For most longrodders the allure of catching any of these species replaces the desire for a burly linesider when they are on the scene. Their electrifying bursts of speed coupled with a reel screeching run are the thrill of the catch when the steel hits home. Add to this the visual component of being able to see these speedsters blister across the surface and you will be fully engrossed by the fighting ability of these fish.
If you have never hooked into a fat albert from the rocks or suds I can only hope that you do so this season. This exhilarating event will change the way you look at the sport of saltwater fly fishing. That initial run after the steel hits home is the most memorable part of the fight. It will have you wondering if you have packed enough packing onto your reel.
Recognizing the Different Species
All of our southern guests that we see fall into the family Scombridae, also commonly referred to as the mackerels. Atlantic bonito are usually the first to arrive on the scene. We will see them arrive in July but for the most part will remain well offshore. They will on occasion frequent the surf zone more as we move into August and the early part of September.
To the untrained eye bonito can be confused with a false albacore especially if you don’t have experience catching them. They can be distinguished from the albies by their long thin stripes running upward and laterally along the sides of their iridescent bluish-green bodies. When hooked their sides will light up and produce triangular shaped vertical bars that can be seen beneath their horizontal stripes. Their mouth will have teeth that are spaced and they will usually range from four to six pounds when we see them in the suds.
The false albacore on the other hand will be larger in size usually ranging from six to eight pounds but can go upwards to thirteen pounds in our area. Their bodies are football shaped and have wavy lines on their bluish-green dorsal surface. Four to five dark spots below their pectoral fin is distinguishing characteristic.
Albies will also arrive in our offshore waters towards the end of July. Prime time for their appearance in the surf is from the second week in September through the end of October. They can show up earlier however as this year we have been seeing them darting in and out of the suds since the third week in August.
Albies will be the most frequent of our southern guests and therefore will be our primary targets of this entire group. Everyday in the fall when we hit the beach we are looking for signs of these fish. They can be easily spotted when the sea surface is flat like glass. As you look across the surface you will see their characteristic parabolic flight across the top of the water. They will repeat this behavior as they move just outside of the surf zone, which will most definitely drive you crazy.
If you are not familiar with the habits of these speedsters you might confuse them with a school of busting bluefish when you spot them from a distance. A lot of times this is enough to move you on your way so as to prevent any fly donations to the deep.
The albies’ parabolic motion out of the water is the easier of two telltale signs that distinguishes them from our fly snatching razor lipped friends. The other is a recognizable difference in the type of surface activity that they will create.
Blues will create a lot of disorganized surface commotion when on bait while albies will push small pulses of water rhythmically along. It looks the same way as if you pushed your hand across the surface of the water making a little splash directed at your friend. Blues will also turn much more quickly in many different directions. While albies can turn sharply their speeds and accompanying momentum will inhibit them from doing so in many cases.
We will frequently see the albies push right into the surf zone or along the sides of a jetty. If you see them on the outside just stay put and wait for them to hopefully come to you. Best locations will be at the tip of any long jetty but the tip of an inlet jetty is without a doubt the best place to be.
Inlets are bait highways and will push baits out on the outgoing tides. Albies will key in on this and be drawn to their mouths as a result. They will frequently move right into an inlet and circle back out to the outside only to retrace this path about twenty minutes later.
The most famed inlet in all of New Jersey for the landlocked longrodder to hook into these speedsters is the North jetty at Barnegat Inlet. This jetty because of its length becomes a mecca for fly fishers in the fall. At this time of year fly fishers will outnumber spin fishers two to one at this location.
The Spanish mackerel are always a special treat when they strike out and hit the fly. They too will show up towards the end of July through the beginning of August and can be caught at this time. In fact this is usually the best time to catch them from the suds or jetty rocks as they seem to become less frequent in the surf zone as the fall progresses.
Their body is different from a bonito or albacore in that it is much more elongated in shape and is easily recognizable by a large number of brassy colored spots on both sides of its body. They are one of the best eating fish of the bunch.
