Bonito and False Albacore: The Experts Speak

oct-bone2Of all the advice I have ever received about fishing for bonito or false albacore around Cape Cod and the Islands in Massachussetts, perhaps the best came from Captain Leslie Smith of Backlash Charters, who advised: “Stock up on Valium!” I have watched folks pursuing these Atlantic speedsters over the last several years and seen all kinds of erratic behavior, leading me to name them “funny fish,” not because they act in a strange manner but because their pursuers often get this glazed, goofy expression on their faces and perform in ways which are bizarre to say the least.

To seek some advice about these fish, I elected to go to three solid sources: Captain Leslie Smith and Don MacGillivray, both of Martha’s Vineyard, and Peter Alves of Chatham. Captain Smith holds two I.G.F.A. light tackle bonito records and is one of the best captain’s on Martha’s Vineyard at putting people on both albies and bones. Don MacGillivray, is the record holder for false albacore at 19 pounds, 5 ounces and has probably caught as many bonito and albies as anyone on the Vineyard. Peter Alves, the manager at Fishing The Cape, an Orvis fly fishing shop in Harwich, is responsible for dispensing information about catching these fish and can speak from considerable experience, having taken them on the fly rod from both boat and shore at any number of locations on the Cape and Islands.

Where To Find Fish

If someone has not focused much time on bones and albies, he might find the shear range of advice perplexing. Not only do opinions vary, but as each year goes by and the fly rod community learns more and more about their behavior and feeding habits, certain fast truisms are modified.

bw-albie-thumbDon mentioned that, from year-to-year, there are certain locations out on the Vineyard where diehard fast fish anglers congregate, but that if you believe any one spot is going to be the one, these fish will change your attitude quickly. “Over here we look around Edgartown, Cape Poge, East Beach, State Beach, Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven, Middle Ground, Menemsha, and other popular spots, but you just can’t home in on one spot and think that just because it was good today, it will be that way tomorrow or two days from now. It’s very important to keep track of where the bait is, especially the schools of sand eels, one of Don’s big bonitos silversides, and small herring. No matter where you are, these fish can be [either] incredibly finicky or…relatively easy to hook up with.”

Don’s state record fish was taken around the Cape Poge area in 1990, near the windmill house: an area he had been working since the previous year. As he pointed out, “You really have to become familiar with an area to understand how these fish will act. In some places, you can do fine blindcasting while other locations require you to target fish.” Peter added that while there are certain spots where folks have most often congregated, a key is to check out an area thoroughly and be willing to move.

kayakAlmost universally, anglers who are familiar with albies and bonito will tell you that deeper water helps defeat much of their storied wariness and difficulty to bring to the hook. On the Vineyard, folks trolling around the Hooter southeast of Wasque catch bonito well before they show up inshore, while over on Nantucket south of Tuckernuck and Muskeget are locales where the funny fish can be taken in good numbers, with the first ones often taken by bass fishermen trolling jigs or Fastrac Rebels or Rapala plugs. Surfboard albie enthusiast at Montauk

Inshore, one thing Leslie looks for when fishing is structure, especially with moving water, which both Peter and Don agreed is critical when seeking numbers of these fish. Leslie especially likes Cape Poge because “there is a lot of structure in that area, with water moving off the corners of the flats and there are a couple of points which lead into shoal areas. When the water is moving quickly, you have a better shot at these fish, while quieter, clear water makes things much tougher. You might only have a half second to get a shot at a fish until the wake from another boat puts them down or they get spooked. In fast moving, deeper water, you might not see as many fish on top, but you’ll hook up more consistently.”

