California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher)


A member of the Labridae family of wrasses, the California sheephead is a strong bottom-dwelling fish that is a favorite of spearfishing divers. It has some commercial value, although declining numbers caused it to be supplanted commercially by rockfish. Its flesh is white, firm, and mild, and it is preferred in chowder and in salads.

Other Names

sheepie, goat, billygoat (large), red fish, humpy, fathead; Spanish: vieja de California.

Identification

The body of the California sheephead is elongate, robust, and compressed. This species is a hermaphrodite: It begins life as a female and becomes a male later in life. Females mature at about 8 inches in length and 4 to 5 years of age.

Most females transform to males at a length of about 12 inches, or 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 white lower jaws.

As they age and become males, their heads and the rear thirds of their bodies turn black, the midsections of their bodies remain red, and their lower jaws remain white. In all stages of their development, sheephead have unusually large doglike teeth.

Size/Age

The largest sheephead recorded on rod and reel was 36 inches long and weighed 35.5 pounds, although the average fish weighs less than 15 pounds. At least two fish of 40 pounds were speared in the past. A 29-pound, 32-inch-long fish was 53 years old.

Spawning behavior

Spawning takes place in the early spring and the summer.

Food and feeding habits

Crabs, mussels, various-size snails, squid, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers are typical food items. The large caninelike 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 zone, hanging onto mussels after a wave has receded.

Distribution

California sheephead occur from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico, to Monterey Bay, California. An isolated population exists in the Gulf of California, but these fish are uncommon north of Point Conception, California.

Habitat

This species is generally taken in rocky kelp areas near shore, in water from 20 to 100 feet deep, although it does occur as deep as 180 feet.
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