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False Albie Fishing
by Peter Rothwell
(d. February 2005)

 


So you’d like to catch a false albacore? Well, here are some suggestions, with a bit of humor thrown in to ensure no one thinks I (or anyone else) know all there is to know here. The longer I fish for them, the more I have to admit I have to learn.

Peter fights a False Albacore

As an introduction, albies, little tunny, fat alberts (or whatever you know these fish as) are extremely exciting to fish for, but can be extremely frustrating. Although this is perhaps the least serious of my advice, go out there and make a fool of yourself trying to get one. Even after years of experience, these fish will make you look and/or feel foolish at one point or another. They will run so fast you don’t have time to keep your fly line from snagging some part of your boat or body. They will break your line, your rod or straighten your hook out. They will break your heart, busting the surface all around you while refusing every fly you cast to them. So, if you start out with looking foolish as an objective, you will not only likely succeed, but you won’t waste time waiting for the fish to help. I have a number of techniques for this, but my favorite is to sing the following tune, to a country western melody, whenever I’m chasing them too much:

I’m chasing little tunny
They’re driving me insane
No matter how you chase them
It always ends the same
You go to where they were
And they’re back where you have been
When you’re chasing little tunny
You just cannot ever win

When sung at the top of my lungs, I have found this to avoid much wasted time in having these incredible fish make a fool of me.

The focus below is on catching these albies on a fly. At the end, there are some pointers for spin fishermen too, although many of the fly fishing pointers apply to both.

The following are some key points to consider:

  • When to find them? The false albacore run along the north east coast is a fall affair. Around Montauk, it generally starts in September and runs through October. It can start earlier (sometimes as early as July) and last into November. It ends with the absence of bait or cooler water (temperatures below 60 degrees, although how far below is an open question). Down in the North Carolina, they may run as long as December or January. But mostly, if its fall in the north east, its time to catch them albies. As to time of day, albies feed by sight (perhaps exclusively), so don’t expect to catch them before sunrise or after sunset. When they are being picky, the low light hours may be better (some feel they don’t see the leaders as well in the early morning or late afternoon), but when they are in a feeding mood, this is bankers hours fishing.

  • Where to find them? Although you can find false albacore pretty far off shore, your best chances will be closer to shore in situations where they have concentrated in large numbers. This will generally be in areas where bait can be trapped or is unable to maneuver effectively. A point or sand bar where strong rips are generated is a good place to start your search. If there is bait in the rips, albies (like many other predators) will take advantage of their greater power and speed to feed there. Or bait may be balling up on either side of a point, and the albies may be pushing them up against either the shore or the rips around the point. Inlets, jetties and other natural structure which can shelter bait or contribute to rips are other likely spots.

  • How to find them? Like bluefish and striped bass in the fall, the easiest way to find them is to let birds do the work. When albies are feeding heavy, the birds will be over them picking up stunned and air borne bait. Be careful, here, though. As indicated below, you generally want to use leaders which will not survive a bluefish bite. So you need to be able to identify which predators are below the bait or you can sacrifice a lot of flies in the process. Although albies have a number of different surface action patterns, a frequent one is slicing through the surface of the water, sometimes shooting spray several feet in the air. Blues are more likely to roll like bass or make singular splashes. As you see them more often and are successful distinguishing them from blues, however, you will learn that their surface action can be mistaken. Many a time I have been sure I was seeing albies, only to lose yet another fly to fiendish blues doing an albie imitation. And vice versa (I’ve waited and watched while what looked like a school of blues finning the surface turned into a bunch of albies). So its important to look for other distinguishing signs (like the howl of another fly fisherman as he or she loses a fly to a blue). Since the fishing is during bankers hours, if the water is clear and the sky not too overcast, you will often be able to see them under the water. The green back and torpedo look of their body is not easily confused with the ever hungry bluefish. When albies are not feeding as heavy, or if there are fewer numbers of them, birds may still be useful in finding them. Birds will often look like they are following fish waiting for them to bring bait to the surface. In many cases, its albies they are following. But sometimes, there won’t be help from birds. Then, look for bait on structure and start blind casting. One scenario without birds I have done well with is finding a single pod of bait and watching. If the bait appear to be chased from time to time (versus constantly if there are blues or bass on them), or if you see a flash below them (versus a group of flashes as the blues push the bait to the surface), you have a good chance of hooking an albie.

