By Nick Curcione, TFO Advisory Staff.
In the previous article I dealt with the long finned albacore we find off the west coast. In this piece I want to take up another member of the clan that concentrates along the east coast known as Little Tunny, or more commonly, false albacore.
Nothing ‘false’ about these fish. Photo by TFO.
From the standpoint of sporting qualities the latter designation is not an accurate description and if you tie into one you’ll know why. There is nothing false about the tenacity of the struggle you’ll experience when one nails your fly. These dynamos of the tuna family can rip off-line with a speed and determination that will put many other star pieces to shame. For more years than I care to recall I’ve been battling members of the tuna family and every one of the clan is a tough, race- bred adversary. On the long-range trips out of San Diego where the primary target are “gorilla,” size yellowfin I used to warn newcomers to the sport that “there is no such thing as an out of shape tuna” and that applies to every member of the clan regardless of size and false albacore are no exception. Nail one on fly gear and you are in for an exhilarating experience.
Like other members of the tuna clan, nature designed the little tunny to be blitz type feeders, constantly on the move. It’s remarkable when you think about it but they never stop moving. Like other tunas, because they are negatively buoyant in the water they’ll sink if they stop swimming. Moving along in a relaxed mode, they can swim a distance equal to their body length per second. That kind of constant activity creates enormous energy demands which means that they have to be constantly on the move in search of a meal.
Whether you’re off the northwest coast of Florida, the mid Atlantic or the Northeast, your best indicator of their presence are birds working overhead. The pattern of bird activity will give you a good idea of how the fish are feeding. If the flock doesn’t linker long in a particular spot it means the bait is being pushed elsewhere and you’ll have to be ready to move in pursuit. On those rare occasions when they are feeding right along the beachfront it can result in some wild footraces up and down the sand that will make you feel like you’ve just completed a marathon. Whether you’re on foot or in a boat, it’s one of those qualities that make this fish such a challenge. One minute they are feeding in one spot and seconds later they can be a hundred or so yards off in another direction. However, this doesn’t mean that the albie’s feeding patterns are completely erratic. Bait tends to be carried along in the current and if you learn to read the current seams in a body of water, you might be able to anticipate where these “fatties,” are about to pop up next. There are guides who are very proficient at this.
Captain Joe Blados on the north shore of Long Island (creator of the Crease Fly) is a master at this game. Even without the presence of birds, many times he simply re-positions the boat along a current line in anticipation of where they’ll congregate in the flow, waits a few minutes, and often times is rewarded by albies suddenly slashing into the terrified pod. When the albies are on the move he has the rig to get you into to them. He runs a 21-foot Maverick flats skiff with a 250 hp Mercury XS racing engine on the transom. With this kind of speed if there’s other boats in the area he’s often the first one into a feeding school. If you don’t have access to a boat or have never fished the albies before, it’s certainly worthwhile to book a guide who is experienced in this type of fishing.
Albies are aggressive feeders and explode on balls of bait with vengeance. Photo by Jim Shulin, Temple Fork Outfitters.
Given their demanding metabolic needs albies are voracious feeders and will target a variety of bait sources-anything from bay anchovies, to bunker and squid. Be advised however that they can also be very selective in their choices. Like many species if they become focused on a particular food source, like a bay anchovy for example, they can steadfastly refuse offerings that don’t bear a reasonable resemblance to what they’re feeding on. This is compounded by the fact that they have very keen eyesight. They are open water predators and to survive in this environment nature equipped with sharp vision.
What this means to the fly angler is taking care to use appropriate size leaders and fly patterns. I feel the most important consideration in leaders is the diameter of the material you select. Diameter is a function of the rated break strength, and though brands differ, the norm is that the higher the break strength of the line, the larger the diameter. If the fish tend to be wary and the water is clear generally I don’t fish leaders much stronger than 12-pound test. For leader length as a general rule of thumb when fishing false albacore I make it roughly the length of my rod, around 9-feet. If I’m using a fast sinking shooting head I go as short as 5 or 6-feet. There are folks who will tell you that you are handicapping yourself in this fishery if you don’t use fluorocarbon leaders. In my own experience at least, I haven’t found this to be the case. I have used fluorocarbon leaders extensively over the years but honestly cannot determine if this has resulted in more hookups.
