The birds were wheeling and diving over the massive school of baitfish as unseen predators from the depths attacked and drove the fish to the surface. The frantic bay anchovies were so thickly packed that they made a dark spot in the ocean, and all around splashes appeared on the surface as false albacore, affectionately called Fat Alberts, picked off any that happened to get separated from the pack. The little metal jigs we were casting into the melee with light spinning tackle were hit almost immediately upon being retrieved.
Albacore, also called little tunny and bonito in southern waters, are miniature members of the Scombrida family just like their gargantuan cousin, the bluefin tuna, which can attain weights approaching a ton. False albacore can grow to 30 pounds, but most encountered by light tackle anglers are in the 3 to 12 pound range. They are abundant. The most common tuna species, they are found in the Atlantic Ocean, and range throughout temperate and subtropical waters. In the U.S. they can be found as far north as Maine and as far south as the Florida Keys and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Unlike larger tuna species, they are frequently found close to shore and even in large bays and estuaries where they feed on small species of baitfish like silversides, bay anchovies, sardines and small menhaden. They are extremely aggressive predators, and what makes them so much fun to catch on light tackle is that they fight like their larger cousins—fast, strong and with a lot of stamina.
Albies migrate with the seasons, spending much of the winter in their southern haunts where they provide great sport on spinning tackle and fly rods. With spring they begin a northward migration that takes them up the Eastern Seaboard where they provide loads of fishing fun for anglers in Northern Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. By the time summer rolls around they can be found as far north as Massachusetts and Rhode Island where they will hunt bait schools around, inlets and areas where currents collide. The fall run southward finds large numbers of them off New York and New Jersey beaches heading back toward North Carolina.
The key to really enjoying fishing for false albacore is to match the tackle to the fish for maximum fun. Light spinning tackle is ideal for casting or fishing with bait, trollers prefer 12-to-20 pound outfits, and fly rodders consider them one of the best gamefish you can catch in saltwater. Because false albacore are creatures of currents, you can often find them around inshore areas where there are rips. They can be attracted to inshore lumps and structure, areas of the shoreline that extend into the ocean creating points and breaks. During the fall months in the Mid Atlantic, they will haunt inlets and breachways on an outgoing tide. Find areas holding schools of small baitfish and chances are albacore will be on the prowl.
False albacore have a well-developed sense of smell, and chumming can attract them from a considerable distance. One favorite technique is to anchor a boat on an inshore ridge or lump, and cut up handfuls of whatever small baitfish you can acquire. Then start tossing a few at a time into the water, creating a slick and scent trail for the fish to follow to your boat. Rig a light spinning rod loaded with 6-to-12 lb test with a short leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon and a small, light wire hook. Pin the hook in a whole baitfish, and float it back with the chum. You usually don’t have to wait very long before you find fish, or they find you. If you don’t get a bite, try adding a small split shot to the line a couple feet up from the hook to get your bait a little deeper.
When albies get on a school of baitfish and start feeding aggressively, small, shiny metal lures will catch them. Make long casts to where the baitfish are congregated, let the lure sink for a few seconds and start a quick, straight retrieve. Hits will usually come once the lure clears the school of bait, making it an easy target for the predators. This scenario is ideal for fly fishermen who prefer fishing for them with a six-or seven-weight outfit with a sink tip or moderate sinking line, light leader and flies that imitate the baitfish on which they feed. The cast is the same, to the baitfish school or area where the albies are creating the most commotion. Then let the fly sink and use a two-handed stripping technique to make the fly move as fast as possible through the water. When an albacore hits the fly, it will take it with abandon.
The waters surrounding Harkers Island and Cape Lookout attract albies by the tens of thousands each fall, and they have become a rallying point for fly fishermen from all over the world who enjoy tackling these great fighters. While they are tearing up the local baitfish populations, they are easy targets for well-cast flies and have become a big draw for the local economy.
There is plenty of information available about false albacore, when the fish are available in your area and where they tend to congregate. And it doesn’t take a lot of expensive tackle or exotic baits, lures or rigging to catch them. Most anglers release all the albies they catch because they are not particularly good to eat, but they more than make up for their poor palatability with the hoops and hollers you’ll be making when you hook one and it takes off like a little missile. False albacore might be tiny tunas, but they are great fighters and a wonderful source of fishing fun!