False-Albacore or ‘albies’, may not be on the radar of most anglers, but in the Northeast, their annual migration is a late summer classic. Let’s talk about why we love em: screaming drags, water churning, birds crashing, bait fleeing—pure adrenaline and chaos. While many folks hire a seasoned guide to put them on the fish, getting 'er done DIY-style is not impossible and is a fun way to test and grow your skills as an angler. We asked our friend and saltwater guide Capt. Matt Zimmerman to share some tips with us for making the most of this season or for getting a jump start on meeting the blitz head-on next year.
Capt. Matt Zimmerman- Matt guides striped bass and albies in Massachusetts and is a Cheeky Ambassador
James Joiner- James is an outdoor photographer who lives on Cape Cod where he has chased albies every way imaginable. We are proud to call James a Friend of Cheeky.
Chasing on sea or ashore? Motor-powered or human-powered?
Albies move fast, so hunting them is usually done under power, but you can also chase 'em on kayaks, SUPs or even your own two feet. Convincing an albie to eat your fly isn’t objectively harder via one method or another, but as your ability to quickly move anywhere on the water decreases, each opportunity to get your fly in front of a fish becomes that much more intense.
Nice tail grab from a yak. Photo: James Joiner.
Because covering shoreline is the name of the game, chasing albies under power is the most effective way at getting tight. But that’s just one small piece of the puzzle. Setting up correctly is key: while some people run-n-gun after every boil or diving birds, it is more effective to watch the school and try to plot where they will pop up next. Be patient and let them come to you as much as possible. Don’t start casting just because you see birds and bait—wait until you see hardtails ripping through it all.
Kayaks and SUPs, while much slower than a powered boat, are silent and stealthy. Once you find an area where albies are holding you can use your paddle to your advantage. Just make sure you’ve battened down the hatches, because once you hook up, you could be going for a sleigh ride! Another challenge when fishing from a yak or SUP: line management. Not getting tangled up in the spaghetti is critical when one of these rockets is blasting off with your fly in its mouth.
Getting tight from the sand or rocks while standing on your own two feet is perhaps a bit esoteric, but it’s also like nothing else. Long runs are pure adrenaline, and will often have you running too, until you finally grab that tail. Fishing for albies this way certainly doesn’t guarantee you a fish, but even one fish caught this way will make your year and have you coming back for more! And let’s face it— those ohhh! sooooo close! moments are often the best/funniest/most potent moments in this sport.
A nice albie. Notice the patterned strip on it’s back- Photo James Joiner
No matter how you decide to chase ‘em down, once the albies have arrived and the word is out, your opportunities will no doubt be greater midweek; weekends can be much tougher with lots of boats jockeying for the best position on moving groups of fish.
Boats Chasing Ghosts
When it comes to gearing up, conditions matter.
In a stiff wind, pair a 9wt or 10wt fast-action rod with an intermediate line (with a thick, strong shooting head) that is one weight over the rod (for example, if you’re using a 9wt rod, cast with a 10wt line). Over-lining this way will load the rod faster and allow for quicker shots with greater distance. In less blustery conditions, an 8wt or 9wt rod lined as described above is plenty heavy.
As far as reels go, the Cheeky Limitless 425 and Launch 400 reels are perfect for the job. The large arbors hold plenty of backing and pick up line quickly, and the smooth drags can take the heat created when you apply the brakes to a hellbent albie. For leaders, simply make your own: six to eight feet of 20lb tippet is ideal. Sometimes you might scale back with a section of 16-lb or 12-lb tippet if the fish are being extra picky. For maximum success, always “strip to the tip” as albies will eat at your rod-tip quite often—when that happens, get ready to get clear of the line as they will quickly rip you straight into your backing. To increase the speed of nd consistency of your strip, you can pinch the rod under your arm and do the two-handed strip. If you are on the beach a stripping basket is a must to keep your line from tangling when these bulbous rockets take that first run.
Flies, flies, flies.
When it comes to flies, there’s two schools of thought: near-enough and matching the hatch. Near enough are patterns that imitate most of the things albies eat and you likely already have in your box, like Clousers, The Mushmouth, Surf Candy, etc. Near-enough patterns will get you there 95% of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to have something that is either a dead ringer in size and color for what they’re eating or at least the ability to customize a bit—like trimming down a longer surf candy fly or changing up the color with a sharpie. Checkin’ out what they’re barfing up is always informative. Just like your choice of how to pursue the fish changes the game, so do the choices you make about flies. You could be a topwater purist, a minimalist, a hatch-matching perfectionist. Experiment and have fun with it—it’s just fishing!
You’ve seen the social posts, now to actually find fish.
Albies generally show up late Aug to early September. Read reports, talk to friends, look at charts…to understand where these fish typically hold does require a little homework. Luckily many of the better spots are the same from year to year so there is much to be learned from studying past articles online.
On the water, the name of the game is to cover coastline and to find birds. I won’t wet a line until I find the fish. Sometimes that means covering 10-15+ miles of coastline before finding the signs of life I’m looking for. Outgoing tides are ideal, with bait flushing out of rivers, bays and harbors. Again, when you find the bait and birds, give yourself a few minutes to watch, constantly scanning the area for fish breaking. If no fish pop up, keep on moving. Lots of times, when you’re on your way in after a slow day— you unexpectedly hit the motherload. It’s also worth noting that sometimes the worse the weather, the better the bite. On glass calm days, the fish can just be super spooky and tentative, but when its blowing 20+ with choppy seas, they are “happy” and eat anything you put in front of them. Avoiding the crowds and weekends means less pressure and more fish to yourself.
Once you come tight to an albie, the first thing you typically need to do is clear whatever line you’ve stripped back and get that thing on the reel so the drag can do it’s work. Albies are like water rockets and can really generate speed that makes your line jump and dance like crazy.
Knowing how to clear line without getting tangled up, making sure your knuckles stay clear of a wildly spinning reel handle, what to do when you see an unexpected line knot heading for the guides—these are situations that all require some on-the-job experience, so don’t get frustrated if you run into some snags and lose some fish. Remember to check your reel’s drag and make sure it is tight enough to not back spool and create a tangle but not too firm . The fish will get a lot of line out quick and with every foot of line, comes more water drag that increases your chance of breaking off the fish. Some days, you might only have a few shots at fish, so you want to make them count. Fish barefoot so you can feel if you’re accidentally standing on your line, try to keep the decks clear, and just always be ready to laugh at how wrong things can go sometimes.
Fish handling and release.
Once you have one of these footballs boatside, reach back with your rod arm, so you don’t bend/break the tip. Grab the leader, put the rod down and grab that tail hard! They will kick, shake violently, and spit up bait. No worries, pop the fly out, take a QUICK picture if you’d like, and literally chuck them head-first and fast into the water. Too many fish of all kinds end up at the bottom of the ocean due to poor handling. As our friends at Keep Fish Wet say, “Science shows that even small changes in how an angler catches, handles, and releases a fish can have positive outcomes once that fish swims away.” In other words, we owe it to the fish (and the next generation of anglers) to use the best conservation practices— especially with fish that still show up in abundance…that way we don’t become the generation who talk about how good it used to be.
Get a good hold on that tail. Photo: James Joiner
Quick photo while the fish is still dripping wet. Then chuck it!
These fish will be your best friend one day, and your worst enemy the next! But catching an albie on fly is equally as awesome as a solid striper on fly—the long runs into the backing and their endless fighting spirit will make you fan. They also have some of the coolest camo patterns of any fish. Once you get into fishing for albies, it’s something you’ll enjoy more every season you get under your belt.