False Albacore Fly Fishing
by Tom Earhardt
They’re just albacore, trash fish,” was the refrain I heard over and over again in the 1960s and 1970s from my father and other fishermen as we passed through schools of breaking false albacore in and around the inlets of the North Carolina Outer Banks. While surf fishing during the same period, I often saw albacore causing bait to shower right at my feet. But to most anglers at that time, false albacore were little more than a high-speed nuisance. Spotted sea trout, bluefish, red drum, flounder, stripers, and mackerel were the prizes sought, and almost no one targeted albacore.
When hooked by mistake, albacore were destroyers of light spinning and conventional tackle. Perhaps the main reason for their low regard was that, for even the most open-minded seafood lover, false albacore with its dark red strong-tasting flesh didn’t make the grade. Their highest and best use was as strip-baits for trollers.
As I look back, one of the great ironies in my fly-fishing life is that during the same period I would have hocked my grandmother’s wedding ring to spend more time in the Florida Keys. The objects of my passion in the Keys were the same as most other anglers–tarpon and bonefish. Both were caught by sight casting. They were strong and fast, and they were totally devoid of culinary value. The same attributes applied to the albacore I left behind in North Carolina, but at the time I couldn’t make the connection.
About Fat Alberts
It wasn’t until the early 1980s when Pete Allred, a friend from Morehead City, North Carolina, told me he was having a great time catching albacore on spinning tackle using slender silver jigging lures called “Stingsilvers.” The lures proved to be an excellent imitation of the two- to three-inch silversides, or glass minnows, that false albacore key on. Using #2 and #4 long-shank hooks, silver mylar piping, and sparse bucktail for the wing, I tied some decent slender minnow imitations. They were really variations of the familiar Black-nosed Dace streamer used by many trout fishermen.
Using bonefish-weight tackle and my new flies one beautiful October afternoon, I was astounded to learn that false albacore love flies. Almost every time I got my streamer into or in front of a breaking school, I got a hookup. By the end of the day, however, I had taken a terrible beating: The score was 14 to 2 in favor of the albacore. Even with lots of Keys flats fish under my belt, I was simply not prepared for the speed and strength of 10- to 20-pound albacore. That first afternoon I had hooks straightened and loops lodged in my fly rod’s guides. Even more humbling, I had to break off several fish when they took me almost to the end of my 175 yards of backing.
Tom Earnhardt Photo>
Over the past 15 years I have learned a lot about catching false albacore on fly tackle along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Virginia Capes, and other waters along the East Coast. False albacore, once a high-speed trash fish, now rank with only a few others at the top of my list of favorite saltwater fish.
Before sharing some observations, it’s important to clearly identify the mackerel/tuna-type fish I call albacore. False albacore (Euthynnus alletteratus) are also known as albacore, little tunny, spotted bonito, Fat Alberts, and bloody mackerel. They are often confused with Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda), usually referred to as bonito or in New England as
Atlantic bonito are easily distinguished from false albacore in three ways. First, bonito are usually half to two-thirds the size of their larger cousins; second, they have straight horizontal markings on their sides as opposed to the dark jagged markings found on false albacore; and finally, bonito are absolutely delicious. They are so good that, even though I am a staunch practitioner of catch-and-release, I often release the first couple of bonito into my ice chest. Both are great fly-rod fish, but along the Outer Banks, false albacore are much more common.
Over the past four or five years, fly rodders have discovered the extraordinary false albacore fishery from the Virginia Capes to the North Carolina Outer Banks. The best fishing occurs in October and November, with the peak usually occurring about the first week of November. Although all inlets along the Outer Banks have good false albacore populations, none is better than Bardens Inlet near Cape Lookout.
At Bardens, Ocracoke, Hatteras, and Oregon inlets and along adjoining beaches, false albacore arrive when water temperatures begin to drop into the high 60s. Optimum feeding and concentrations of fish occur when the water is between 58 and 64 degrees. Good fishing can continue until the water drops into the low 50s and baitfish begin to disappear, often well into December. The inlets concentrate baitfish coming out of North Carolina’s sounds–Pamlico, Albemarle, and Core–much like funnels. It is at these points of concentration where the albacore and other predators gorge on silversides and finger mullet. On a good day a competent fly rodder can get 20 or more hookups.
Much of the water around the Outer Banks inlets is relatively shallow, with few deep channels and dropoffs. This means that fly rodders often hook albacore in water less than three feet deep. When hooked in such shallow water, the fish have nowhere to go but away.
One of the earliest lessons I learned about Outer Banks albacore is that a “tarpon-class” reel, capable of holding at least 250 yards of backing, is necessary. I have watched a number of experienced saltwater anglers shake their heads in disbelief as 200 yards of backing melted away quickly–known locally as a “tunny melt.” I have caught lots of bonefish in the tropics; however, without diminishing the great sporting qualities of bonefish, I am convinced that albacore caught in shallow water are much stronger and half again as fast as any bonefish.