While some associate the best bonito and albie fishing with clear, sunny weather, Leslie pointed out that some of her most productive days inshore have been in cloudy, drizzly conditions, with very little wind so that spotting the fish pushing water is easier. Peter concurred about the wind, citing a recent trip to State Beach on a very lumpy, sunny day, when spotting the fish as they made their characteristic spasmodic explosions was difficult. In the aftermath of such severe weather, cloudy water can also confound the fishing for albacore and bonito, both of which are believed to depend on sight to hunt their prey effectively. Just this past week, Don mentioned to me that he was cruising the southside of the Cape around Falmouth and he was surprised to see plenty of bait, but not much activity, perhaps due to the roiled, cloudy water coming from the ponds.

Lines, Leaders & Presentations

When it comes to casting a fly rod for these fish and selecting the best setup, all three anglers noted that shorter, accurate casts with a minimum of false castings will increase your chances of a hook-up. While all three experts agreed that 250 to 300 yards of backing is minimum, and 8 or 9 weight rods are preferred, they differed slightly regarding line choices. Don prefers to use an AirFlo coldwater clear intermediate line, whose casting qualities he considers excellent and he added that no matter what line you use, “a caster should be able to make an effective presentation quickly and efficiently, [without sacrificing] solid line control. Your better caster will be able to move the direction of his or her cast even while they have the line in the air and put it where the fish are going.”

boatsLeslie also prefers a clear intermediate line, although in her case she chooses a SciAngler Tarpon Taper which has more of a shooting head configuration and makes casting easier. “Fifty foot casts thrown with ease and consistency very important. Many folks are used to just dumping out casts and catching schoolies, but casting to bonito and albies is a totally different game. You should be able to backcast just as effectively as you cast to the front because you don’t want to waste a shot at the fish and no captain wants you casting across the boat.”

Peter Alves places more emphasis on the visibility of the leader than the line itself, but echoes the importance of quick casts. He prefers an Orvis 300 grain Depth Charge line which “I can cast 60 feet with one Peter Alves displays another bonito… false cast and get the fly faster to the fish. I do think it’s very important to get a general sense of the direction in which the fish are moving and throw the fly at least four or five feet in front of them. Too many people put their cast right on a break and by the time the fly is in the water, the fish have sprinted out of there.”

Another area of considerable debate among bonito and albie fishermen is the make-up of their leader system. “I use a 15 pound fluorocarbon tippet at the end of an AirFlo sinking leader system,” said Don, “not only does the AirFlo cast better, but it also allows you to work the fly more effectively since it keeps the fly at just the right level.” Leslie and Peter also both use fluorocarbon leader material, with Leslie going with 10 pound tippet at the end of a knotless, tapered system measuring nine feet. Peter doesn’t find that a leader over six or seven feet is necessary and has found that 12 pound fluorocarbon is about the maximum.

Retrieves, Hook sets, & Speedy Runs

Leslie is a firm believer in moving the fly at a pretty good clip, unless the fish are showing right on the surface, in which case she advocates “more of a dead drift presentation, with an occasional twitch to the fly.” Because she advocates long strips, she eschews the use of a stripping basket which might interfere or feel awkward. Peter prefers putting the rod under his casting arm and using a hand-over-hand strip to produce a the steady retrieve: “I like to keep the fly moving steadily and even if the fish are on top, if I start my retrieve when the fly hits the water, [so that even] a fast sink line won’t get down too deep.” Don also goes with the hand-over-hand retrieve, and moves the fly as quickly as he can. For both, a stripping basket is an essential part of their equipment as it enhances the consistency and ease of their casting.

Anyone who has hooked up with one of these two species can attest to their searing first and second runs. Since stopping them in theirAnother big bone for Don… tracks is unthinkable, setting your drag to apply a modicum of pressure should be the goal. Over the years, Don has come to feel that with the soft mouth on a bone or albie, you can tear the hook out if you set your drag too tight. Leslie noted that barbless hooks make it tougher to keep a fish on the line since bones and albies can create slack on the line in an instant by doubling back or changing direction. She added “it pays to try and be a little aggressive when setting the hook and always use a strip set,” rather than lifting the rod and possibly putting slack into the line, as sometimes a fly rod alone lacks the stiffness to drive a hook home.

