PRIME TIME

FALL IS THE SEA­SON TO BREAK OUT THE LIGHT TACKLE FOR AL­BIES AND RED DRUM OFF CAPE LOOK­OUT, NORTH CAROLINA

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY GARY RE­ICH PHO­TOS BY BRIAN HORS­LEY

The fish­ing heats up each fall in the waters around Cape Look­out, North Carolina, where false al­ba­core and red drum star in the light­tackle show. By GARY RE­ICH

It’s a cold and blus­tery Oc­to­ber morn­ing at Hark­ers Is­land Fish­ing Cen­ter as a group of an­glers shuf­fles down a nar­row, weather-beaten dock. A dozen or so cen­ter con­soles tug at their dock lines. Each an­gler car­ries a bun­dle of fly rods against his shoul­der like a sol­dier with a bay­o­net-tipped ri­fle march­ing off to bat­tle. One after the other, the fish­ing boats speed out into the sound to­ward Barden In­let. Just be­yond, a storm of seabirds tar­gets a pack of false al­ba­core that is pum­mel­ing a ball of bait. Sheets of bait­fish fly in a last-ditch at­tempt to sur­vive. An­glers cast flies into the melee, and a cho­rus of fly reels erupts into song. Rods bend deep into the wa­ter, and huge grins pop out from be­hind foul-weather gear.

This is a com­mon scene on the waters around Cape Look­out, North Carolina, each fall. From early Septem­ber through late Novem­ber, schools of bait­fish wash out of North Carolina’s vast sounds and into the At­lantic. Schools of fren­zied false al­ba­core, red drum and sharks gather for the oc­ca­sion. Fly and light-tackle an­glers de­scend from as far away as Ja­pan and Scan­di­navia.

Lit­tle Tunny

Though a num­ber of species can be caught dur­ing the sea­son, the false al­ba­core (also known as “fat al­bert,” “al­bies” and “lit­tle tunny”) is the star of the show. Th­ese atom­icpow­ered, foot­ball-shaped tu­nas spend the sum­mer in the Gulf Stream and reach Cape waters in early Septem­ber. Fun­da­men­tally ined­i­ble, they are sel­dom sought as food. That makes them great sport on fly and light-spin.

Th­ese beau­ti­fully colored ocean preda­tors have a propen­sity for school­ing up bait into tight balls be­fore crash­ing through them at

20 to 30 mph. A typ­i­cal false al­ba­core weighs 8 to 12 pounds, though many spec­i­mens can push 20 pounds or more. Once hooked, they’ll scream off hun­dreds of feet of line, dig­ging well into your back­ing and putting a thick bend into your rod.

Al­bies ma­raud bait up and down the Outer Banks dur­ing the fall, but the big event gen­er­ally hap­pens be­tween At­lantic Beach, North Carolina, and 20 miles north of Cape Look­out. The fish of­ten hang around well into Novem­ber. Oc­to­ber is prime time. That’s of­ten when I head to Hark­ers Is­land for a four-day week­end. It’s a great launch­ing point with easy ac­cess to Barden and Beau­fort in­lets, as well as Cape Look­out.

Iron Woman

Smart an­glers who are new to the area will do well to hire a guide. Al­though it sounds as if catch­ing an al­bie is as easy as sling­ing a fly into a school of break­ing fish, well … it isn’t. Capt. Sarah Gard­ner and her hus­band, Capt. Brian Hors­ley, are well-known guides who have been fish­ing this fall blitz for al­most two decades. I’ve fished with them many times.

Gard­ner, one of the best an­glers and fly cast­ers I know — and now a good friend — met me at the dock early for my first al­ba­core trip, in 2010. She’s tough — an Iron Man triath­lete — and of­ten out­lasts my own fish­ing en­durance. When I am ready to head back to port and crack a cold one, she’s look­ing for more fish. Stow­ing our rods and gear that first day, Gard­ner asked, “What sort of fish­ing have you done?” I told her I’d fly-fished for stripers and other salt­wa­ter species but never for false al­ba­core. “You’ll get a work­out to­day,” she said. “It’s go­ing to be a lit­tle windy, too. How’s your cast­ing when the wind’s up?”

“Pretty good,” I an­swered, sheep­ishly. “Yeah, pretty good.”

Our boat headed east into the bright-orange orb climb­ing over the hori­zon. We wound our way in and out of the shal­low chan­nels to­ward Barden In­let, scar­ing up pel­i­cans, herons and other wa­ter­fowl. Cape Look­out Light­house jut­ted out of a sand-ringed pine for­est as a sort of ex­cla­ma­tion point in the mid­dle of the land­scape. Wild horses walked along the marsh grasses with a care­less, lazy gait. It was a daily rit­ual that’s dif­fi­cult to be­come bored with.

We rounded a bend into “The Hook,” an open ex­panse of wa­ter aptly hid­den be­hind a hook of sand in the coast. A school of large al­bies busted on sil­ver­sides. Gard­ner put me in po­si­tion with the wind in my face. I dou­ble-hauled my ass off, and as I whipped free my for­ward cast, a pile of line landed for­ward of the boat. A word to the wise: Don’t come here with­out prac­tic­ing your wind cast­ing. The wind blows a lot. Like, all the time.

I even­tu­ally man­aged to get my cast­ing to­gether and landed a pink and char­treuse Clouser in the face of a will­ing fish. Be­fore I knew it, the al­bie had hit the af­ter­burn­ers and was well into my back­ing. After an in­tense seven min­utes, my bi­ceps were burn­ing, I had a bruise in my gut from the rod butt, and I was hold­ing a healthy 18-pound false al­ba­core. (You can re­ally put the heat on an al­bie with a 10-weight rod and large-ar­bor reel.) Launch­ing the fish back into the wa­ter, I was in­stantly ad­dicted.