False albacore, with their torpedo-shaped bodies, smooth skin, retractable dorsal fins, and high-speed tails, are hydrodynamic marvels. It is worth noting that for virtually all other inshore species available to fly rodders along the Banks–including redfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, and sea trout–a top-quality reel is not necessary. False albacore are the exception to the rule.
On rare occasions I use an 8- or 9-weight rod for little tunny, but 90 percent of the time I use a 10-weight and always recommend a 10-weight to anyone coming to sample the fishery. There is no question that albacore can be hooked and landed on an 8-, 7-, or even a 6-weight rod, but most anglers using light rods fight fish too long, which can often kill them.
I believe in using enough rod, and to me a 10-weight is ideal and a 9-weight is the minimum that should be considered. The fight usually lasts 15 minutes on average when the fish is played hard, but the length of fight and survivability is affected by a lot of other factors, including water temperature and oxygen content. The cooler the water, the higher the oxygen content. I have seen a number of superb anglers including John Randolph, editor/publisher of FFM, fight an albacore hard for over an hour before getting it to the boat for a quick live release. You will be glad you have a 10-weight outfit when a beautiful “slick calm” morning turns into a 25-knot-wind afternoon. A 10-weight is simply a more powerful fighting and casting tool.
I use both floating and intermediate fly lines for false albacore, because this is a sight-casting sport. The fish take flies at or near the surface. I prefer floating lines simply because the name of the game is to make a quick, accurate cast or a succession of quick casts to get the fly among or in front of moving fish. An intermediate line may cast a little better on windy days, because its smaller diameter helps cut through the wind. If you plan to fish in the surf for albacore, use an intermediate or even a slow sinker. Almost all action occurs on the surface so high-density sinking lines and shooting-tapers are not necessary. Stay away from the “tropic” tapers or lines made specifically for bonefish or tarpon. Most of these lines have a braided-nylon core and tend to get too stiff in cool air temperatures and colder water. Use a good weight-forward line with a Dacron core.
For shallow-water albacore I use 10- to 12-foot leaders. This includes a 9- to 10-foot leader tapered to 12-pound-test looped into a 2-foot section of 40-pound-test monofilament that serves as the permanent butt section at the end of my fly line. Tie the flies directly to the 12-pound tippet. The small pointed teeth of false albacore are not cutting teeth, so you don’t need a wire or heavy monofilament shock tippet.
Of the several hundred albacore that have come to my boat over the years, almost all of them have been caught on 12-pound tippets. On a few occasions, however, when the water has been exceptionally calm and clear I have been forced to go down to a 10-pound tippet because albacore have great eyes and can be leader-shy. As with rods, I believe in using a tippet strong enough to fight the fish fairly and release it alive.
Most flies for albacore are tied on hooks from #4 to #1/0. Proven winners include sparsely dressed Deceivers, Popovics’ epoxy-body Surf Candies, and Clouser Minnows tied with bucktail. When properly presented, all of these flies can work, especially if they are dressed sparsely. [See “Albie Flies” by Bob Lindquist to learn to tie the Mini Peanut Bunker for when albacore are feeding on small menhaden. The Editor.]
A variation of the Clouser Minnow tied with Ultra Hair or Super Hair is far and away the most productive pattern for these fish. I call my synthetic nylon Clouser adaptations “AlbaClousers.” Two-thirds of my flies are tied on #2 hooks, and the other third is divided between #4 and #1/0 hooks.
I use three color variations for my AlbaClousers. For ordinary conditions I prefer a light olive back made of Ultra Hair or Super Hair. In the middle of the fly is a silver stripe made of silver Krystal Flash or Flashabou with a few strands of peacock color Krystal Flash mixed in.
The belly is made of either white or clear Ultra Hair or Super Hair. Another favorite variation of this fly is the same as above except that I use smoke (light gray) Ultra Hair or Super Hair for the back. Finally, when the water gets dirty or the light is low, I often go to an AlbaClouser tied with a bright chartreuse back with a gold Krystal Flash or Flashabou stripe.
To be most effective, these flies should be tied sparsely and the synthetic materials used should be tapered with scissors at the tail so that the fly does not have a “squared-off” look. Make sure you paint the lead eyes silver and add a black pupil. Virtually all of the baitfish in the slender-minnow category have silver eyes, not the red or yellow eyes many tiers use.
Another very effective fly, especially if you like top-water action, is a tiny pencil popper. One of my favorites is tied with white PVC tubing (about the diameter of a ball-point pen) pulled over the shank of a #2 hook. The popper has a short tail of Ultra Hair and Krystal Flash. When albacore run bait right up on the beach, small pencil poppers can elicit heart-stopping surface strikes.
