Sight Fishing for False Albacore in the Fall
by Bill Morris

Saltwater fly fishing has its roots tangled up with the mangroves’ on the shallow marl-and-turtle grass flats of South Florida. So it may simply be tradition that drives saltwater fly anglers toward “sight fishing”—the technique of seeking out specific fish and attempting to cast right into their feeding window. Sight fishing is most often associated with Florida species--bonefish, permit, and tarpon--but the sport’s purists can also try their hand right here in North Carolina, during the false albacore season.

“You can definitely catch them in skinny water,” says Captain Rob Pasfield, sitting on a bench at the Harkers Island Fishing Center. He and his Jones Brothers Cape Fisherman, Last Cast, are just back from a charter. “There’s a number of places we look. Sometimes they’re right in against the marsh grass, but conditions need to be just right.”

False Albecore

The false albacore (aka, “little tunny,” “albert,” or “albie”) is a migratory species that first shows up along the capes and beaches of North Carolina any time between Labor Day and mid-October. By the first of November they are usually in schools and smaller pods near inlets and around any structure that holds baitfish—such as a sand flat. Flocks of screaming birds give them away as the fish dart at high speed through the schools of bait, “busting” on the surface and often going completely airborne. The spectacle of an all-out blitz is a sight to behold, and it’s what keeps both fly- and spin-fishermen coming back for more.

False Albacore resemble a number of other species, including bonito and skipjack tuna. People who claim to know say they are actually tunas. But, according to Fishery Bulletin Number 74 of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, false albacore, Euthynnus alleteratus, is a member of the mackerel family (scombridae). Their bloody meat and strong taste make them worthless as a food fish. Fishermen trolling for king mackerel and other more desirable species have long considered the hard-fighting false albacore a nuisance.

Then, in the mid-90’s, the fly fishermen got into the act. Fish that can give you a pretty good workout on 30-pound trolling gear will really put a bend in a 9- or 10-weight fly rod.

False Albie on the fly

About seven years ago, the false albacore fishery around Cape Lookout was “discovered” and Harkers Island became a major destination on the fly fishing circuit. The fishery was pioneered by NCCU law school professor Tom Earnhardt (among others), promoted by outdoors writer Joel Arrington (among others), and sent into orbit by an episode of ESPN’s “Walker’s Cay Chronicles” that featured the host, Flip Pallot, casting to “alberts” with the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the background.

“After that show, the phone started ringing,” says Rob Pasfield. “We were suddenly on the map.” He recalls that prior to 1995 he and Bill Harris were the only fly fishing guides available on Harkers Island. Since 1996 professional fly fishing captains have flocked to Cape Lookout from as far away from Massachusetts and Florida. The anglers, too, have traveled thousands of miles to chase alberts.

“I’ve had people come all the way from England,” says Captain Sam Sellars. He has put TV show host Chris Mills onto the fish, as well as Bob Clouser, a Pennsylvania native famous for inventing the most popular and versatile saltwater fly of them all, the Clouser Minnow. Neither of those celebrity anglers required the security detail (submarine included) that accompanied another of Sellars’ clients, former President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Despite its growing popularity, the sport is still young, and most of the action has been in deeper water. But when the bait is thick enough and the tide high enough, shallow water flats provide some of the most exciting action. In these environments, three feet deep and sometimes less, fishing for alberts more closely approximates the sight fishing experience sought after by fly anglers who have traditionally targeted bonefish, permit, and tarpon.

“You’ll often see them cruising over a spot like this at high tide,” says Sellars, watching from the poling platform of his high-tech flats skiff as a school of finger mullets scoots across a sandy-bottom area several football fields in size. “You don’t see them busting in here, but you can see them swimming around, eating like crazy. Their backs show up as neon green.” He recommends adjusting your tackle to a floating fly line, 12-pound fluorocarbon tippet, and flies that are lightly weighted and less flashy. The typical 1/0 chartreuse-and-pink Clouser minnows weighted with lead eyes aren’t well suited to sight fishing conditions.

The presentation sounds deceptively easy—you simply throw the fly in front of a fish or group of fish, and strip. But false albacore don’t seem to have a low gear, and their speed across the flat can make their green neon backs appear slightly blurred. Even experienced fly anglers can get “albie fever” and throw a cast that is too late, too short, or too tangled to catch anything but grief from the guide.

False albacore are big, strong fish accessible in small boats and suitable for fairly light tackle. Maybe the only drawback is their migratory nature; they’re only here for two or three months in the fall.

Or, are they?

“This past March the fishing was so good it was sick,” says Sellars. “The albies were here, they were eating, and hardly anybody was even looking for them.”

Pole to the spot

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No flies? No problem.

Don’t be intimidated into thinking false albacore fishing is only for fly fishermen. These magnificent fish are plenty of fun on spinning gear, especially when you find them in a place suitable for sight fishing. Grubs used in speckled trout fishing can catch alberts, but stick with tails that are gray or beige, not bright green. New flavored soft-body baits, such as the Hybrid, work well. These sometimes have the weight built in, or you can insert nail weights through the head to get a lure that casts well but won’t immediately snag on the bottom.

In deeper water, the Stingsilver is usually the plug of choice, although plain (and inexpensive) white bucktail jigs will catch fish.

When targeting alberts, make sure you’ve got plenty of fresh line and a drag that’s smooth and adjusted to be fairly loose. An ideal outfit would be a Penn 4500 loaded with 15-pound test on a rod with plenty of flex but enough power in the butt to lift a very strong 20-pound fish.
Bill Morris lives and works in Straits in Down East Carteret County. That same sound country is the setting for his first novel, Saltwater Cowboys. Morris is a regular contributor to Our State, NCBoatinglifestyle, and Wildlife in North Carolina magazines, as well as the Raleigh News and Observer outdoors pages. More at: