California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Creature Feature: California Sheephead

by DFG Staff

California Sheephead

California sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher

California sheephead are uncommon north of Point Conception, but have been caught as far north as Monterey Bay. They are generally taken in rocky kelp areas near shore, in water from 20 to 100 ft. deep, although they do occur as deep as 280 ft.

Distinguishing Characteristics

This fish is a "protogynous hermaphrodite," which means that it begins life as a female, but then becomes a male in later life. Female: uniform pinkish red with white lower jaw. Male: Head and rear third of body black, mid-section red, lower jaw white. Males have a prominent, bulging forehead. Both sexes have unusually large, dog-like teeth.

Life History & Other Notes

Crabs, mussels, various-sized snails, squid, sea urchins, and sand dollars are typical food items for California sheephead.

Spawning takes place in early spring and summer. The young are brilliant red-orange, with two black spots on the dorsal fin and a black spot at the base of the tail fin. Pelvic and anal fins are black, trimmed in white. The young fade to a dull pink color when three to four inches long, and by the time they reach 6 to 8 inches long they have lost all spots and taken on typical female coloration.

California sheephead will take a variety of live and cut baits, such as anchovy or squid, fished on the bottom. Larger California sheephead may be taken using whole, live mackerel, also fished on the bottom. They are notable fighters on rod and reel.

California Sheephead Quick Facts

Scientific name: Semicossyphus pulcher

Other common names: sheepie, goat, billygoat

Range & habitat: Monterey Bay south, but usually south of Pt Conception, in rock/kelp bed areas.

Length & weight: 3 ft and 36 lb

Lifespan: To 53 years

Diet & suggested bait: Feeds on crabs, mussels, snails, squid, sea urchin, sand dollar, sea cucumber. Try anchovy, squid or mackerel for bait.

Excerpt from the California Finfish and Shellfish Identification Book. Single copies of the book are available to California residents free of charge by emailing a request to publications@wildlife.ca.gov

Return to the October 2012 Issue