Get Adobe Flash player

Sheephead

Found only from Monterey, California south to mid Baja California, this fish can grow to almost 36 inches and 35 pounds but the photo specimen was 16-1/2 inches and 2-1/2 pounds.

 The black coloration of the head and darkening tail indicates this fish was completing the transition from female to male (females are mostly red) which happens when a female reaches a length of 12 inches. This long lived slow reproducing fish is IUCN red listed as VU (Vulnerable) due to declining population.

California Sheephead flesh is very white and delicate of flavor. It's also very fragile when cooked, falling into small flakes if you stare at it too hard. Fry it with at least a powdering of rice flour and poach in modest size pieces. It's completely unsuitable for soups.

This fish is covered with medium size scales that are not very hard to scrape off. It's not the easiest fish to clean because its internal membranes are very tough, it has a set of grinding stones in its throat (to crush hard shelled prey) and the gills don't pull easily at all.

Filleting this fish is not difficult and yield is quite reasonable for a big headed fish. A 2-3/4 pound fish yielded 1-1/4 pound of skinless fillet (45%). The skin removes quite easily using the long knife and cutting board method and it must be removed. It's too strong flavored for the delicate flesh and skin shrinkage during cooking is extreme.

When filleting, fillet about half way down the ribcage bones and then cut them from the spine. Use your needle nose pliers to pull the ribs starting from the front of the fish. You'll be able to feel a row of centerline spines for the full length of the body cavity. Use the needle nose pliers and pull them straight forward as usual.

The head, bones and fins make a good light soup stock with moderate oil, even lighter if you don't use the skins.