Fast Albert

An angler’s banner day at Cape Lookout

By Rip Woodin

What should a sports fanatic do on a sunny fall Saturday?

A. Go to Kenan Stadium

B. Tee it up in Pinehurst

C. Find a dove field

D. Chase false albacore in the ocean.

Answer: If you’re a fly fisher, D.

Sure, it’s fun to watch Tar Heel Ryan Switzer run back a punt, sink a long birdie putt or shoot a fast jinking dove, but none of those compares to the adrenaline rush of hooking a false albacore, then feeling this brute of a fish peel off 100 yards of line in seconds.

October is the best month of fly fishing when false albacore, Spanish mackerel and bluefish gorge on little baitfish as they prepare to migrate south. The false albacore — an offshore fish shunned by trolling charter boats because its flesh is inedible — come in close to shore in late August and peak in October and November or until chilling water (60 degrees) pushes the bait toward Florida. When the bait leaves, so do the albacore.

Up and down the North Carolina coast from Wrightsville Beach to Currituck, the false albacore season lasts two to three weeks in October, according to Capt. Allen Cain, a Wilmington-area guide. The good part is the waters near Wrightsville aren’t crowded, Cain added, since most boats are looking for Spanish and king mackerel, but the season is short and the fish smaller. The epicenter of action is up the Crystal Coast, from Swansboro to Cape Lookout.

A bucket list item for fly fishermen across the country, many anglers from “up north” put a week or two on their fall calendars every year to fish for “albies.” They risk what insurance agents call “AD&D” dragging their boats 500 miles down the I-95 racetrack. Funny accents fill up the spartan motels on Harkers Island, then at the Captain’s Choice or Fish Hook Grill. Yankees know this place rivals Cape Cod and Montauk for big action.

False albacore generate such fanaticism because they’re stronger than a bonefish on steroids. Bonefish swim fast when hooked; false albacore swim fast all the time. Built without a swim bladder, albacore must stay in perpetual motion. Their big forked tails would get them a ticket in a 35 mph speed zone. The fish will average five to eight pounds in the early season, but rise to 20 pounds in November when the bruisers show up — hence the nicknames “Fat Albert” and “Buffalo.”

Fishing with a fly rod is all about hunting the quarry, then sight casting to feeding fish. Blind casting is just arm exercise. The best way to find a school of false albacore is to look for birds diving, preferably terns. Birds see bait in the water and circle overhead. Albacore herd the bait into a ball, then force it to the surface for a shower of silver. By now the birds are in full throat, either calling their buddies or cheering on the albacore; it’s hard to tell which.

The albacore slash through the bait ball. Terns dip to the surface to grab pieces of fish. It’s a frenetic show of culinary mayhem that brings boats gunning to the blitz with anglers no-less-rabid-than-the-birds, frantically casting into the melee to hook an Albert before the fish dive deep. Sometimes a handful of fish will disband after just a few seconds if the bait is spread out. A big, tight bait ball will keep the fish at the table for 5-10 minutes or maybe longer. The gluttony continues until all the baitfish are eaten or manage to escape the marauders. A sheen of fish oil on the water tells the story.

“You should have been here yesterday!” — most fishing conversations start like that. Well, half a dozen years ago, I finally got to be there “yesterday”:

The sun had only been up at Cape Lookout for 30 minutes when we left the Harkers Island dock. The air was bright with anticipation as we ran down Back Sound toward the Barden’s Inlet channel that leads to the diamond-painted lighthouse. The marsh grass had traded its summer green for fall gold, glowing in the slanted rays of the early morning light. A fireball sun rose above the lighthouse.

The radio crackles, “She’s on 19.” “She” was a peregrine falcon that had stopped for a week-long break on her migration south. The sleek brownish-gray bird perched on a green channel marker perusing the breakfast menu. “That’s a good sign,” says Capt. Brian Horsley. A prophetic sign. Rounding the Hook at the cape and into the ocean, we followed birds and looked for the splashes that give away feeding fish.

