Fabulous Florida False Albacore
By Capt. Scott Hamilton
By Capt. Scott Hamilton
In recent years, false albacore have created quite a stir in the fly rod community. Though, for some time, a few anglers have been aware of the great sport these fish provide, the word has gotten out.
A tougher, faster, harder hitting fish is not to be found wandering the beaches of the northeast, and they cause major delight for anglers finding themselves in a vicinity of a school of the speed demons.
Racing down beaches and surf lines in the fall devouring silversides and sandeels, watching these things feed at twenty miles an hour is a thrill. And they’ve caught on as a viable fly rod target in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where a fall fishery has developed for the time that they are there.
Well, here’s a small secret that a lot of people, who have gotten addicted to the kind of madness a false albacore creates on the end of a fly line, may not be aware of. While they visit the entire eastern seaboard, they live in Florida. Year round. In all sizes from tiny one to three pound flocks of so called “bullets” that are perfect four and six weight fish to the trophy, breakout the twelve weight, fifteen to eighteen pound and up beasts. And very few people actually fish for them. They don’t meet the criteria of a “good” fish due to their meat being less than palatable. So, they are largely unmolested and available to the few chasing them.
Where: The area between Miami and Stuart Florida has an almost continuous reef running the length of the coast that varies in distance from less than one mile,(offshore Miami ’till it reaches Palm Beach) to about six to eight miles offshore Stuart. This reef is the main focal point of the false albacore. Often they can be found running the schools of baitfish along the beach into a panic, but the majority of the fish will be found in sixty to two hundred feet of water.
When: In the area surrounding Palm Beach where I guide, the first big false albies start showing up in late March. There are roving packs year round, but the fall and winter fish can be tough to locate with any regularity. What I call fishable numbers of fish arrive in late March, just about the time the cold fronts lessen enough for water temperatures to climb into the mid-seventies. The numbers continue to increase through April until reaching a crescendo in early May. Large schools of fish will remain in the area through July and into August, when they remember that they need to pay a visit to North Carolina and move out for the most part. Which is OK, a four month season of these beasts is pretty hard on ones body. And just about the time they leave, dolphin fishing as well as other species such as wahoo, sailfish and skipjack tuna heat up.
How: These fish can be caught using the traditional, purist type, techniques. You can cast directly to fish crashing bait on the surface. The predominant prey you’ll find them crashing are small flying fish, sardines, pilchards, and small Sargasso fish. You want to approach the action as quietly as possible and set up a drift that will bring you within reach. Running up on the school is a good way to put them down in a hurry, and when they come back up, if they come back up, they’ll probably be several hundred yards off. At times, though mostly they’ll hammer anything that looks good, they can be very single minded in what they’re feeding on, so try to identify what it is they’re eating and match your fly accordingly. Blue/ white flies to resemble flying fish, small yellow flies to match the baitfish that hang around the clumps of Sargasso weed and green/ white flies should cover most situations. Clouser minnows take a good number of fish, but the water clarity, often more than a hundred foot, makes a very realistic fly with eyes, such as a Deceiver, 3-D Fly or my own pattern, the EATME more productive patterns. Having some small squid patterns is a good idea also for when they’re on the menu.
One of my favorite ways of fishing them is going deep on fast sinking lines. The line I use mostly for this is WetCel IV lines by SciAnglers.. This line will get a fly down better than sixty feet depending on how strong the current is. I do not recommend any sink tip lines, or lines that have any floating running lines for doing this technique. The objective is to get deep, and a floating running line defeats this. I also don’t recommend a line that is so heavy you can’t cast it fast or accurately. The nice thing about the SciAngler line is that it’s not so heavy that you can’t hit something on the surface if the chance arises. If you can, have a rod set up with a super fast sink line in case the fish are holding very deep. Deepwater Express by SciAnglers or a leadcore line, both with a sinking running line will scratch the one hundred foot mark and deeper.
This is a simple technique that anyone can use, regardless of their ability. Basically, you mark a concentration of fish on the fishfinder, or get into an area where you know the fish to be and send the lines deep. Then adjust the speed of your retrieve till the fish cooperate. Most of the time a moderate to fast stripping action will entice a strike, but some days a dead drifted fly will be what they want and other days going warp speed on the retrieve will be necessary. The most fun about this kind of fishing is that on a Florida reef, you can never tell just what is going to take a liking to your fly. Not only false albacore, but also Spanish and king mackerel, jack crevalle, cobia, assorted runners, dolphin, and barracuda will come along. I’ve even had sailfish, wahoo and several kinds of tuna taken on this method. There is another method I’ve been playing with that is reserved for days when the ocean is a touch on the rough side, or the fish are hard to locate. It’s basically the same bait and switch technique used for billfish. Dragging hookless teasers until the fish start chasing it, reeling it within casting distance, yanking the teaser out of the water and replacing it with a fly. Small rubber squids, plastic lures, almost anything resembling food can be used as teasers.