Presenting the Fly
I think that presentation is more important than the choice of flies. For albacore to see the fly, you must put it in front of or in the midst of a feeding pod of fish. Whether flies are moved as fast as possible or in a series of short, erratic jerks depends on the day and the feeding mood of the fish. I have often cast a fly into a pod of fish and had it taken on the first or second strip, indicating that the fly was grabbed while it was falling or fluttering with little movement. Vary your retrieve speed and cadence.
Many of my angling brethren from New Jersey and farther north almost automatically fish false albacore with a two-handed retrieve. The reel and rod handle are placed under the arm and the angler uses both hands to quickly strip line into a shooting basket. It’s an effective technique, but for Outer Banks albacore, a traditional single-handed stripping technique is just as effective.
Whether you use the two-handed or more traditional one-handed method, it is important to clear your line cleanly from either a shooting basket or the boat deck when the fish takes. The high-speed start-up of a hooked albacore often causes line to jump through the guides, making a loop or unwanted knot more than a possibility.
Tom Earnhardt Photo
Albacore are easy to hook, since most flies are tied on relatively small hooks with the barbs mashed down. A few jabs are sufficient to set the hook. Fight albacore the way you would any strong, large fish. After the initial long run, pressure the fish as much as possible until you have recovered your backing.
Once you have the fly line back on the reel, fight with your rod tip low to the water. When the fish goes left, your rod tip should be low to the water and to the right. When the fish goes right, your rod tip should be low to the water and to the left. Keeping the entire fly line in the water and applying pressure in the direction opposite to the fish’s direction can subdue albacore and other strong fish much faster.
Even though anglers with a boat do have more options because they can follow schools of fish, I would rather wade for albacore. Remember that the water temperature will be around 60 degrees, so whether you are fishing the surf or wading a flat, you’ll need to wear neoprene waders. Patient wading anglers are more often than not rewarded with albacore that return to the same location over and over again. Savvy wading anglers fishing near a concentration of baitfish can usually have many shots at slashing albacore during the course of the tide.
Long casts are often unnecessary, because albacore can erupt right under your feet whether you are fishing on foot or from a boat. However, anglers who can throw a long line with a tight loop have an advantage when it is necessary to punch a fly into a stiff breeze. More important than distance is the ability to cast quickly and accurately.
Anglers who can cast quickly in all directions using both the forward cast and backcast to deliver the fly will be most successful in this run- and gun-type fishing. Albacore move quickly, slashing and turning. They do not (like bonefish or redfish) move by slowly waving their tails in the air.
Releasing False Albacore
It may come as a surprise to many anglers, but false albacore should be released in a different way. Most of us who come from a trout- or bass-fishing heritage are used to holding a fish upright and moving it back and forth in the water until it revives. Such a release technique will kill a tuna or mackerel. Tuna and mackerel are designed to move forward all the time. They are always moving.
Two release techniques work well. First, it is best not to take an albacore out of the water unless you absolutely must. When the fish is at the boat, simply grab the slender bony section immediately in front of its tail and stop it for a moment with your bare gloved hand while using your fingers or a pair of pliers to remove the fly, which should have the barb mashed down. Give the fish a quick forward shove to release it. Ninety percent of the time it will be off and running.
Most of us occasionally like to take pictures of fish out of the water. After grabbing the fish just in front of the tail, lift it and take your pictures quickly. Unhook the fish, and then toss or lob it into the water head first at a 45-degree angle. When these fish hit the water going away, they tend to revive quickly and take off.
I have released many false albacore using these methods in water less than four feet deep. In shallow water, it is easy to observe whether the fish swims away quickly or sinks to the bottom. A forcible forward thrust into the water works.
Since word has spread in recent years about the quality and predictability of the Outer Banks false albacore fishing, there is more competition among wading anglers and those with boats. I’ve learned that it is not necessary to chase schools to catch fish.
Albacore tend to congregate in small schools or pods in the fall. There are often so many pods working the same area that anglers in boats or those wading beaches or flats discover that fish come to them. Look for tide lines, drop-offs, and indentations along the beach that may hold bait. Drift, anchor, or wade in such areas. The fish will come. The time of day does not make a great difference. I have experienced great fishing in October and November at dawn, high noon, and dusk.
False albacore are no longer just high-speed trash fish. Today they are the hottest fish in the East Coast fly-fishing theater. They have the attributes of the largest gamefish, but they are available to wading anglers and small-boat anglers alike. Their raucous surface-feeding habits make them prominent targets for well-presented flies. Few fish possess the speed and stamina of a false albacore. Perhaps best of all, there should be plenty of them for the foreseeable future, because not even a famed chef such as a Julia Childs or Paul Prudhomme can make them fit to eat.