  • Chase them or work structure? Yup (both strategies work in different situations). Once you have found them, you need to pick a strategy for approach. Here’s one area many folks disagree with me, stating you should always avoid chasing them. I probably leaned too far in the direction of chasing them as a result of my early experiences. I based my 1980s approach based on a newspaper article from a well respected sportsmen. He stated that once you see the fish, get in their general vicinity and drift, casting your fly out and letting it drift. I tried this a few hours each fall in the late 1980s but was way too impatient to keep fishing this way (without a single touch). I caught my first albie in 1991 by accident using almost the exact opposite approach. My pop and I were looking for schools of blues and saw what looked like those dang "funny" fish (albies). But they were moving fast, and neither of us felt like sitting there with a fly drifting again. So I pulled out a spinning rod (we still kept them with us in those days for special occasions) and my pop powered along side the school. I cast a 3 inch popper at them (it was on the rod for teasing blues near the boat) and retrieved fast. BOOM, and off went more line in 20 seconds than I ever could remember. Brought up a nice small albie (maybe 5 pounds) and began to wonder if sometimes you could chase them (and maybe even use a fast retrieve). Later that year, my pop and I brought his boat to Montauk and we started catching them on flies. He liked fishing structure, and I liked screaming out load while chasing along side moving schools. Sometimes we did better with his approach, sometimes better with mine. What we generally decided, and time has not made me totally unlearn, is that it depends. When the albies are around in good numbers, are packed in and feeding like crazy on the surface, we did better doing a little chasing. Generally, you want to go well around the outside of the fish and place yourself about a cast length and a half up drift of the fish. If you are in shallow water, don’t try this fast, as the albies will definitely get spooked. But in deeper water, go for it (of course, while avoiding interfering with other fishermen). If the albies are in smaller pods, or are coming up in single surface action, its always better to get in the general area and work the structure they are feeding on. And, of course, if you chase when you shouldn’t, feel free to sing the "cashing little tunny" song.

  • Match the hatch or shock the flock? Yup (both strategies work in different situations.) Once you’re ready to cast, there are some basic flies to consider. For each, you need to decide whether to try to match the size and color of the bait they are on or to distinguish your fly from the rest of the bait. Here, again, I have been successful doing either, but I generally think standing out helps. Pure white flies and chartreuse seem to do the best, despite not looking like anything they are eating (although, perhaps these colors look like stunned bait). I use them most at the start and end of the season, when the ablies are more picky. I also generally try to size the fly just a touch over what I see in the water. Other times, I do try to match color and size, which in East End Long Island often means looking for flies which look like Bay Anchovies (I caught some this fall on one from this site). Whatever color you choose, a fly with flash will out produce one without. As to actual flies, I’ve done quite well with clousers, but use them less and less as they seem to be bluefish magnets. I also did well early on with deceivers, but also dropped them to avoid blues. I’ve settled on epoxy minnows almost exclusively, as the blues are a bit less inclined to bite them. But clousers, deceivers and epoxies are a good start for basic selection. Next year, I will be trying poppers more, as I hear of more folks having success with them and the image of an albie crashing a popper sounds great to me (and would bring me full circle to the first albie I got).

  • Floating, Intermediate or Sinking Lines: Yup (each strategy works in different situations.) Floating lines are a natural choice if you use a popper. Although I’ve caught albies using other flies with a floating line, I tend towards a fast retrieve, and clousers, deceivers and epoxies look a bit unnatural skimming the surface of the water. Intermediate lines are my favorite – when retrieving fast, the fly remains just below the water, and a slower retrieve will get fish a bit lower. Sinking lines can be quite effective when the fish are on structure.

