The Shore Game
September 20, 2019
Running & gunning for the Northeast's Premier saltwater gamefish
The false albacore run is one of the most anticipated annual events along the Atlantic seaboard from Cape Cod to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The albie season is somewhat predictable, but their exact arrival varies year to year, as does the duration of the run, which is relatively brief—typically four to six weeks after they first appear.
Compared to other popular gamefish, such as striped bass, this flash-in-the-pan appearance fuels an “albie mania” that disrupts the lives of countless Atlantic coast fly fishers who become consumed with chasing them. Albacore (also known as little tunny) are arguably the most sensational fish you can pursue inshore. They are fast, powerful, sometimes fickle, other times ferocious, often exasperating, and never boring.
Pursuing little tunny by boat is a popular approach, and there are savvy, well-equipped guides throughout the albacore’s range who boat hundreds of fish each season for their anglers, and double-digit daily landings are common. In contrast, pursuing albacore from shore is a far tougher and more challenging game, but the excitement and rewards are worth it. Nearshore schools (often referred to as “pods”) are smaller than those often seen by boat anglers, typically holding a dozen or fewer albies. These fast-moving fish surface suddenly, as they blast nearshore bait and then evaporate in seconds, providing one-shot opportunities (two, if you’re lucky) to connect with an emerald bullet. This facet alone heightens the shore challenge, and gets the adrenaline pumping like no other game in the Northeast.
Consistent success from shore requires an understanding of coastal structures that are favorable for albacore feeding. That knowledge, combined with diligent observation and awareness of bait school locations, enables anglers to anticipate where and when the fish will appear, and plan strategies and positions to effectively intercept them.
False albacore are pelagic nomads, spending much of their lives dispersed throughout tropical and temperate latitudes of the Atlantic high seas. But each fall they invade inshore waters from Cape Cod to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to gorge on seasonally abundant bait. Northeast hot spots include Martha’s Vineyard, Rhode Island’s Atlantic shores including Block Island, throughout Long Island Sound from Stonington, Connecticut to New York City, the Atlantic shores of Long Island, the Jersey Shore, and the waters surrounding Cape Lookout and Harker’s Island in North Carolina.
In the Northeast, albacore typically appear in late summer. September’s declining sunlight and dry air produce long, clear nights that chill surface waters with radiant overnight cooling, triggering the migratory itch in both bait and game. False albacore arrive to feast on the bait exiting fertile interior waters. These predators arrive from the east, rather than the south as with spring striped bass. They first appear off Martha’s Vineyard and advance west and south to Rhode Island, Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and beyond. Tunny are nomadic, always in search of food, and never lingering anywhere for long.
The presence or absence of the right bait makes or breaks an albacore season. Albies prefer anchovies, silversides, sand eels, and juvenile bunker over other prey. Mysteriously, many of these bait species may not appear each season. Other years there are countless numbers of all of them. But when any of these baitfish are present in good numbers, the albacore always follow—it’s that simple. The run advances southward through the end of November with a New England peak in September, top Long Island and Jersey Shore action in October, and November prime time in North Carolina. Seasons with notable tropical weather activity (depressions, and pass-by storms) often produce exceptional albacore fishing. The influx of warm offshore Gulf Stream surface water that’s pushed landward by passing tropical depressions appears to be the reason. Offshore schools of albacore are perhaps nudged further landward, as well.
False albacore in the Northeast range from 5 to 15 pounds. They are tuna—not bonito—and are the smallest species in the tribe. They are fast and powerful creatures. When hooked from shore, tunny routinely rip the fly line and 150 yards of backing—sometimes more—from the reel on their opening run. In contrast to boat fishing, where they quickly sound into relatively deep water and the struggle becomes vertical and at times monotonous, shore-hooked albies have nowhere to go but away, as they strive to stay with their school or flee to the horizon. This, coupled with the raw excitement of making split-second presentations to fast-moving schools, makes the shore game electrifying.
Unlike striped bass that hold in currents, rips, or other structure to ambush prey as it comes to them, pods of albacore are always on the move, scanning overhead against the bright surface for the silhouette of concentrated prey, which they hit hard, and then move on to the next school. Stripers and blues often “corral” such concentrated bait for relatively long periods of surface feeding. In contrast, a shoreline albie blitz of 10 seconds is luxurious. Consistent success relies on smart positioning, with sensible repositioning as necessary, to capitalize on these momentary feeding sprees.
Strategies and Tactics
Inlets serve as conduits between protected interior waters, such as salt ponds and estuaries, and the open ocean. These waters are nurseries for many forage species that spawn in the spring and reside in these waters until they gradually move seaward in late summer, becoming the powerful magnet that draws little tunny to our inshore waters.
The best action occurs during the incoming tide when departing baitfish must inch their way seaward against the current. The tide impedes their progress, often causing them to become concentrated. This outbound bait naturally seeks a swim lane very near jetty walls where currents are weakest. This further concentrates it, creating a perfect albie feeding opportunity. A smart approach here would be to locate a thick bait school and patiently post up nearby till the albacore find it and ravage it.
When the fish are surfacing often, I prefer to hold my cast till they explode, then I pitch my fly to them. The key to hooking up here is presenting your fly ahead and directly in the path of blitzing fish before bringing it to life with a slow retrieve. This approach keeps your fly in the action for the longest period of time. There’s no need for an albie to abandon concentrated bait for a lone fast-moving minnow. They have the ability to approach, eat, or refuse food or fly with lightning speed, which confounds newcomers who expect quick strikes from such aggressive creatures. This is a game of playing the odds—get your fly in front of the fish as often as you can, for as long as possible, and eventually the strike will come . . .