When al­ba­core work a pile of bait, the balledup school rarely sits still, and nei­ther do the al­bies. “By the time you lay down a cast, the al­bies are of­ten bust­ing 2 feet away from where they last broke the sur­face,” Gard­ner says. “Cast­ing to where you think they might be next is of­ten more im­por­tant than cast­ing to where they were sec­onds ear­lier.” On calmer days and with tighter balls of bait, it’s an eas­ier task. But days when fish are feed­ing and the wind lies down are rare.

A steady wind con­tin­ued to blow while we made our way to­ward Cape Look­out. On the beach were so-called “sand peo­ple,” a Star Wars ref­er­ence to the surf an­glers who camp out with pickup-bed rigs and tents dur­ing the run. Gard­ner threaded our boat through “The Slot,” where skip­pers with lo­cal knowl­edge can cut through Cape Look­out’s shoals.

Two miles east was a seabird tor­nado. With no other boats in sight, we sped off to in­ter­cept it. The scene re­sem­bled a pack of lions feed­ing on a re­cent kill on the Serengeti. Black tip and spinner sharks swam through a thick, red ball of bay an­chovies as al­bies picked off strag­glers around the fringes. When the sharks took a break, the al­bies blasted through the cen­ter of the ball and sent bait fly­ing. It’s enough to get any­one’s heart pump­ing.

As my epoxy fly hit the emer­ald green wa­ter, an ea­ger ablie wal­loped it. The ex­tra fly line around my feet peeled off as if I’d tied it to the back of a sports car. I landed the fish, and we got back into po­si­tion and re­peated. Mirac­u­lously, the bait ball held to­gether for at least 30 min­utes. I cried un­cle after the sev­enth fish and sat down to rest. “You tired?” Gard­ner asked, sar­cas­ti­cally.

“No, but I’ll be fine as soon as I can use my arms again,” I said. I slept very well that night.

The Pump­kin Patch

There’s a tight ca­ma­raderie among al­bie ad­dicts on Hark­ers Is­land, and by my third year I’d ce­mented bonds with some great peo­ple. Hugh Davis is an ac­com­plished pho­tog­ra­pher and birder, and a fine an­gler who has fly-fished for sail­fish in Gu­atemala, bones in the Ba­hamas and roosterfish in Baja. He trav­els from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Hark­ers Is­land each week­end dur­ing the run to en­joy the fish­ery.

At 5 a.m. one day that year, Davis was ty­ing flies and chug­ging cof­fee at the din­ing room

ta­ble. “Th­ese big white and char­treuse hal­fand-halfs are what we use for red drum,” Davis said. “Hope­fully we can find them to­day.” We’d rigged my 11-weight up the night be­fore with a 750-grain, full-sink­ing line. “We find them on top some­times, but they’re usu­ally feed­ing on the bot­tom. That line will get your fly down there.”

Some Cape an­glers tar­get al­bies and noth­ing else, but Davis prefers hunt­ing for big schools of red drum. “I like look­ing for the drum be­cause we can also fish for schools of al­bies that in­evitably pop up along the way,” he said. “It does in­volve a lot of motoring around, but if we find a school of reds to­day you’ll see that it’s to­tally worth it.”

We were head­ing north after work­ing a cou­ple of pods of al­bies along the beach when we saw a spinner shark launch about a mile away. Then two more went fly­ing. Davis put the throt­tle down. “That’s what we want to see,” he said.

There’s a the­ory that spinner sharks run with packs of red drum. “Maybe they eat red drum, or maybe they eat the bait the drum blitz,” Davis said. “But more of­ten than not, they’re a tip-off to some­thing hap­pen­ing un­der the sur­face.”

Noth­ing was ev­i­dent when we ar­rived. “Keep an eye on the fin­der,” Davis said. We mo­tored slowly, look­ing for signs of life. Then the fin­der lit up with wavy lines from about 15 feet to the bot­tom. “Drop it now!” Davis ex­claimed as I pitched a buck­tail be­hind the boat. I got no re­sponse, and the fin­der went clear. We con­tin­ued look­ing.

An­other spinner shark pirou­et­ted about a half-mile ahead of us. We wouldn’t need the fin­der this time. Just a quar­ter-mile away we found a large school of 40-plus-inch red drum stir­ring up the bot­tom as they blitzed a school of bunker. We cast buck­tails into the muddy melee, and all of us im­me­di­ately hooked up. We each landed our three fish and re­leased them, found the school again and hooked up once more. The co­op­er­a­tive school al­lowed us one more try. Be­fore it was over we’d each landed three world-class red­fish. You couldn’t have re­moved the grin from my face with a belt san­der.

Back at the dock that af­ter­noon, we sat around for an hour or more, slurp­ing suds and get­ting the lowdown from other skip­pers who had com­pa­ra­bly ex­cel­lent days. We said our good­byes as I packed my car with tackle un­til I could barely see out of the win­dows. As I made the eight-hour drive home, I felt im­mensely sad, but my smile was in­deli­ble.

No, fish­ing the Cape is not like this ev­ery day, but when you do get lucky — and yes, this sounds cliché — the place is pure magic.

(From left) Al­bie on a tear; Capt. Sarah Gard­ner guides a trio of an­glers who came from Fin­land to fish for false al­ba­core; a tro­phy red drum on the fly.

Capt. Sarah Gard­ner cra­dles a big al­bie (left); a tired speed­ster is about to be re­leased.

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