CRAZY GOOD

FALL AC­TION PEAKS FOR LIGHT-TACKLE AD­DICTS WHEN SCHOOLS OF QUICK­SIL­VER AL­BIES CRASH THE SEA­SONAL PARTY

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By GARY RE­ICH

Al­bies, lit­tle tun­nies, fat Al­berts — call them what you want, but once you hook one on light tackle, you’re doomed to chas­ing them for the long run.

It’s a raw, cold Oc­to­ber morn­ing off North Carolina’s Bar­den In­let. A shrimp trawler steams south with about 10,000 se­abirds in tow. A layer of thick, gray clouds hangs low in the sky. A bone-chill­ing west­erly stirs up steep, foam-capped waves.

Any­one with even a smidgen of com­mon sense is still in bed. Not us.

High on the af­ter­glow of the pre­vi­ous day’s false al­ba­core fishing, my friends Hugh, Ken­dall and I want to get in a few hours of fishing be­fore the real blow fills in. Hugh weaves us through the con­fused in­let chop while Ken­dall and I hold shut the hoods on our foulies.

We’re mak­ing about 20 knots through the slop when we dis­cover other cra­zies. At least 15 other boats line up be­hind the trawler like it’s a Chick-fil-a drive-through. Mates pitch by­catch overboard. Dozens of sharks and false al­ba­core slice through the trawler’s prop wash.

“Pitch it!” Hugh yells as I back-cast a crease fly across the melee. I make three quick strips be­fore a wide-shoul­dered false al­ba­core T-bones the fly at 30 mph. Mo­ments later, the fish lights the solid rock­ets. Back­ing screams off my reel as if I’ve hooked the bumper of a pickup truck. My 9-weight al­most dou­bles over from the pull.

The fish is three-quar­ters of the way through 300 yards of back­ing be­fore it ap­pears to tire. It’s the first of sev­eral runs. We play this game for 10 min­utes be­fore it comes along­side. I tail the fish and hook it up to the Bo­ga­grip. “Fif­teen pounds, not bad,” Hugh says be­fore I toss the fish back and mas­sage my sore arms.

The hard-pulling false al­ba­core (also known as lit­tle tunny, al­bie, fat Al­bert, ’core, atomic foot­ball and falsie) has all the cre­den­tials you want in a pedi­greed game­fish. Its mus­cu­lar, col­or­ful, stream­lined body has fins that fold flat for speed and ar­tic­u­late like mini-rud­ders for ma­neu­ver­abil­ity. Fueled by a me­tab­o­lism that warms it above sea tem­per­a­tures, an al­bie will crash a school of bait with its back flick­er­ing neon green. Hook one on fly or light tackle, and you’re doomed — for­ever ad­dicted.

Ocean Voy­agers

The false al­ba­core is a mem­ber of the wide-rang­ing tuna fam­ily and can be found in sub­trop­i­cal wa­ters around the

world. They are an im­por­tant food source in South Amer­i­can, African and Mediter­ranean coun­tries, but most East Coast an­glers con­sider them ined­i­ble, mak­ing for a sus­tain­able catch-and-re­lease fish­ery.

“We don’t have any sci­en­tific assess­ments of the small North­east gill net fish­ery in­volved with catch­ing them, but At­lantic wide catch re­ports have fluc­tu­ated be­tween 13,000 and 24,000 met­ric tons for the past 20 years,” says John Graves, a chan­cel­lor pro­fes­sor of marine sci­ence at the Vir­ginia In­sti­tute of Marine Sci­ence in Glouces­ter Point, Vir­ginia.

Graves says fe­male false al­ba­core spawn sev­eral times a year, with the num­ber of eggs be­ing pro­por­tional to the fish’s size. In U.S. wa­ters, peak spawn­ing is be­tween April and Au­gust. Age of first ma­tu­rity is 2 to 3 years, and false al­ba­core can live 8 or more years. “On our side of the pond, they range from the Gulf of Maine down to Ar­gentina,” he says. “Like a lot of sub­trop­i­cal species, they ex­pand their range dur­ing the sum­mer and early fall.”

Those move­ments of­ten are timed with the flush of bait­fish from ti­dal es­tu­ar­ies and rivers out into the At­lantic, where packs of al­bies lie wait­ing. They round up ev­ery­thing from bay an­chovies to peanut bunker to sil­ver­sides, driv­ing bait balls to the sur­face and crash­ing through them at high speed. It’s a spec­ta­cle an­glers never tire of, an oceanic ver­sion of the Serengeti.

Two such an­glers are Bill and Laurie Martin, a hus­band-and-wife team who tar­get false al­ba­core out of New­port, Rhode Is­land, aboard their 1996 Bos­ton Whaler, White­wa­ter Witch. “Their speed is nat­u­ral adren­a­line for us,” Bill says. “We love the en­ergy of these fish. They hit your fly with amaz­ing force, and it’s a bite you of­ten see with your eyes.” Once hooked, they fight hard right to the hand or net. “And just when you think they’re ready to come to the boat, they blast off with an­other shot of en­ergy.”

It’s high praise from a cou­ple who have cast flies around the globe for roost­ers, sails and mar­lin. “Al­bies are a per­fect game­fish,” Laurie says. “They’re ac­ces­si­ble and plen­ti­ful, gen­er­ally easy to catch and pos­sess amaz­ing power for their size. Folks with­out boats can catch them off the beach all around New Eng­land, as well as from break­wa­ters and jet­ties.”

