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Sheep Thrills

With their unmistakable chompers and full, balanced, flavor, sheepshead are as delightful to catch as they are to eat

Photo: John Burgoyne

Like many Lowcountry kids, Clayton Rollison spent hours fishing off docks, hoping for a keeper. Redfish were his target, but occasionally he’d snag a sheepshead instead. “Their teeth are large and flat, and there are a few rows of them,” says Rollison, who grew up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where he is now the executive chef and owner of Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar. “The front row protrudes out of their mouth like they need to see a dentist due to a bite problem. When we caught sheepshead, we’d throw them back. They were so ugly we were afraid to eat them.” That changed in the late 1990s when snapper, redfish, and wahoo started getting expensive, but fishmongers still sold sheepshead at a reasonable price. Rollison gave it a try and was immediately hooked. “It eats like snapper but has a fuller flavor, which I love,” he says. He recommends grilling two-to three-pounders whole, scoring the skin to the bone so the marinade (see recipe) soaks in as much as possible. “Put it on the grill or in the pan, and leave it alone to simply do its thing,” he says. “The more you fuss with it, the less successful the results will be.” If you live in the coastal South, you’re most likely to catch a sheepie—also known as a convict fish due to its black and white stripes— in early spring around pilings, piers, jetties, or mangroves where they are busily using those teeth to crush barnacles, crabs, and oysters. Otherwise, you can readily find them at fish markets (sub black drum or snapper if you strike out). “They are tricky to catch,” Rollison says. “But I think it’s very Southern to take what other people consider a poor man’s ingredient or fish, and then show that everything has its place.”

The Chef Recommends

Whole Grilled Sheepshead

2- to 3-lb. sheepshead, scales removed
1⁄2 lb. table salt
1⁄2 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1⁄2 bunch cilantro
1 small onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
2 tsp. red chile flakes 2 lemons, zested and juice reserved
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard 1⁄2 cup olive oil Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Score sheepshead to the bone three times per side, starting at the collar. Place fish in a baking dish and cover with salt. Cure for 5 minutes. Rinse and pat dry. In a food processor, blend the parsley, cilantro, onion, garlic, bell pepper, red chile flakes, and lemon zest. Rub fish with half the marinade and place in refrigerator for 2 hours. Cook fish on 375oF grill 9–12 minutes. Flip and cook another 8–10 minutes. Whisk remain- ing marinade with lemon juice and Dijon. Then slowly whisk in olive oil and season to taste. Drizzle over fish just before serving.

TIP: If you’re new to grilling whole fish, Rollison recommends using a wire fish basket for easy flipping.