostly sea urchins, lobsters, and crabs which is why they are so important to our kelp forest where urchins regulate kelp growth. So in short, a larger population of bigger females means there’s enough food to support a population of larger fish, and that there are bigger males so that sexual transition isn't necessary at this point. 

Male and female sheephead look very different in color and size. Male sheephead have black head and tail sections with a large reddish midsection and a large domed forehead. Females tend to be smaller in size with an overall dull pink color across their body. Both male and female fish have a white colored chin with large cone shape teeth protruding from their mouth. These fish use these large teeth and strong jaws to crush shellfish. 

Please keep in mind that when you are targeting these fish, they play a very important role on the reef and in the  kelp forest ecosystems so be cognizant of that when choosing to pull the trigger. Another words, don't shoot every sheephead on the reef you see. 


These fish live in the on the rocky reefs and in the kelp beds along our coast mostly in 90' or shallower waters. They tend to be found near the bottom where they are usually looking for food or hiding along the reef in holes. They will hide if they sense a predator like a diver or a bigger fish. So don't forget to look into holes. 


Spawning is triggered by water temperature in the high 60s which is mostly in the summer months, but you can find and hunt sheephead year round. Personally, I prefer to hunt these fish in the winter time when most of the gamefish are gone. This keeps me diving year round and because these fish tend to be on the bottom, I can keep my diving skills good during the winter months.

Hunting these fish does not require any special equipment. A standard one or two banded speargun with a reel will work. As far as techniques for hunting sheephead, I personally use only two approaches when targeting them. The first approach is aspetto. This means to simply drop down to the bottom and wait. While I wait, I usually scratch on rocks or throw up sand in the water. Another trick you can use is to find a sea urchin and smash it open. I then will return to the surface and recover. On my next dive, hopefully the smashing and food source will have attracted some quality fish to the area. On days when the visibility is good and I can see to the bottom, I will watch from the surface and then "dive bomb" down on top of the fish. The key here is to approach in the fish's blind spot. Usually that spot is directly centered over the fish and about a 30 degree angle behind it. When you are descending down, stop kicking the last 25 or so feet. Just glide within range of the fish and try not to spook it.
Colorful male sheephead
Cody with a big female. A good sign of a health reef and fish population.
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