At about the same time that the Spanish mackerel appear you will also encounter some of the much smaller mackerels, the bullet and the chub. Both of these fish will appear in schools that will shoot across the surface of the water like tiny little missiles.
The bullet mackerel is usually confused with a small false albacore because of the similarity in appearance. A good point of reference to distinguish the two is to look at the two dorsal fins. In the bullet mackerel there will be a large gap between the two while in the false albacore the dorsals will be connected at the base. An absence of spots in the bullet mackerel will also be noted below the pectoral fins. The bullets will also have a tendency to change direction in the course of the fight where as albies are more prone to long sustained straight runs.
The chub mackerel has more of a greenish to olive hue and does not have the iridescence to the degree that the bullet mackerel or small albacore will. They dorsal surface also has many vermilion like dorsal stripes that run down along the sides of the fish.
Skippies will usually be the largest of the southern pelagics that we will see and can be identified by three to five horizontal stripes that run along their sides and most characteristically along their bellies. Because of these distinguishing stripes “old salts” dubbed them with the moniker “watermelon bonito” many years ago. Their iridescent blue and green hues are also astonishing. When hooked they will literally light up. They will show some amazing colors.
Skippies will be difficult to catch from the beach since shots at them are few and far between. Of all our southern guests they will be the one least likely for the landlocked longrodder to catch. They move extremely fast and will disappear very quickly from an area. There will be no doubt if they are headed your way from the outside. You will see large tuna like bodies flying through the air as they move along. Hooking into one is considered even more of a prize than an albie.
Look for these fish to show sometime around mid to late August. This is when these fish are present offshore anywhere from two miles out all the way out to the Canyons. They can turn west if they choose and be inside in a relatively short period of time. They will however disappear as just as quickly.
All of these speed demons favor stable surf conditions, bright sunny days, and gin clear warm water. The bluer that the water is the better. If we have some heavy fall rains this will cause our rivers to pump a lot of dirty turbid water out along the shoreline. These water conditions will push these fish back offshore.
Hurricanes and northeast storms that can move up the coast in the fall will also send these fish on a quick exodus. Many times we can have a good run of fish going on and an approaching swell or rough surf can shut it down. If we are not hit with these blows from Mother Nature this fall our conditions will remain stable and these fish will remain in our area. They can than usually be caught on a consistent daily basis.
The other condition that is necessary to keep these visitors around is the presence of small baits. Spearing, bay anchovies (rainfish), peanut bunker, baby bluefish, or sandeels are delicacies they find hard to refuse. Since all these species are pelagic in nature (meaning open ocean) the bait will be the impetus and the reason for them to remain inshore.
When the albies are around it is time to break out the ten and the eleven weight rods with large arbor reels. You can catch albies on any weight rod but landing them is another story. Since the blood red meat of these fish make them inedible it is best to land them quickly rather than playing them to exhaustion. This will increase their chance of survival.
Your typical false albacore will average in the three to seven pound class however if a teen size albie comes a callin a eight or nine weight rod will not fit the bill You will definitely need the power and leverage that the bigger rods will provide. These bigger rods will also allow you to fight the fish and not just hold on without any control. These rods will allow you to pull also rather than just the albie pulling from the other end. This will make for a two-sided rather than a one-sided fight.
A large arbor disc drag reel will also help you to gain back line more quickly than a standard arbor. This is particularly important after that lightening fast non-stop first run. Getting line back quickly is also important if the albie decides to run towards you creating slack in the line. A rather sinking feeling occurs at this point that will have you wondering if the fish is still there. It is also very easy for the hook to fall out at this point when it is not under tension.
Lines and Tippets
Since albies and the other pelagics have keen eyesight (this is evident by their large eyes) it is important to put all the odds in your favor when targeting them. This would include using clear intermediate lines and fluorocarbon tippets. In most cases you will want to use an eight to nine foot leader that ends with a four to five foot length of fluorocarbon. Since fluorocarbon has nearly the same refractive index as water it becomes virtually invisible in the water. You can start with fifteen pound test tippet but if you are not drawing strikes I would drop down to twelve pound.
