Several years ago, October found me drifting over Napatree Point in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, hoping to find one of the stripers that frequent this rocky point. As I imagined the falling tide washing my eel pattern along, making it pulse beneath a heavy Teeny line, I was just getting oriented when BANG!! I was firmly hooked-up, but this fish suddenly tore off line in a peculiar way and at an alarming rate. I cursed myself for not having retied the knot to my backing . . . by now more than forty yards from my rod tip. Ten minutes passed before my first glance at the fish: a stunning, green torpedo racing around the boat. I was astounded at the tackle-trashing power and speed of this fish. I felt like I had brought a knife to a gun fight!
When I landed the fish, I took a picture and referred to my grandfather’s copy of McClane’s Encyclopedia and settled on Euthynnus alletteratus, commonly known as the little tunny, false albacore or simply “albie.”
In southern New England, albies rarely appear before September and are typically preceded by the Atlantic bonito. Their presence coincides with a smorgasbord of bait for the albies to feed upon, including: butterfish, anchovies, sand eels and silversides. False albacore have a larger mouth than bonito and as a result, seem to feed on larger baits. In fact, the hottest albie action involves blueback herring. As with other pelagics, albies and bones must face into a swift current or swim very fast to cause enough water to pass over their gills. This is a pertinent fact when evaluating the most effective fly fishing tactics.
There are three different methods (not including chumming) that are used to hook-up with false albacore:
* chasing the surface activity,
* fishing a patch of structure, or
* hanging the tide in front of the reef.
Most anglers cannot resist the urge to chase breaking fish. The sight of these beautiful fish greyhounding along, occasionally silhouetted against the horizon is too much to resist. These fish a re spread over a wide area, however, are moving very fast. Frequently they are gone before you get there! Also, the engine noise will cause them to sound. If you choose to chase, shut down well before reaching the school and angle the drift to avoid riding up on your cast. You must be in direct contact with your fly the moment it hits the water.
Fishing over a piece of structure, such as a reef, wreck, or ledge, is a more effective method and makes the most sense if you are fishing alone. Often albies maintain general patterns around structure or stationary pods of bait. If you have the patience to sit tight and observe, you will be rewarded. Your goal should be to identify their “milk run” and drift or anchor over an area where you can intercept the fish. This method is most effective when the wind and tide allow you to drift slowly over the structure for a period of time. If this is not the case and you are “blown off the mark” you should consider if you can anchor safely.
Far and away the most effective method is to find fish working along a reef and then hang in the current above the reef while swinging dead-drifted flies back to the fish. This c an be a dicey location for an angler fishing alone, so keep safety as your top priority. Vital to success is the use of fast-sinking lines like the Teeny 350 or 450. There are a number of theories as to why this method is most effective. First, fish found in the rip are concentrated and actively feeding. Many believe the surface fish that you do see are the “tip of the iceberg” and most fish are feeding six feet or so below the surface. So don’t despair if you see no fish breaking in a rip, the hook-u p frequently occurs without the clatter of fish on top. Secondly, the incredible momentum of the albie is what carries the fish out of the water, not surface feeding. Typically the albie rockets up and through a dense school of bait and then sounds and repeats the sequence. A deeper presentation is more likely to get eaten during this cycle.
Ed Mitchell points out in his excellent book Fly Rodding The Coast that this ” up and down” feeding behavior contributes to the impression that albies are “picky” He goes on to explain that the momentum of these fish makes it difficult for them to change direction quickly. As a result, the angler who knows he is in the fish but is not getting strikes then mistakenly believes the fish are “picky. ”
I once watched an albie intercept my butterfish pattern at a 90 degree angle as he sped past the boat. The iridescent streak closed his mouth on the fly but the hook did not sink home. Typically a bass or blue that had taken and dropped the bait would turn and strike the same bait again. This bird’s eye view proved for me how difficult it is for the albie to change direction. Many anglers use a fast, hand-over-hand retrieve, but this makes the fly a difficult target for the speedy albie unless you are retrieving your fly directly ahead of the fish. The a wet fly swing or slow strip, on the other hand, keeps the fly in the strike zone as long as possible.
The perception that the albacore is picky also causes some anglers to use small streamers and long leaders to fool false albacore. Though most of my fish have fallen to 3- to 4-inch Rhody Flat Wings and Deceivers designed to imitate young blueback herring, I have landed albies on a variety of flies some as long as an eight-inch eel and as bulky as a five-inch slab side. I prefer the Flat Wing because the albies seem to strike from behind and then up and through the bait. Kenny Abrames’ design, with the tail feathers tied horizontally, maximizes the profile the fish sees from that perspective.
In the Watch Hill area the albies arrive around Labor Day and stay through October. In years with warm, fall temperatures the fish may extend their annual lay over. They seem to depart as water temperature drops below sixty degrees. At that temperature, the remaining fish are spread out and therefore more difficult to hook.
In the North Carolina area, the false albacore is known as “Fat Albert. ” A friend of mine summed it up irreverently by saying “albies are pigs! ” Are you as disrespectful? Before you go fishing for “fat albert” be sure to check all your knots!