Choosing Flies & Following Birds

leporeComing up with the hot bonito or albie fly is an industry unto itself, but Peter, Leslie, and Don all agreed that if they could choose one primary color for their flies, it would be white. Leslie is particularly fond of bunny flies and small, sparse Deceivers, but in bright sunlight, she also will turn to sand eel patterns with a touch of chartreuse in them. Others she knows use large white patterns with a significant amount of flash in them and Clousers with very sparse wings and tails. At times, Peter will go to muted shades of yellow or olive and add even a bit more flash, similar to patterns used for Spanish mackerel. One of Don’s go to patterns is the Bonito Bandit, a bunny fly modified by his friend “Bonito” Eddie Lepore. Don has also found the Mystic Bay HardBody Shiner to be a consistent epoxy pattern, especially when tied on a 1/0 hook which provides a larger profile and target. Never one to avoid experimenting, Don also found that tube flies worked well last fall when there were more albies around than he could remember.

Most anglers feel that the most important sign that bonito and false albacore are active in the area is the behavior of the birds which follow them, and Peter Alves agreed and offered a refinement. “I don’t how you would describe it, but when terns are on bonito or albies, they do what I call ‘high stepping’ or ‘high flying,’ wallowing up in the air about 100 feet or so and then swooping in for a bite to eat. When you see hordes of birds, it is probably mostly bass and bluefish with bonito and albies mixed in. Sometimes you’ll come across a blitz in which they’re staying on top, but most of the fishing I have encountered involves watching one or two birds as they follow the fish and bait.”

Tips: Anchoring & Drifting

red-albieBut when the fish appear on the surface, they can be a site to behold. Individual fish will porpoise or leap free from the water like bullets. At times they erupt as entire schools, leaving white water and roostertails in their wake. Particularly when the action is prolonged, the spectacle excites boat anglers into chasing the fish, and this can become chaotic and unproductive. If you can resist, and it can be difficult, many of the most experienced anglers have other, more effective techniques involving patterns which appear in daily and annual time frames. To get better at angling for bones and albies, you have to spot these patterns rather than chase their aftermath, but there are so many nuances to predicting the best spot to intercept fish that it can be daunting.

octoberfish-boneLeslie Smith admitted “the more I fish for them, the less I think I know about them. Most of us adhere to the theory that they move in a predictable pattern and once you figure out their movements, you can set up to intercept them, but I have seen too many times when I think I know where they’re going and they just go in a different direction. No doubt…part of the challenge with bonito and albies is their unpredictability.” She prefers to drift whenever she can. As long as everyone stays within the drift pattern and pays attention so they can move if a hooked fish runs towards or under their boat, she isboats.gif (16911 bytes) convinced that a decent number of boats can fish an area without a problem. Only in situations where there is a great deal of current or heavy winds will Leslie anchor up, and then she is particularly careful not to crowd a small spot. Peter made one point very clear: “there is no room for run-and-gun fishing. The smart angler will position his or her boat in such a way that they will get the best possible shot at the fish. It might sound silly, but it’s also critical not to comment and make all kinds of noise when you see the fish come up – unless you like company that is.”

It’s pretty obvious that there are many different approaches to catching bonito and false albacore and no doubt there will be new theories proposed once someone uncovers a secret or runs into a hot streak with a given fly or strip. Of course, that may work for a day or two, or even a season, and then the bones and albies will act in a manner which crosses up all human understanding and theorizing and renders them as elusive as ever..

It’s a curse and a blessing, which, in the end, may be why so many folks love to fish for them.


Mark N. Cahill has been writing and editing for since 1995. He started fishing in the mid-1960's and caught his first striper off World's End in Hingham in 1966. From there on in it was an obsession. He loves fishing for tuna, and fly fishing for striped bass. In a pinch, anything with fins will do...

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