The Real Thing 2
As summer approaches in Southern California, anglers start paying even closer attention to area conditions. They know that when the current, water temperature and bait all come together the right way, their favorite brawlers will likely come within 100 miles of shore, placing them within range of SoCal’s sport-fishing fleet. The ensuing affliction is a seasonal one that seizes a sizable number of saltwater fishermen. In the past few years, the West Coast version of “albie fever” has also started plaguing a growing number of fly-fishermen. Locals call them either longfins or albies, but these albacore are definitely not the false ones that fly-anglers up and down the East Coast commonly seek — these are the real things.
I caught the fever early on when my family moved to Southern California in the late 50s. I became a regular on the partyboat scene and probably logged hundreds of trips fishing the albies with live anchovies, a fishery that forms the mainstay of this area. Then, as now, for excitement as well as challenge, albacore are far and away the top-ranked game fish for West Coast anglers. In fact, it was this white-meat member of the tuna family, Thunnus alalunga, that actually spawned the development of SoCal’s offshore partyboat fleet. Unlike their yellowfin cousins, albacore typically don’t venture close to shore. As reflected in their migration routes, albies are true ocean roamers. They swim from Japan, across the Pacific, to the midregion of the Baja Peninsula and on up the California coast, sometimes traveling as far north as British Columbia. Then they head back to Japan. A publication from Scripps Institute in La Jolla indicates that during this 5,300-mile trek, they cover an average of no fewer than 16 miles per day. Food (primarily in the form of anchovies, sardines and sauries) and water temperatures (62 to 68 degrees is their preferred range) will determine their swimming routes, but it’s a generally accepted fact that you seldom find big schools of albacore within 20 miles of shore. Thirty-five to 40 miles would be considered a short run, while trips of 100 miles or more are not uncommon. Hence, if you’re setting your sights on albacore, you need a true oceangoing craft.
**The Lone Ranger
**Although I did it many times in the past because it was practically my only option, the large oceangoing long-range partyboats typical in SoCal do not make ideal fly-fishing platforms. When a marauding school of albacore is being showered with aggressive offerings of live anchovies and you are the only one on the boat trying to get a fly to it, you feel like a tax assessor at a property owners’ meeting. The exception is trips specially designated as fly-fishing only. An even better alternative is private charters for up to six anglers on sport-fishing boats. Whatever boat you choose, aside from the standpoint of safety and the capability for long-range runs, a critical factor in boat design for albacore fishing is the ability to carry a significant amount of live bait.
My first shot at longfin on fly came in the early ’70s on a friend’s sport-fisher that he rigged for striped marlin. I always brought fly gear aboard in the faint hope of having a chance to cast to marlin when they corralled a school of bait, but that never happened. On this particular trip, instead of marlin, we ran into roving schools of skipjack about 80 miles southwest of San Diego. We wanted to get the trolling outfits in as quickly as possible so we could fish with lighter tackle; in all the rush one of the big-game outfits went overboard. I dove in and actually caught the line from the trolling rod, but all I could think of was getting back into the boat so I could present a fly to these metabolic dynamos. After nailing four or five skipjacks, I connected with my first albacore when they joined in for the feeding spree. As I discovered then, when albacore mix with skipjack, it’s difficult to catch them because the skippies usually beat the albies to the fly. But I still managed to connect with four albacore that day, and I was hooked.
**Needle in a Haystack
**As with any fishing, you first have to locate your quarry, so, particularly with albacore, modern electronics like depth sounders and radar are an absolute must. Nevertheless you shouldn’t abandon the age-old practice of keeping your eyes peeled for activity like diving birds or surface disturbances. The most efficient and direct way of finding a school of albacore is by trolling. You can take fish by immediately casting a fly after a fish hits a trolled lure.
But to draw the school to the boat for consistent action, you need to chum with live bait, primarily anchovies. Factors like the number of trolling stops and the willingness of the albacore to feed will determine the amount of chum you’ll need to dispense on any given trip, but you can expect to go through several handfuls per stop at the least. And although you won’t fish with the bait, it’s important to keep it in good condition. Badly bruised and lethargic anchovies and sardines will not draw albies to the boat as well as healthy baits will. That’s why bigger boats in the 30-plus-foot category work best for albacore fishing. Not only do their larger tanks enable these boats to carry ample quantities of bait, but also if the tanks are properly installed and maintained, most of the bait will make it to the fishing grounds in good condition. It also helps to have a mate on board who knows how to chum effectively. When and where to pitch another ‘chovy is not random if you want to fly-fish effectively, and a mate who knows how to pitch baits to keep albies close and hungry is worth his weight in gold.
**Planning the Assault
**If you don’t have access to an oceangoing vessel or are inexperienced in seamanship and navigation, the most prudent alternative is to charter a boat. An additional consideration is the fact that given their propensity to travel great distances, more so than other members of their clan, albacore tend to be a here-today-gone-tomorrow type of species. So when you’re looking for a charter, get a captain who has been fishing albacore on a regular basis. Conditions can, and indeed often do, change daily. In season, most crews track the movements of these fish closely.