The way you construct your leaders is another matter. Because these are very powerful fish you want to use fail safe connections. That means the knots you select should have 100% breaking strength or close to it. For a simple loop-to-loop connection between the leader and fly line you can’t go wrong with a bimini loop fastened in the tag end of the leader. I like to cut the loop, twist the resulting two strands of line together, fold this over itself and tie a double overhand, (surgeon’s) knot. This will give you a two-strand loop. I interconnect this leader loop to the end loop in my fly line. Tied properly, this should give you a connection with 100% of the rated breaking strength of your leader. The knots are kept to a minimum and a complicated tapered leader is not necessary. Except in cases with larger tuna where a bite leader is recommended I use a single length of leader from the fly line to the fly. And because the leader is looped to the fly line, it’s simple and quick to change. All you have to do in unlock the loops. To tie the fly on I often use a non-slip mono loop knot because it gives the fly more freedom to swim, especially when you’re working a current line.
In terms of flies, as mentioned above, false albies are one species where it’s wise to try to present a pattern that bears a fairly close resemblance to the bait they are feeding on. That doesn’t mean you must strive for an exact imitation, but size, silhouette, and color can be important considerations. If I had to go with one color it would be white. For some reason, all members of the tuna family respond well to this color. If you want to darken the top section of the fly to match a particular baitfish coloration, simply use a waterproof marking pen. Bob Popovics’ Surf Candy series is a very effective pattern for these fish. The Tuffleye acrylic coatings he uses on the body gives the fly a durable as well as a realistic appearance and they’re easy to cast. In addition, his Fleye Foils make tying realistic Surf Candies a breeze. Another great pattern to throw particularly when these fish are blitz feeding on the surface is a small Crease Fly approximately 1 ½-inches in length. You can fish this with a floating or intermediate line. Admittedly I find it difficult to do because I always want to give action to a fly, but sometimes the best strategy is to simply allow the Crease Fly to float listlessly on the surface and not impart any movement at all. I think the albies mistake it for a wounded or stunned baitfish and when they suddenly scream by and crash it, your adrenaline rush will immediately peak to the extreme zone.
Matching the hatch, applies to more than just trout anglers. Photo by TFO.
Even though the surface action is the most dramatic, similar to my west coast bonito fishing I often resort to fast sinking line shooting heads. After all these years I’m convinced that shooting heads for this type of fishing is the way to go. You will find that you can cast further with them and as a result cover long stretches of water. Many times it’s not possible to slide in close to these fish because they will spook so the ability to make casts in the 80 to 100-foot range can be a definite advantage.
Over the years I’ve used many different rod models for these fish and one of my favorites is the TFO 8/10 Mini Mag. When members of the tuna clan make for the depths you can’t beat the pulling power of these sticks. Lately I’ve also been outfitting myself with the new Edge 8-wt fly rod. This stick is one of legendary Gary Loomis’s latest creations and it certainly lives up to all the positive things I’ve heard about it. It’s very light in the hand but also incredibly strong and the components are the finest you’ll find on any rod. They cast great with all the lines I thrown with them, from weight forward floaters to ultra fast sinking shooting heads and they have the power to enable you to really put it to incredibly strong pulling fish like the tuna clan. I like to match this with rod with one of the new Atoll reels. For false albacore I opt for the number II model. Like all the series the drag is silk smooth and the ergonomics afford rapid cranking ability when a fish suddenly decides to run back to you. Go out there with the right stuff and you’ll find a day with the false albies is sure to be a memorable one.