By the time Brian says, “Get your rod,” I am already on the front of the boat, false casting to play out enough line to reach the fish flashing to the surface on nearly invisible bait. Cast and strip. Cast and strip. “Longer strips to move the fly; we’re floating forward,” barks Brian.

On the third strip, the line came tight. Half a second later — the fish took off for Europe. I hang on and grin. The reel buzzes. Brian folds his arms and grins back, satisfied. Guide and angler had done their job.

The next pod of albies didn’t take and disappeared after only showing for 20 seconds. “Must be males,” Brian says with a straight face.

“How can you tell?” I ask skeptically.

“Fear of commitment.”

A dozen squawking gulls several hundred yards away draw our attention. They are pushing and shoving to dive on the remnants of anchovies chewed by slashing green and silver torpedoes. Thousands of baitfish turn a bed-sized area into a rust-colored swirl being devoured by toothy predators. Bluefish eat anchovies. Spanish eat anchovies. Albacore eat anchovies. And the “brown suits” eat them all.

“Cast right in the middle!” Brian shouts.

“In the middle with those sharks?” Even I couldn’t miss a target that big. Two strips and the tug-of-war is on again. I horsed the fish in before the black tips could get a big bite of Little Tunny. Cast again, hooked up again. Despite the 15-knot wind, I am sweating while pumping and reeling. My tortured forearms feel like I’d done a hundred 10 pound curls.

Next we go looking on the east side of Cape Lookout. There’s a reason that the 163-foot-tall lighthouse was built on the Cape — the 21-mile stretch of shoals called the “Horrible Headland” and “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The shoals run north and south, often covered by only a few feet of water. Lots of mackerel, bluefish and false albacore pursue bait disoriented by the currents and waves. It’s fly fishing heaven although there could be hell to pay by the boat captain who doesn’t keep one eye on his depth finder and the other on the wave action.

After inviting three Spaniards to stay for dinner and releasing a few more Fat Alberts, the west wind gradually picks up, setting a trap for the greedy fishermen who linger too long on the wrong side of the shoals. We take heed and Brian sends the last albie home to the green depths. The howling wind hits us broadside with a saltwater shower like a cymbal crash as we head for quieter waters inside the Hook.

Tips for Anglers

Bring your own 8- to 10-weight rod. If using a guide, most will provide fly rods.

For fishermen with no fly rod experience, invest in a medium weight spinning rod, a good reel and a shiny lure like a Sting Silver. These can be fished from the beach as well.

A heavy-in-the-head floating fly line like a Rio Outbound Short will punch through fall winds. When fish are not busting the surface, switch to a 400-500 grain sink tip line to get a fly down deep in a hurry.

A 7- to 9-foot knotless leader tapered to a 16- or 20- pound tippet is pretty standard. Fluorocarbon is tougher and thinner than monofilament, which helps if the fish get leader-shy.

Try bait fish flies like the Clouser Minnow (pink, chartreuse or tan and white) on a number two hook Surf Candies sized to match the silversides bait. When the albacore get finicky, experienced anglers switch to a very small 1 to 2-inch epoxy fly in translucent white to match the tiny anchovies sometimes called “rain bait.”

Don’t forget a quality rain jacket with hood, splash pants or bibs, boots, stocking cap and gloves. Late in October and November the winds can blow hard, churning the ocean, so it can be wet and cold.

Employ the expertise of a fly fishing guide. Wilmington anglers, try Allen Cain, www.sightfishnc.com. Brian Horsley and his wife, Sarah Gardner, can be reached at www.outerbanksflyfishing.com. Try Jake Jordan, www.jakejordan.com. If albies aren’t tough enough for you, he can put you on a blue marlin or sailfish on a fly — if that’s even fathomable.

Rip Woodin, after a 44-year career in the newspaper business, is a full-time fly fisherman, golfer and writer.

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