This fall marks the eleventh year I’ve engaged in the madness known as fly fishing for false albacore.
I remember my first few trips chasing albies up and down Shackleford and Cape Lookout in North Carolina, all which ended in frustration, not due to a lack of opportunities, but mainly because I had not yet paid my dues and learned the ins and outs of catching these fish.
Somewhere around my third trip, I hooked into my first Albacore on fly. That 20-pound fish took every bit of my backing, and the event is still etched in my mind to this day.
10 years down the road and a ton of albies later, I’m hoping these tips will make your first few outings a little more successful than mine.
There’s a time and a place.
The false albacore (Euthynnus alletteratus) goes by many names and is found up and down the East Coast of the United States.
Common names include “little tunny,” “fat albert,” “bonita” (not to be confused with “bonito”), and our local favorite: “albie."
Albies can be caught from New England all the way down to Florida, but if you ask a fly fisherman in Coastal North Carolina, they’ll argue that they have the best fishery of all.
False albacore can be found offshore in North Carolina most of the year, with a nearshore run along the coast each spring and fall.
The spring run usually occurs in April and May and these fish will be mixed in with Atlantic Bonito and the first Spanish Mackerel of the year. They'll show up along the nearshore wrecks and hard bottom areas and are only around for a few weeks. Since it can be hit or miss, the spring season isn’t as heavily promoted, but the local fly fishermen will put in some time chasing them when they show.
The fall fishery is the one everybody talks about.
I remember ten years ago, when the fishing didn’t really pick up until well into October and it lasted into December, my first Albacore was caught the week of Thanksgiving.
Over the last ten years though, I’ve noticed the fish arriving earlier than they used to.
We sometimes see a few random albies as early as August, with the fishing really picking up late September or early October. The second half of October is usually on fire, and many years they have moved on by mid November.
If I had to pick one area to fish, I'd say the stretch of water from Atlantic Beach, NC to the Cape Lookout Shoals is the top area to get into some action. There are almost always fish in that area.
The second location I’d recommend is from Emerald Isle, NC to Wrightsville Beach, NC. The fishing down along that stretch has been very good the last few years.
Let’s get geared up.
Time to get down to the nitty gritty.
These fish fight with every ounce of strength they have. In it’s heyday, the Cape Lookout area was given the name, “where 10-weights go to die.”
It’s hard to imagine using a rod that can fight a big musky or a 90-pound tarpon and breaking it on a 15-pound tuna, but these are tough fish!
In recent years, there has been a trend towards lighter rods, and many of us have gone down to 8 wts. for the average fish, and reserved the 9 and 10 wts. for the big fish.
Make sure that you have a reel that can handle a minimum of 200 yards of backing and a drag that can handle a fish making a 100-yard dash at 40 mph.
For lines, it’s a coin toss between intermediate sinking lines and floating lines. Both have their merits. I like a slow sinking line (1 to 2 inches per second sink rate) because it allows your line to sit right below the surface of the waves.
A floating line will float up and down over the crests of the waves creating slack, whereas an intermediate line will allow a straight slack free connection between the rod tip and the fly.
The advantage of a floating line is that it is much easier to pick up your line and re-shoot it if you are working a school of feeding fish. When albies are blitzing, they are feeding right at, or very close to the surface, so a fly will get in their zone equally as well whether you are casting a floating or intermediate line.
False Albacore have big eyes and fantastic sight, so make sure you are using fluorocarbon tippet to increase the chances of getting an eat.
Fly rod setups.
There are lots of rod, reel, and line choices out there, but here's a breakdown of the specific setups I keep on my boat during Albie season.
For early season albies up to 15 pounds:
- 8wt 9ft Fast Action Fly Rod.
- Hatch Finatic 7plus Reel.
- 200 yards of 20lb Dacron Backing.
- Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 30 Clear Tip 350 grains.
- 6-8ft leader including 18"s of 15lb Fluorocarbon Tippet.
For later season albies 15 to 20+ pounds:
- 10wt Fast Action Fly Rod.
- Hatch Finatic 9plus Reel.
- 200 yards of 30lb Dacron Backing.
- Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 30 Clear Tip 400 grains.
- 6-8ft leader including 18"s of 20lb Fluorocarbon Tippet.
For fly choice, you have to be ready to match the hatch.
Albies are known to feed on squid, shrimp and other crustaceans, but the great majority of their diet consists of small schooling baitfish.
They will eat larger fish such as spearing, menhaden and mullet, but most of the time they are cued in on silversides and anchovies.
The size of your fly is much more important than color when matching the hatch.
Early season albies, known as “sippers,” are often seen sipping on larval baitfish as small as 0.5 to 0.75 inches long. These baits are usually referred to as “snot bait” because they look like little clear blobs with two tiny black eyes. If that’s what the fish are eating, you have a very slim chance of catching them on a fly much bigger than that.
Make sure you tie a few tiny transparent flies on size 6 or 8 hooks, with tiny black eyes. Most of the time you will find fish feeding on bait from 1.5 to 2.5 inches long, so the majority of your fly box should consist of sparsely tied flies in this length tied on size 1 or 2 hooks.
Sometimes the fish are feeding on larger baits, so always have a handful of larger flies in the 3 to 6-inch range just in case.
Flies in natural colors such as tan over white, olive over white, or grey over white with a small amount of flash work well.
As a guide who is usually on a time crunch, I find myself tying completely white flies and fishing them with great success.
It’s also very worthwhile to have a handful of pink over chartreuse flies for dirty water or overcast conditions.
Fly weight and materials.
I keep a variety of flies both weighted and unweighted.
Both of these work well for me, but I've added a third fly to my box and will be fishing it a lot this year. Small bucktail streamers tied on a size 2 or 4 hook, weighted with a size small/medium Fish-Skull Baitfish Head are my current go-to fly.
These Fish-Skull Albie Streamers also work well for Spanish mackerel, bluefish and speckled trout here on the coast. Any of these flies can be tied on bucktail or synthetic materials.
Synthetic materials stand up better to the abuse of sharp teethed fish like mackerel and blues, but I feel like I get a few more eats when using natural materials.
...........Stay tuned for part 2 of this article coming up next week.