After finding an experienced captain to put you onto fish, the second order of business is to have a game plan. Much like pursuing billfish on fly, fly-rodding albacore requires teamwork. Because trolling is the principal means of locating fish, you need a strategy from the moment you hook the first one. When you hook an albacore on a trolling line, you must bring it to the boat as quickly as possible because if that fish is lost, there’s a good chance it will spook the rest of the school. Consequently, trolling tackle, which can be as simple as hand lines, must be stout enough to efficiently subdue these fish. The number of trolling lines depends on your preference and the size of the boat, but two is an absolute minimum. Whatever the number of rods, someone must quickly clear the trolling lines so anglers can cast without the likelihood of costly tangles.
Again, casting efficiency depends on the size of the boat, but generally, having only one angler cast after the initial hookup proves most effective. According to your casting arm, cast from the stern corner where the line will pass outside the cockpit. If one angler is right-handed and another a lefty, with the trolling lines cleared it’s possible to have both cast at the same time. Two casters are also possible if one angler makes a backcast presentation. Otherwise, establish a rotational pattern: Have one angler cast and then move out of the corner so a second angler can slide in and cast from the same spot. You could also have one angler fly-fish until he or she hooks a fish, whereupon a second angler steps into the corner and begins casting.
To effectively fly-fish under these conditions, the one auxiliary item I would not forgo is a stripping basket. You could get lucky and have the line simply fall on deck, but there’s a near certainty that you or someone else will step on it. Equally frustrating, it will eventually hang up on some seemingly innocuous object, causing you to lose precious casting time. A basket with a plain bottom or even a 5-gallon bucket on the deck is better than no basket at all. But to minimize the chances of the line fouling on itself when you’re maneuvering on deck, insert a half-dozen or so 6-inch spikes up through the bottom (plastic electric ties work great for this). You can also make a very effective basket from a dishpan or plastic container with a bungee cord for a belt for less than $10.
Typically, the albacore caught in Southern California waters range from 10 to 40 pounds. In the beginning of the season, which can start as early as June, fish tend to be on the smaller side of the scale, while those in the latter part of the season, which can sometimes continue past Thanksgiving, are larger specimens. Average-sized albies range from 18 to 25 pounds. Given this weight class and the fact that you are fishing the open ocean, the ideal outfit is an 11- or 12-weight. Albacore will make blistering runs into the depths, and you need a rod with backbone to pump them back to the surface. These rods are also ideal for the fast-sinking lines that work best for this type of fishing. Though albacore can put on some mind-blowing surface blitzes when they decide to annihilate a chum line, more often than not your best shot will occur at least several feet down. When fishing live bait or casting jigs, the presentations that sink fastest consistently draw the most strikes, so assume the same thing for flies. Also at midday and with warmer water temperatures, albacore tend to swim deep. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, as they seem to effortlessly glide along with their long pectoral fins extended like wings. But it can also be frustrating because they can become very selective and refuse to come up. For that reason I like to use weighted flies.
When albacore are feeding, it makes accounts of Roman gluttony orgies seem like fasting rituals. At these times, they will eagerly strike just about anything you offer them. However, since they feed primarily on anchovies and sardines, you can’t go wrong with baitfish patterns like Clousers, Deceivers, Sar-Mul-Macs and Jiggies. For color combinations, I rely on the formulas that have worked for decades on the trolling rigs. As a general guideline, in the low-light conditions you find in the gray dawn hours and on overcast days, darker colors like black or green and yellow are good choices. As light increases, you may want to change to red-and-white or red-and-yellow flies. At midday, blue and white is my first choice. Sizewise, try to simulate the baits you’re throwing as chum. For anchovies and sardines, this will generally range from 2 to 6 inches.
Because they belong to the superathletic tuna family, albacore will challenge you and your tackle. This is one style of fishing where the reel plays a vital role in fighting the fish, so go with the best you can afford. Normally you can expect an initial run of at least 100 yards or more, and the drag should remain absolutely smooth. In the course of making several sprints, albacore sometimes veer toward the boat, which can create slack in the line. I’ve lost a number of fish in these situations. But the advent of large arbor spools has made it much less of a problem as I can now pick up line faster.
When fishing live bait, albacore can become line shy; however, that usually doesn’t happen with artificials, so 16- and 20-pound-test tippets work fine. Albacore do not have cutting teeth like larger yellowfin, so a bite leader isn’t necessary. The simplest leader setup is a straight 3- to 4-foot section of class tippet. I tie a bimini loop in one end, fold the loop over itself, then tie a double surgeon’s loop and interlock this to the loop in the tag end of the fly line. The fly is tied directly to the tag end of the class tippet. Over the years, I’ve used both loop knots to allow the fly more action on the retrieve and standard ties like the improved clinch and palomar knot, but I really haven’t found any difference between the two. Just be sure to tie your knots properly, because any weak spot will surely spell disaster with fish of this caliber.
Contrary to some misconceptions, it isn’t necessary to try to burn the fly through the water to draw strikes, although I do use a fairly rapid retrieve, often with two hands for better line control. When I get a strike, I simply apply resistance by holding the line firmly. Given the speed at which albies are traveling when they take an offering, there’s no need to strike back violently. If you do you’ll pop the leader. When they feel that initial shock of resistance, they’re going to accelerate, so your first priority is to make sure that any remaining line clears the rod guides. After that, just hang on and relish the awesome display of power emptying line from your reel. Pretty soon, you, too, will be anxiously awaiting the next season’s “fever.”