But if you sense that tunny are passing through the vicinity, staying deep and just not surfacing, repetitive blind casting close to the jetty wall with a sinking line and a slow retrieve can be effective. Many positions along the jetty wall are viable, but jetty points are ideal. Albies entering or exiting an inlet often pass very close to the jetty tips, making points perfect blind-casting positions.
Breakwalls (jetties not associated with inlets) effectively concentrate bait and allow anglers immediate access to relatively deep water, making them ideal structures for pursuing false albacore. They’re often productive early in the day, as overnight bait concentrations linger close by, or when prevailing winds nudge surface bait into the wall, concentrating it and creating an attractive feeding opportunity. As with inlets, posting yourself near concentrated bait and patiently waiting for albacore to surface nearby is a smart approach. The action can be frenzied, as pods of fish race along the foot of the wall, surfacing only to crash bait schools with no advance warning. Relatively short casts of 50 feet or less present your fly close to the wall where the fish are actively feeding.
Little tunny feed off ocean beaches, too. But with no structure or appreciable current to direct bait movement in this environment, the fish are less predictable. You may spot albies zipping through the waves in search of bait, or observe sporadic surface boils during calm surf conditions as they sequentially hit bait schools nestled near the shoreline.
Chasing fast-moving albies running along the beaches is futile. Instead, carefully scan the water with polarized glasses for concentrated bait along the shore, and patiently stay with that school until the albies arrive. The corners where a beach abuts a beach groin or other natural structure become “traps” that stall migrating bait, creating ideal locations to await for albies. Shoreline bait is typically more dispersed than along jetty structures, however, and blitzes become more spread out and often persist longer. I recommend peppering these blitzes with repetitive casting and slow retrieves that span the action zone. As soon as you sense your fly is no longer in the zone, quickly pick up and recast into the action until you hook up, or the fish move on. Expect very long runs from fish hooked along the beach, as these fish often try to stay with their pod.
Flies & Equipment
Despite their apparently aggressive feeding, tunny are selective eaters, and many tunny-specific patterns have emerged over the years to replicate the small baitfish they prefer. Important common features with most successful albie flies are slim profile, a mix of pearl and silver flash material, and a silhouette that’s opaque in front and translucent in back when viewed from below—silversides, anchovies, and sand eels all appear this way.
Although they have exceptional vision, albacore spend the majority of their lives in oceanic blue water, and likely only perceive color in the blue-green spectrum (the rest appearing as shades of gray). Not surprisingly, blue, green, pink, and white flies are proven colors.
Synthetic or natural materials tied sparsely achieve this ghost-like appearance. Epoxy, silicone, or resin minnows (Bob Popovics Surf Candy), sparse Deceivers, and Dave Skok Mushmouths in lengths that match the prevalent bait are effective. I recommend wide-gap, chemically sharpened J-hooks, such as Gamakatsu’s SC-15 in sizes 1 and 1/0, and Daiichi 2546 saltwater hooks in sizes 2 and 1 for albacore. They set easily in hard, bony mouths, rarely come loose, and extraction is quick and easy to support a healthy release.
Use 8- and 9-weight rods. When the action is on the surface, use intermediate lines to keep the fly high in the water column. They’re easy to pick up for recasting, two important advantages when sight-casting to surfacing fish. When the fish are deep, fast sinking-tips get your fly down 5 or 6 feet in the water column and yield more hook-ups.
Recently, I’ve explored surface flies and floating lines for the adrenaline rush this approach might provide. Though not as explosive as I had imagined, it’s an exciting and unique experience—the fish rise suddenly and “snatch” the fly off the surface with mercurial quickness, leaving little evidence of a strike.
Focused visual tracking of the fly and—oddly—a trout set is in order to seal a hook-up . . . much like Atlantic salmon fishing with a bomber. I use a white Jack Gartside Gurgler loaded with pearl flash in the tail and trace it along the surface with a slow, steady two-hand retrieve to raise fish from the depths. Surface fishing is not the most effective method, but it’s an interesting alternative on a day when you already have a few albies under your belt.
Your reel should be sturdy with a smooth drag that can withstand repeated powerful runs. Wide-arbor reels preserve the spool diameter, which provides two benefits—the large diameter of reserve backing ensures smooth, consistent drag after a long run, and it amplifies your retrieval rate when reeling in after those long runs. Use 200 yards of 20-pound Dacron or 30-pound gel-spun braided backing.
Tunny are generally not leader shy, and 10- to 12-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders are fine. I prefer a simple, knotless 7- to 9-foot straight piece of 12-pound-test fluorocarbon.
Stripping baskets make line management much easier, and make sure your line is ready when albies suddenly appear. The raw excitement of albacore fishing can easily lead to line tangles in these difficult environments . . . often at the worst possible time.
*Alan Caolo has been an outdoor writer and photographer for more than 25 years and is a frequent contributor to Fly Fisherman. He has published two books, Fly Fisherman’s Guide to Atlantic Baitfish & Other Food Sources (1995) and Sight-Fishing for Striped Bass (2001). He lives in Westerly, Rhode Island.