Fishing: How to set a false albacore record

A double header catch of false albacores by Mike McConnell, left, and our columnist
COURTESY PHOTO A double header catch of false albacores by Mike McConnell, left, and our columnist.

After Hermine finally cleared the area, I got an email from a friend and Montauk fishing guide, Ernie French. He suddenly had cancellations on his calendar from folks who thought the ocean would be too rough to fish for a while. He gave me the available dates, with a parting shot of, “Oh, by the way, the albies are in.”

In a short email he had thrown a long cast out to a desperate fisherman waiting to go somewhere, and then set the hook with the comment about the false albacore suddenly being available! This small-sized member of the tuna family is high on all fly fishermen’s lists as a great game fish, often eager to eat flies and then fighting like crazy for a long time on light sporting tackle. I called Mike McConnell and we decided we should go for the day with the proviso that if nothing was happening, we could quit at the half-day charter mark.

Friday, September 9 dawned bright, warm with a light breeze. We made the trip to Montauk to meet Ernie by 8 a.m. His boat is a 23-foot, open center console built in 2002 by Steiger Craft with a 150 horsepower Yamaha motor, a tough old craft and a steady platform for two to fly fish from. The way the drill works is each of the fisherman, one in the bow and one near the stern, tries to throw a feather-covered hook made to imitate small bait fish at false albacore bursting out of the water at over 20 m.p.h. chasing real bait.

The job of the guide is to locate the fish by the surface splashes, position the boat as close to the fish as he can — usually about 50 feet — so the fishermen can get their flies into the school of fish and watch them rapidly retrieve them by pulling about 3-feet of line in at a time.

This action makes the fly dart and swim like a real bait and the fish are supposed to attack it with gusto trying to eat it. All of this is accomplished by two guys who are holding on to 9-foot, very light fly casting rods with a pile of line on the deck that’s supposed to sail out toward the fish as the fisherman casts it toward them.

But the ocean is seldom smooth, nor the winds calm, so the caster is often balancing on one foot as he casts. That one foot is usually standing on the pile of line so it goes nowhere or if it does actually leave the boat, the wind usually takes it where it wants it and not where the fisherman has aimed it.

However, if the line actually makes the lure fly in the general direction of the feeding school of albies, and one grabs the fly, the fun begins. The fish screams away on a straight line from the boat for about 100 yards at speeds in excess of 30 m.p.h. The fisherman is now holding on for dear life, hoping the hook won’t pull loose or the leader won’t break.

Finally, the fish turns, often right toward the boat and returns at the same speed, going under the boat. This maneuver requires the guide, the second fisherman and the one hooked up to all change places on the lurching boat until the torpedo below is safely on the other side of the boat and the line is tight again.

Then it’s a man-against-beast-tug-of-war with the 180-pound fisherman pulling as hard as he can without splintering his $500 flyrod, trying to tire the 5-to-10 pound fish, which is having nothing to do with that plan.

The small tuna often makes several shorter runs and a series of figure eights about 30-to-40 feet below the boat. But after a while, the exhausted fish comes to the surface. The guide reaches over the gunwale and grabs it by the handle nature provides for that purpose, which is the small diameter portion of the body nearest the tail, and in the boat it comes.

Next the fly is removed, quick photos are taken, the fish gets a kiss goodbye (optional) and is dropped, nose first, back into the briny. The release is about the best part of the process for me. When you drop the fish, you can watch it go straight down through the water about 3-to-4 feet, and suddenly level off and zoom away to tell its buddies about the adventure, leaving a neat trail of bubbles behind.

Ernie picked us up at the appointed time, we cleared Montauk Harbor and ran all of 50 yards into a bunch of screaming gulls feeding on the bait being pushed out of the water by the surfacing “Fat Alberts” (an alias for albies). We cast into them with no result.

That no-bite situation continued until we had fished six-to-seven schools. I noticed that our flies were designed to imitate a bay anchovy, with a thin outline and white belly. These fish seemed to be pushing larger bait, probably small snappers, into the air and didn’t want our much smaller offerings.

Whatever the reason, we were apprehensive that this was an omen as we headed to “The Point.” As soon as we rounded it. We ran into more fish and bingo, they ate our offerings with gusto. Mike and I hooked up and landed the first of several fish we caught at the same time. That went on for the next six hours with school after school popping up, fish after fish hitting, fighting and being caught or lost until the two of us had landed 27 of the critters and were both physically exhausted.

That number was a new record for albacore landings for the two of us. We both sustained several bruises from being tossed around by the waves and wind and felt beat up but elated with our record-setting day.

By the way, the ocean swells two days after Hermine left were averaging only about 3 feet and the weather could not have been better. We don’t know who canceled on Ernie because of rough seas, but Mike and I owe them, big time, for making our bingo day available.

Thanks, whoever you are!