As the sea­son pro­gresses, the Martins head south to Cape Look­out, North Carolina, which is close to the epi­cen­ter of fall false al­ba­core fishing. It’s a fish­ery that has had a fa­nat­i­cal fol­low­ing for al­most 30 years.

Prime Time

It’s an early Novem­ber morn­ing at the Hark­ers Is­land Fishing Cen­ter on Hark­ers Is­land, North Carolina. A fleet of cen­ter con­soles zooms out of the ma­rina, bound for the emer­ald wa­ters around Cape Look­out. “We’ve had re­ally good fishing,” says Capt. Sarah Gard­ner, my guide. “There were acres of break­ing fish around Shack­le­ford Banks yes­ter­day; we didn’t have to travel far. But let’s not jinx it. If it plays out right, you’ll be tired tonight.”

Gard­ner’s hus­band, Capt. Brian Horsley, also guides the false al­ba­core sea­son off Cape

Look­out. The cou­ple are widely re­garded as Jedi masters of the fall al­bie sea­son here.

We’re speed­ing through an open sound near Bar­den In­let when a dis­tant pod of al­bies be­gins grey­hound­ing on sil­ver­sides against the beach. A red sun rises over the white-sand bar­rier is­lands as wild horses graze on marsh grass, a mem­o­rable back­drop. The al­bies are chas­ing bait just un­der the sur­face, send­ing hun­dreds of sil­ver­sides air­borne. “Those are big boys,” Gard­ner says. “Brian calls them buf­faloes.”

I grab my 9-weight and wait for the al­bies to sur­face again. A half-dozen 15- to 20-pounders leap grace­fully out of the wa­ter as I put a fly in their path.

De­nied.

“You’ve got to get that fly in there quick and right in front of them,” Gard­ner says. “I’ll come around again.”

Selec­tive fish such as these can drive an­glers mad. So can sip­pers — picky al­bies feed­ing on snot bait. They can be as fussy about flies as any lime­stone creek brown trout.

I ready my­self for the next salvo. A 15pounder sur­faces like a sub­ma­rine per­form­ing a tac­ti­cal ma­neu­ver. My small fly lands right in front of the stocky fish and is im­me­di­ately in­haled. Sec­onds later, the af­ter­burn­ers light, and the fish streaks for the in­let. Af­ter sev­eral strong runs, the al­bie comes along­side, and Gard­ner plucks it out of the wa­ter and hands it over for a photo. It’s gor­geous. I fol­low the lat­eral line of my catch to its tail while trac­ing the wavy turquoise and black lines along its back. Its belly shines in iri­des­cent sil­ver, and its head gives off a green glow as a row of translu­cent mini-fins along its tail quiver and shim­mer in the morn­ing light.

I look around at the scenery and the fish and think, This is hard to beat.

A Fish by An­other Name

In Florida, false al­ba­core have a rep­u­ta­tion that is far less glamorous than in New Eng­land and the Mid-at­lantic. In fact, lo­cals don’t even call them by their given name. “Don’t strip that line or you’ll catch a bonita,” my guide says as we drift flies for snook over a wreck off St. Lu­cie In­let.

At first, I thought he was talk­ing about the small tuna that of­ten travel with false al­ba­core. “Nope, we call ’em bonita down here,” the skip­per says. “They’re good as bait but not much else.”

The guide turns his back, and I make three swift but stealthy strips. The line pulls tight and starts peel­ing off the reel. Af­ter a short fight, a 5-pound al­bie ends up in the fish box for shark bait.

Back on the docks, I speak with Char­lie John­son, an avid fly an­gler who han­dles mar­ket­ing and pro­mo­tions for Mav­er­ick Boat Co. I ask about the lack of re­spect with which Florida an­glers hold false al­ba­core. “If folks in the Mid-at­lantic and North­east had yel­lowfin, black­fin and other tuna close to shore like we do, I ex­pect an­glers up there would dis­like them just as much,” John­son says. “We’ve got so much to choose from down here that false al­ba­core end up last on the list. I still love catch­ing them, though; they’re amaz­ing fight­ers and beau­ti­ful fish.”

It’s late Au­gust, and my desk is cov­ered in buck­tail trim­mings, epoxy and sil­ver tin­sel as I tie flies for the loom­ing false al­ba­core sea­son. I’ll spend four to six days in late Oc­to­ber chas­ing fish around Cape Look­out. Sit­ting in or­ga­nized piles are small pink and char­treuse Clousers, a hand­ful of epoxy surf can­dies and some epoxy bay an­chovy pat­terns. My 9- and 11-weight rods are lined up against the wall; the 7 and 8s will re­main at home. There’s truth be­hind the say­ing, “Hark­ers Is­land: Where 8-weights come to die.”

A false al­ba­core sends sil­ver­sides sky­ward dur­ing a blitz off North Carolina.

An ex­hausted al­bie comes along­side af­ter fight­ing the good fight.

Drop­ping a well-placed fly into a mael­strom of feed­ing al­bies al­most al­ways re­sults in a spec­tac­u­lar hookup and sore arms.

Wavy lines, splashes of green and iri­des­cent mother of pearl make the false al­ba­core a hand­some fly- and light-tackle ad­ver­sary.

A ris­ing sun back­lights the dor­sal fin of a Cape Look­out al­bie.

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