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September 21, 2007

Outsmart an Albie

When California albacore turn up their noses at trolled jigs, turn them on with these tricks.


The author hoists an albacore taken on a live-lined anchovy.

Legendary for their explosive strikes and dogged fights, albacore have long been a favorite target of blue-water anglers along the central California coast. What I love about these fish is their penchant for making unannounced house calls. It's a pure adrenaline rush when a school of these sleek bullets suddenly rips into your spread of trolling jigs, sending everyone scurrying for the rods.

On the other side of the coin, albies can be as selective as wild trout, and there are many times when crashing pods of longfins will ignore every trolling jig you show them. Such fussy tuna can drive you crazy, but fortunately there are a number of things you can do to spark their interest.

Jumpers and Tide Lines

When albies invade the north-central coast from July to October, it's common to see jumping fish along the 100-fathom line or the canyon edges, particularly around current seams and color changes. Water temperatures are on the rise, too, but not to the point where they would qualify as classic "tuna water." For example, the water can be blue-green and several degrees below 60. At times, weed lines also dot the area.

Another highlight of these "transition zones" is the abundance of bait. Upwellings along the canyon edges bring nutrients to the surface, resulting in plankton blooms that eventually attract huge bait schools - and big albacore. We're talking fish in the 30- to 50-pound range. Unfortunately, the combination of cooler water and an overabundance of bait can make these large tuna picky about what they eat. Albies don't get big by being stupid, but you can fool them by showing them what they're looking for - namely, live bait.

Outsmart an Albie
Outsmart an Albie
(top) Trolling swimming plugs can be an effective way to draw strikes from schools of hard-to-fool albacore. (bottom) Fish Trap swimbaits can be trolled, jigged or cast to surface-feeding albies.

"Green-water" albacore feed on a variety of prey, including squid, shortbelly rockfish and sauries. These baits can be difficult to obtain, but live anchovies and sardines can also be extremely effective. Fly-lining your baits on the run is the way to go when tuna are chasing bait on top and refusing to hit trolled jigs. When approaching a pod of breaking albacore I'll stop short of the action and allow the boat's forward momentum to carry me into the red zone before tossing out my bait.

React Quickly

Because these fish are moving fast, you have to react quickly. Select the friskiest bait from your tank and hook it crosswise through the nostrils, then lob it towards the fish, free-spooling line as the boat drifts forward.

Whether you are using anchovies or sardines, it's critical to match the hook to the size of your bait. Too big a hook will kill the action of your bait, and a shiny hook can turn the tuna off. I've had great success with Owner's Flyliner Hooks (model 5314) in sizes ranging from No. 1 to 3/0. Circle hooks can also be very effective, particularly the Owner Mutu Light (model 5314) in sizes No. 1 to 3/0.

If the drift is fast or your fishfinder indicates the albies and baitfish have moved deeper, attach a small rubbercore sinker two feet above the hook. When the fishing pressure is heavy, the albies and baitfish will often vacate the area or simply go deep, holding anywhere from 50 to 200 feet below the surface. These fish aren't going to come to the top for a while, so you have to get your bait down to them.

Outsmart an Albie
Albacore make for great sport on light tackle. Here, the author's brother, Abe, palms his reel to bring a hard-fighting albie to the surface.

To do this, bring some torpedo sinkers from four to 16 ounces. Tie your main line to one end of the sinker and attach a three- to four-foot section of 30- to 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader ending in a circle hook to the other. Finally, pin a big sardine or anchovy crosswise through the nostrils and drop it down to where you are marking fish. Stagger the lines so you can cover different levels of the water column. For example, if you are fishing four lines, drop two just below the level of the bait and the other two just above the bait. Set the drags light with the clickers on. When an albie grabs the bait, let it run a few feet before locking up and lifting the rod. Leave the other lines down and get ready for another bite.

Try a Trolling Plug

If your boat does not have a live well, try a diving plug, such as the Rapala CD11, CD14 or CD18 in green or blue mackerel finish. Similar lures from Braid, Yo-Zuri and Bagley also work well. Obviously, you should try to match the plug to the general size and color of the local baitfish.

Outsmart an Albie
Large albies are notoriously picky, but they have a hard time resisting live bait.

When dragging plugs, I usually fish four to five lines on trolling outfits. I use 5 1/2- to six-foot rods with 4/0 to 6/0 reels loaded with 40- to 50-pound, clear mono. I either tie my line directly to the plug or use a fluorocarbon leader.

I generally start off with two lines placed on the third wake and two lines on wakes five and six, along with a center line. Trolling speed varies. Albies will bite a slow-moving plug trolled at three knots, but in most cases I'll pull them at four to five knots. The Rapalas can be trolled at over eight knots without flipping over, which is handy when trying to keep up with fast-moving fish.

Try to get ahead of the school and pull the plugs in front of the lead fish. If you don't draw a strike, keep working the school by crossing in front and staying alongside of it. Don't run through the center of the school or you'll put the fish down.

When the albies are really skittish, I'll fish my lines well behind the boat, sometimes 100 to 150 yards back. It's hard to make turns with long lines, but sometimes that's what it takes to draw a strike.

Jigs and Swimbaits

Other items you can add to your arsenal include metal jigs and swimbaits. Braid Slammer jigs, Luhr Jensen Crippled Herrings and Stinger jigs can be deadly when cast to surface feeders, when dropping back after a trolling strike, or when vertical jigging for albacore in the depths.

Outsmart an Albie
When albies are on the move, position the boat well ahead of the school and pull a spread of swimming plugs in front of the lead fish.

When casting to busting fish, kill the engine well ahead of the school and allow the boat to coast within range. Make a long cast and allow the lure to sink, then start a fast retrieve interspersed with pumps of the rod tip. When an albie hits, wait until the line comes tight and the fish is moving away before lifting the rod.

Swimbaits are also great for casting to surface feeders. Several companies make these soft-plastic baitfish imitations, but my favorite is the Fish Trap swimbait in the 4 1/2- to six-inch sizes. All the natural baitfish patterns work, but the best is Channel Island Anchovy. Swimbaits should be fished on jigheads ranging in size from one to four ounces. They can be cast and retrieved over breaking fish, added to the trolling spread or vertical-jigged over deep-feeding albacore. Just make sure you bring plenty of extra baits, because the albies chew them up pretty quick. Of course, that's not a bad problem to have, especially when it comes to California's most notoriously fickle game fish.

Gear Preferences:

Fly-Lining

For fly-lining baits, I use a baitcasting reel loaded with 15- to 25-pound line and matched with a seven-foot live-bait rod. Using clear, low-visibility line definitely produces more strikes. Albacore have exceptional eyesight, and will often reject baits not fished on small-diameter mono or fluorocarbon line.

Spinning

If you prefer spinning gear, I recommend a reel that allows you to free-spool line with the bail in the closed position, such as the Penn Freeliner or Shimano Baitrunner. Load the reel with 15- to 20-pound mono and pair it with a seven-foot stick. If the fish are acting especially shy, tie the hook directly to the main line or use a two- to three-foot section of 25-pound fluorocarbon leader. Just remember to add a small ball-bearing swivel ahead of your leader or hook to avoid line twist.

- Angelo Cuanang

Outsmart an Albie
This feisty albacore was still a bit green on the gaff after hitting a trolled plug.

Outsmart an Albie
Deep-feeding tuna can be taken on live baits drifted above and below pods of baitfish marked on the depthsounder.