California Sheephead

From 27th Trip: Native Sun 3/4 Day Trip 12/21

Family: Labridae (Wrasses)

Genus and Species: Semicossyphus pulcher

Description: The body of the California sheephead is elongate, robust, and compressed. This species is a “protogynous hermaphrodite”; meaning that it begins life as a female, but then becomes a male later in life. Females mature at about 8 inches in length when they reach 4 to 5 years of age. Most females transform to males at a length of about 12 inches at 7 to 8 years of age. This sex change is accompanied by a marked change in appearance. Younger fish (females) are a uniform pinkish red with a white lower jaw. As they age and become males, the head and rear third of the body turns black, the midsection of the body remains red and the lower jaw remains white. In all stages of their development, sheephead have unusually large dog-like teeth.

Range: California sheephead occur from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, to Monterey Bay, California, with an isolated population in the Gulf of California. They are uncommon north of Point Conception. California sheephead are generally taken in rocky kelp areas near shore, in water from 20 to 100 feet deep, although they do occur as deep as 180 feet.

Natural History: Crabs, mussels, various sized snails, squid, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers are typical food items. The large canine-like teeth are used to pry food from rocks. A special plate in the throat crushes shells into small pieces for easy digestion. Occasionally, large adults have been observed out of the water in the intertidal hanging onto mussels after a wave has receded. Spawning takes place in early spring and summer. Young about 0.5 inch long occur in late May through late December and do not resemble the adult. They are brilliant red orange with two black spots on the dorsal fin and a black spot at base of tail fin. Pelvic and anal fins are black, trimmed in white. Occasional lemon yellow young are seen. The young live close to rocks at depths from 10 to well below 100 feet, particularly around beds of gorgonian corals (sea fans). When disturbed, they seek shelter in sea fans or among red seaweed. The following summer, juveniles are 3 to 4 inches long and have faded to dull pink. At 2 years they are 6 to 8 inches long, have lost all spots, and have a typical female color pattern.

Fishing Information: Sheephead will take a variety of live and cut baits, such as anchovy or squid, fished on the bottom. Those interested in trophy-sized sheephead may try a whole, live mackerel fished on the bottom. The angler who hooks a California sheephead is usually in for a strong, tugging battle. A battle that commonly ends in disaster when the “catch” runs through or around a kelp plant, or under the nearest rocky ledge.

Other Common Names: sheepie, goat, billygoats (large), red fish, humpy, fathead.

Largest Recorded: 36 inches; 36.25 pounds.

Habitat: Shallow Rocky Environment

About the Author

Sean loves to fish in Southern California and this site is his journal of his adventures in fishing. He started fishing when he was a little guy with his dad David, and has continued to this day with his family. In his day job, Sean has been a graphic designer for over 15 years, designing everything from in-store displays and signage for supermarkets to e-commerce auction sites for an online consumer electronics company. He was a web and graphic designer then later an art director for McMullen Argus Publishing (Primedia), building and working on sites for Lowrider Magazine and Super Chevy, plus 30 other automotive magazine sites. Sean seized the opportunity to teach other aspiring designers - a passion that took him first to Learning Tree University and then to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, CA, where he has been an integral part of the renowned digital arts department for more than ten years. Throughout his teaching career, Sean maintained a freelance business, designing for clients including the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards), Image Comics and many more. See his work at