Recently I posted about the excellent eating qualities of the East Coast sheepshead. In order to avoid claims that I have an East Coast bias, today I would like to introduce the West Coast sheepshead, also known as the California sheepshead.
The California sheepshead is caught in inshore waters from Monterey Bay, California to Baja California, with most being landed in waters 150 feet or less. They like to hunt by day and rest at night, feeding on urchin, shrimp, and other hard shelled crustaceans. Though they share the same name as our East Coast delicacy, the two species are not related. The California sheepshead more closely resembles our native tautog in flavor and other attributes. Tautog and West Coast sheepshead are both wrasse, they both feed on crustaceans, they both have vicious looking teeth, and they both change sexes in their lifetime.
All California sheepshead begin their life as females with their coloring being pinkish red. Later in life between the ages of 4 and 13 years, the fish undergo a sex change in which the females become males and lose their light coloring and develop black skin with a red stripe and white face. These newly minted males can live up to 50 years of age and weigh up to 30 pounds, though 5 to 10 pound fish are most common.
California sheepshead are caught by rod and reel with little by-catch and minimal ill affects to the surrounding environment. Since they feed on shellfish, their flavor is very succulent, almost like lobster, with firm flakes and a silky texture. You are going pay a little more for the West Coast version of sheepshead, most of that is attributed to its high demand and first class plane ticket, but the chance to taste this delectable traveller is certainly worth it. Most markets will carry male fish since they are bigger and if you get a glimpse of the whole fish you won't help but notice it's striking color schemes. The intense disparity between the black and red is almost phantom-like and the snarling mouth full of disjointed teeth can give unsuspecting quite a jolt. Just in time for Halloween! Don't be wary of the great tasting meat though, once you get past it's arresting appearance, the California sheepshead makes for a gratifying dinner option.