  • Reels, backing, leaders and other equipment basics: Although no specific suggestions are offered here, there are some basics to consider. To handle the casting (sometimes in the high winds of fall) and to be able to handle these fish, a 7 weight rod is about as small as you can go and some will suggest as large as 10 weight rods. Albies run like crazy when they are first hooked – in some cases you will need a few hundred yards of backing and a reel that can handle it being pulled out in seconds. Losing an albie by spooling the fish or melting the reel (called having a "tunny melt") is a feeling too depressing to describe. Albies are generally leader shy and will only hit rigs for blues (wire or heavy mono) when totally out of control (which is rare). I use 15 pound test, but partially out of resistance to constantly changing leaders on the water. Anywhere from 10 to 15 pound test should be all right. Leader length has never seemed to be that important, except as it relates to landing fish alone (see last section below before the spin tips).

  • Fast or slow retrieve: Yup (again). I lived by the fast retrieve at first. Over time, I hooked too many albies lighting up a cigarette with my fly hanging motionless in the water to stick with fast retrieve only. The key to catching these fish is having the fly in front of them, as many of them as possible. Whether a fast or slow retrieve does this depends on the situation. If the albies are all over an area and staying up on the surface for minutes at a time, a fast retrieve will place the fly in front of more fish than a slow retrieve. If the albies are in smaller pods, and staying on the surface for just a minute each explosion, a fly cast to the explosion will remain in front of the fish longer if left almost motionless. If you’re casting structure without surface action, who knows (try both).

  • Other casting notes: Cast quickly. The best opportunities flash by quickly. Don’t expect to catch a fish you just saw surface – the albies are speed demons, and even if you can cast without a single false cast, the fish you just saw is somewhere else. However, still cast to fish you see surface (particularly in wilder schools). The albies come on the bait in waves, and you are more likely to have an albie (or 20 albies, one after another) follow the same path as the one you saw than to guess where else to cast. But do cast quickly, because often right behind the albies are the blues. When you are in a group of mixed albies and blues, watch constantly and try to catch the contours of each group over time. Albies will often be at the edge furthest up tide and there will be shifting areas where the albies are the predominant fish. And, while casting quickly, pay attention to the line that remains, as you will have precious few seconds to untangle line before an albie expects to be 200 yards away from you.

  • Landing: Do it as quickly as you can, and do release these beautiful fish, as they taste horrible. After a long run or two, albies can be quite difficult to land, often seeming like they have attached themselves to some unknown structure 10 feet below the boat. In the process, Albies are quite capable of fighting themselves to death. Don’t think of the fight as you might a trout on really light tackle – you don’t want to play the fish, you want it back in the water alive. During the runs, use rod position and line in the water to help slow the fish down and break its will. When it appears to be connected to the (non-existent) structure 10 feet below the boat, take your rod and yank it a few times or pull it one side or the other to move the albie from its stubbornly held position under the boat. And the first chance you get, try to get its head an inch out of the water, grab its tail and land it. It helps a lot if you get help (I often fish for them alone, and have been using shorter and shorter leaders to assist in that last "gotcha" move). Albies are often quite grateful once landed, and will spit up their entire feed right into your face and/or boat. In return, try to get the fish back in the water before picking up 30 half digested bay anchovies.

Well, those are my fly fishing tips. Here are just a few for spin casting to these critters:

  • Leader: None. You may lose your lures to blues now and then, but its worth it to hook an albie.

  • Lures: When I first tried to get a friend to catch one, we tried a snapper popper rig. This is a big popper with a trailing line with a small lure attached to it. Other than being hard to cast, it was quite effective in getting albies to hit. However, the small lure attached to your average snapper popper rig will straighten out on an albie of any size, so replace it with a clouser or other fly. These things tend to get harder to cast the higher the wind, so I gave up on them despite their success. Now when I bring friends to catch them, I use small (up to 2 inches), thin (up to half inch) silver. They seem to produce as well.

Peter lands an albie!

One final piece of advice – its really incredible when you get into a great albie feed, when you feel one hit and take off like a freight train, when you see its spectacular green back and wavy, Indian pattern like stripes – so put up with the frustrations, enjoy having them make you look foolish, and feel free to sing the chasing little tunny song.

 

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