As much as the keen eyesight of the sight feeding albie can be a disadvantage at times it can also serve as an advantage for the fly fisher. The fly fisher’s ability to match the bait much more closely with flies will be far more productive than throwing hardware on spinning tackle that is usually much to big.
Your fly selection that you use should be on the small side and include a good assortment of small bay anchovy and spearing patterns one to three inches long as well as clousers, Bob Popovics’ surf candies and simpleclones, cone heads, glitter head epoxies, small crease flies, and bunny flies. Geno’s Baby Angel is also a must fly to have. The reflecting properties and the way that this fly breathes in the water makes it irresistible.
Optimum fly colors are all white, blonde, root beer, rust, blue, olive, or green over white. A small amount of flash should also be tied into your fly. Sparsely dressed flies will also be effective as they nicely represent the translucency of the smaller baits that are around. In the last several seasons our guide service was also very successful with a purple or lavender colored fly. There will be days when these fish can be highly selective and the right fly will make the difference. If larger baits are present size you fly accordingly.
When trying to tie into albies when they are cruising in and out of the surf presenting your fly quickly is often important as you may only have one shot at these fish. If you are on a long jetty there is a much better chance that the fish will hold or circle back on themselves particularly if they have bait corralled. Trying to chase fish up and down the beach will only get you a good workout. As mentioned earlier it is better to stay put.
Keep in mind that for as many fish that you see on the surface there are probably as many fish that are subsurface. Your best bet is to begin casting as you can visually see the fish heading your way. Many of these will be ahead of the visible school. If fish have been around the mouth of an inlet jetty for a couple of days it is a good bet that they may be present even if you don’t see them on a particular day.
Here is where a good pair of polarized sunglasses will help you look into the water to see if you see any signs of these fish. You will be able to see flashes flickering by underneath the surface of the water as light reflects off of their silvery sides.
Types of Retrieves
When retrieving your fly many fly fishers will employ the technique of a super strip. This is a two-handed, hand over hand, fast retrieve. But it can be very frustrating to have a voracious school of albies or bonito cruise by you without hooking up when you get a good opportunity to strip through them. For this reason don’t limit yourself to this type of retrieve.
You should vary your retrieve to see what is most effective. Dead drifting your flies through a rip or keeping your fly motionless in a pod are also effective methods. Crease flies fished in this manner often produce deadly results as they represent stunned or injured baits.
There is no doubt that your adrenaline will be pumping when you know fish are in the area. Even more so when the angler next to you hooks up and you can see his rod pumping and hear his reel screaming. When a hook-up does occur don’t do anything except set the hook and let the fish run. Let your rod and reel drag do the work. The biggest mistake that a newcomer can make is to try to put the brakes on a run away albie.
This will quickly pull the fly from the fish’s mouth or break the tippet. Get use to the feeling of having all of your fly line and most of your backing heading in the opposite direction. As mentioned earlier if your line all of a sudden goes slack after the initial run of the fish, reel as fast as you can because the albie is probably heading straight towards you. Eventually your line will go tight again and that feeling of disappointment will be gone. If you hook into a bigger fish be ready for a second run and enjoy it.
Gaining the Advantage
When the albies run is over pull against the fish with your rod as you hold it nearly parallel to the water. Do not raise your tip, as this will reduce the amount of force that you can effectively apply to the fish. Reel down on the fish and pump the fish in. In other words apply pressure to the fish by pulling first and then reeling. Continue to do this to gain back your line.
Catch and Release
When your fish comes close take care when landing your catch so as not to bang it against the rocks if you are on a jetty. Have someone grab your leader and either boga grip the albie by its mouth or snatch the albie with your hand by its crescent shaped tail. Be careful when lifting the albie by its tail not to twist your wrist around. This could cause the end of the tail to break. Place your other hand under its belly and cradle it. If you are on the beach allow the oncoming waves to assist you in landing your catch just as you would a bass.
Now it’s time for a kodak moment followed by a quick release. You can release your catch by shooting it back into the water headfirst. This will rush water through its gills reviving it.