But hands down, the most insane way of getting into a marathon session
of knock down, dragout battles with the false albies is to live chum them.
If done correctly, this method will put you in the situation of being forced to admit your limitations. Think a twelve or fifteen pound false albie is tough to fight on fly gear? Think about having to do multiple fights, back to back, with no break. Live chumming means this with false albacore…. if you don’t want to be hooked to one, DON’T put your fly in the water. That includes setting your rod down and leaving your fly trailing in the water next to the boat. Very bad things will happen if you do this. I once saw a two piece rod turned into a five piece rod in a nanosecond this way. Myself included, I know nobody who can stand more than a half day of this extreme fly fishing without several recovery breaks. I know of few types of fly fishing that’ll have you dripping sweat like this will, and it’s not from the temperature.
There is some specialized equipment needed to make chumming with live bait work. Several hundred baits are a minimum to do this effectively, so a large livewell with very good circulation is a must. The live baitfish you’ll be throwing by the handful must be in good condition. A constant supply of fresh seawater pumping fast enough to create good turbulence is what is needed to keep the baits lively. Using dead chum baits will work, but while the albies like deadbait OK, they LOVE liveies.
A large cast net attached to someone who knows how to throw it will make acquiring the baits fairly quick and easy. Usually the large schools of pilchards, sardines and menhadden show up at the same time the false albacore do. Tracking them down will only take some research. The last thing needed is at least one extra set of hands. Two extra is better. This is not something to be done solo. Once you’ve gotten into the area where the fish are, and several handfuls of baitfish have rung the dinner bell good and loud, someone must keep a small, but steady, stream of food entering the water or the fish will leave and you’ll need to start the whole process over.
After several dozen baitfish are in the water, there will be explosions resembling small children being dropped into the water. Baitfish running for their lives, large, violent swirls, fish crashing the surface. The dinner guests have arrived. It’s a good idea to refrain from hooking one up immediately. Let them get comfortable in their gluttony for a minute or two, the activity will bring in more and more of their brethren. Once there are dozens of albies zinging around, have at it. There is no need to throw directly at specific fish. Just make a comfortable cast in any direction and start a fast, erratic strip. The fish will find the fly, and in short order. But remember to have someone designated as chummer, driver and fish de-hooker. Take my word for it, life will be much easier and everyone will get a chance to fight fish. Frankly, a guide will make this whole scenario easy and fun for all. He’ll know where to get the bait, where the albies are and it’s his job to throw baits, drive the boat and release fish.
Tackle: Go big on the rod size. Not that these fish couldn’t be done on lighter gear, but two things happen with the light stuff. Prolonged fights will draw the attention of the numerous sharks and barracuda that live in the area. Though it’s an everyday event to experience decapitations, I figure the toothy guys should have to work for their food. And you’ll still have your hands full for the fight with a ten or twelve weight rod. Most of the time, these fish average twelve pounds. If the fish are running smaller, then scale down the gear. But try not to fight the fish into a weakened condition that is hard to recover from. Reels need to hold at least two hundred yards of line. At times, that won’t be enough. Direct drive reels with palming rims are good. Being able to stop an albie dead in his tracks is nice during the last part of the fight when he’s spinning twenty feet below refusing to come up. Leaders need not be fancy. A forty pound butt section tied to a fifteen or twenty pound class tippet and a bite tippet of forty pound test is fine. Overall length between eight and twelve feet depending on water clarity. Fluorocarbon line is very handy if the water is gin clear and you’re not getting slammed on every cast with regular monofilament. The albies don’t have much for teeth, but the forty pound bite tippet is more for the dolphin, who do have teeth and who quite often show up on the scene of the feeding frenzy. And the bite tippet is also for the person leadering the albies to the boat. Your leader man will go home looking like he’s been in a knife fight if all he has to work with is fifteen pound test leader material. His attire should also include gloves. Other tackle items that are quite handy are fairly obvious. Hook sharpener, pliers, and a large, longhandled, landing net. Have LOTS of flies, leader material and spare lines. They are all sacrificial hardware. Expect to break to stuff, including rods and reels. This is not trout fishing…. It’s more like a street fight. If you’re particularly attached to your own equipment, borrow someone else’s. And tell them you’re going trout fishing.